This week I visited Cherryburn, the birthplace and childhood home of Thomas Bewick who has been described as ‘Northumberland’s greatest artist, a wood engraver and naturalist who revolutionised print art in Georgian England’.
He was born in this humble dwelling on 12 August 1753. It is located near the village of Mickley about 18 miles west of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. It is a pretty spot, amid rolling hills and a short stroll from the banks of the River Tyne.
There have been a few changes to the house since his time but the look of the kitchen area has been faithfully preserved with its ancient range used for cooking, heating the house and warming bath water. The house must have been quite crowded with Thomas and his seven siblings plus parents occupying just a kitchen, a living area, a bedroom and a dairy.
The kitchen is currently occupied by an art and audio installation called Conference for the Birds featuring seven giant birds (cuckoo, great black-backed gull, roseate tern, tree sparrow, blackbird, heron and dotterel) as depicted by Thomas in his wood engravings.
Next door to Thomas’s simple home is a farmhouse constructed in the 1800s which houses the Thomas Bewick Birthplace Museum run by the National Trust. It contains information on Thomas’s life and some of his most famous works such as the General History of Quadrupeds published in 1790, the History of British Birds published in 1797 and his illustrations of Aesop’s Fables published in 1818.
A video in the pressroom explains how Thomas’s woodblock prints were produced and there are examples of his engraving work.
The cool thing about this museum is that you can actually buy woodblock prints produced from the very same 200 year-old blocks painstakingly carved by Thomas Bewick himself. Only 20 prints per block are produced each decade so as not to wear out the blocks and to give some rarity value to the prints. For only £50 per print I think it is in inexpensive way to purchase an ‘original’ artwork by a famed and long-dead artist. You can find out more on National Trust’s website.
Visitors to the museum can also enjoy the wild garden with bee hives, a picnic and play area or just relax in one of their designer deckchairs.
After leaving Cherryburn I visited the churchyard in nearby Ovingham where Thomas was buried in 1828.
In the early hours of 3rd January 1911 police quietly took up positions outside a tenement flat at No. 100, Sidney Street in London’s Whitechapel District. They had received a tip-off that armed criminals were holed up there. These men were suspected to have taken part in a jewellery robbery in Houndsditch a fortnight earlier in which three policemen had been killed.
Once in position, the police, perhaps unwisely, threw stones at the first floor window to get the attention of the criminals. They were met with a hail of bullets, injuring a police inspector. Thus began a prolonged siege, which became known as the Siege of Sidney Street.
On hearing of the incident, the Home Secretary of the day, Winston Churchill, sensing a chance for self-promotion, rushed along to take personal command. Finding the police equipped only with out-of-date firearms he ordered a detachment of Scots Guards from the Tower of London to assist.
After several hours of unremitting gunfire, the house caught fire and eventually the shooting stopped as the flames took hold. Once the fire was out, police found two charred bodies in the debris.These were later identified as Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow, petty criminals from Latvia.
The alleged leader of the jewellery robbers, Peter the Painter, was nowhere to be found and was believed to have escaped. Peter the Painter’s real name was thought to be Peter Piaktow, a Polish decorator. Interesting that even 100 years ago, Londoners were dependent on Polish handymen to maintain their houses!
One of the police detectives at the scene later claimed to have seen Peter the Painter in Australia while others believe he may actually have been Jacob Peters who became Stalin’s deputy head of secret police before being executed.
The most surprising part of this story for me was that the two deceased criminals were known to have at one time frequented the Jubilee Street Anarchist Club, just around the corner from Sidney Street. Bomb-lobbing anarchists, hell-bent on revolution, are not the sort of people you would expect to have a club. But on further checking, it seems the meaning and image of anarchists has changed over the years. At that time there were at least 3 anarchist clubs in London. The one at 165 Jubilee Street was opened under the guise of a Jewish Friendly Society and catered mainly for Jewish émigrés fleeing persecution from Tsarist Russia. It served more as a refuge and it was described as peaceful and friendly with a library and reading room, a kids’ Sunday school, lectures, dances, recitals and no alcohol. The police would often point homeless East European refugees in the direction of the Anarchist Club knowing they would get looked after. No doubt many of their members would have held leftist and communist views and there were probably a few hotheads among them – this was after all only a few years before the Russian Revolution – but nowadays these people would likely be labelled Corbyn supporters rather than anarchists.
What would the members of Jubilee Street Anarchist Club have made of today’s Whitechapel? They might wish they had hung on to their old premises. Their club was demolished but this terraced house with the blue door diagonally opposite where the club stood is on the market today for a cool £1,500,000.
Despite the inflated property prices however, the area is still an area inhabited by immigrants with a lot of social housing. The Jewish population has largely moved on and today’s residents originate mainly from Bangladesh and other Muslim countries.
The anarchist club members would have been amazed that Tower Hamlets Borough Council, which has always been at the radical end of London politics, in 2006 named two of the their community housing tower blocks Peter House and Painter House, much to the annoyance of the Metropolitan Police who felt the buildings would be better named after the Houndsditch burglary victims rather than an accused cop-killer.
Another nearby block is called Siege House.
The Sidney Street Siege affair led to a clamour among British newspapers for more stringent regulations regarding the entry of foreigners into Britain. That sounds familiar!
You can read more about London’s Anarchist Clubs here.
Britain has got itself into a hopeless muddle over Brexit. Two years of dithering and bickering have still not produced a viable exit proposal and the country remains as divided as ever. With the exit date fast approaching perhaps a radical new approach is needed.
The Mouse That Roared Solution
Inspired by the 1959 comedy film The Mouse That Roared, the United Kingdom should apply to the United States to become part of the USA or, more precisely, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to become the US’s 51st, 52nd, 53rd and 54th States respectively.
Before you pooh-pooh the idea let’s consider the advantages:
The EU would not be able to bully the US on Britain’s exit terms.
No need to pay the £40 billion EU exit fee. Mr. Trump would never agree.
No need to renegotiate trade deals since USA already has global trade deals in place.
Scotland and Wales would finally be free of English domination and could call themselves autonomous States, albeit as part of USA.
London would not have to subsidise Scotland any more. That would be the job of the Federal Government.
Britons could once again be proud to have the world’s strongest armed forces.
UK’s enormous national debt would be merged with USA’s even larger national debt and seemingly disappear.
Britons would exchange their Pounds for Dollars and feel richer as a result.
Some Britons would benefit from America’s generally lower income tax rates.
Britons could sell their over-priced UK properties and move to the American ‘mainland’ where real estate is much cheaper.
Britons concerned about immigration should be happy as most immigrants would immediately move to California to become millionaires. Also President Trump would be in charge of UK’s borders.
Talented British politicians (can’t think of any off the top of my head) would be eligible to run for President. Tony Blair or David Miliband might fancy their chances since they are far more popular on that side of the Atlantic than at home.
Those Brits who dislike President Trump would have the opportunity to vote him out of office.
The Queen could remain Head of State for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with the equivalent rank of State Governor. After she passes away her successors would have to stand for election as State Governor if they were interested. Prince Louis of Cambridge would be the last royal to inherit a title. Future royals, earls and other nobility would be just regular untitled American citizens, only richer.
The National Health Service would become a State Health Service and, deprived of Federal support, would rapidly become bankrupt. It would be replaced by a self-funded health insurance scheme which is what the current British Government would secretly like to achieve but is not brave enough to suggest.
The issue of the hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would remain. Maybe Eire would also like to join USA, as the 55th State, which would eliminate the problem. Since most Americans claim some Irish heritage they should feel very much at home.
England could be renamed Old England to avoid confusion with New England. Or better still, Ye Olde England, to maximise the tourism potential of the brand.
Those are some of the advantages of this proposal for Britain but what’s in it for America?
They gain 65 million new citizens who can’t speak a word of Spanish, thus swinging the language mix in America firmly back in favour of English.
They would be able to absorb Britain’s highly regarded armed forces into their own.
They get control of GCHQ and the other UK intelligence assets.
They get the City of London’s financial centre.
They will learn about cricket, football and rugby.
They acquire history, culture, royalty, entertainment, etc., etc.
Ok, Britain will lose its sovereignty but that’s an overrated commodity in today’s world. We would be able to celebrate America’s Independence Day instead.
The more I think about the Mouse That Roared solution, the better it sounds. What do you think?
One of the best things about England is that you don’t have to go far to find places of historical interest. A good place to look is the local church. Take for example the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin, close to where my family has a home in the small Northamptonshire village of Great Brington.
This fine church has over 800 years of history with connections to two former monarchs and, if royal succession goes according to plan, one future king. An ancestor of George Washington is also buried here under a tombstone bearing a prototype of the Stars & Stripes, carved 160 years before the United States came into existence. For this reason, it is said that Great Brington is better known in America than in England.
There has been a church on this site for over 1,000 years, having been mentioned in the Domesday book. The early wooden Saxon church was probably burnt down in one of England’s endless factional wars but the church’s ancient baptismal font is thought to have survived from that early period. The stone tower was constructed around 1200 and the church has been expanded, remodelled and renovated countless times over the following centuries. Even as recently as 2015, the roof had to be replaced when thieves stole 12 tonnes of lead off the roof in the middle of the night.
The Spencers & The Royal Connections
In the early 1500s, John Spencer, a nobleman from Warwickshire purchased the estate at Althorp, together with several hundred acres of the surrounding area, including the village and church of Great Brington. Since then, nineteen generations of the Spencer family have been buried here, either in the Spencer Chapel inside the church or in a special section of the graveyard outside. Under the patronage of this wealthy family, the church has always been well looked after.
Probably the most famous Spencer, to the modern generation at least, was Lady Diana Spencer, ex-wife of Prince Charles and mother of Princes William and Harry. After her untimely death, she was laid to rest in the grounds of Althorp House, just 1.5km from the village, although there was a conspiracy theory that she was secretly reburied in the church when they found the ground water conditions of her lakeside burial site at Althorp to be unsuitable. Like most conspiracy theories, this is probably untrue.
Other royal rumours concern Mary, Queen of Scots who was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587 on the orders of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. It was said that her severed head was on its way to Elizabeth to prove that the deed had been done when it was intercepted at Brington by a messenger from the Queen, who had no desire to see it, so they decided to bury it under the altar of the church. A heraldic shield bearing the lion rampant of Scotland marks the spot. However others refute this legend and say that this is the grave of Anne Seagrave whose family crest included a similar lion.
Another royal connection concerns Charles I who is thought to have been allowed to attend services at the church while he was being held prisoner at nearby Holdenby House prior to his execution in 1649.
The American Connection
Lawrence Washington, great-great-great-grandfather of George Washington, First President of the United States of America was buried in the church in December 1616. His tombstone, now almost indecipherable, reads:
English spelling had obviously not been standardised in those days!
The tombstone bears the Washington coat of arms, from which the US flag was derived, together with the arms of the Butlers, his wife’s family. A nearby wooden bench-end is also decorated with the Washington family emblem.
There is a portrait of George Washington on the wall of the nave with the inscription:
This portrait of George Washington replaces the original presented by the U.S. Senate to St. Mary’s Church, Great Brington July 1914 – Stolen July 1988.
Thieving is clearly a problem at this church!
Other Interesting Items
St. Mary the Virgin is a nice place to visit if you are in the area. But please don’t steal any souvenirs. The chest is empty by the way!
I was in England last month visiting family. While I was there, I learned that there is a town in the green and leafy English county of Hertfordshire which was named after Baghdad.
It was founded by the Knights Templar in the 12th century on the site of earlier Roman and Iron Age settlements. Seemingly, while on the Crusades, the Knights Templar had visited, or heard about, the famed city of Baghdad with its bustling souks. On their return to England they wanted to emulate this city’s success by establishing a market town which they named Baudac or Baldac, being the Norman French form for Baghdad. The name has since been Anglicised and the town is now known as Baldock.
An alternative theory is that the Knights named the town after Baalbek, the ancient Phoenician / Roman city in modern day Lebanon, an area which the Crusaders were far more likely to have visited.
Whatever the true origin of the name, modern-day Baldock bears little resemblance to either Baghdad or Baalbek. The Charter Fair started by the Templars in 1199 is still held annually though these days it is more of a fun fair than a bustling Middle eastern souq. The town’s heritage is remembered through the Templars Hotel & Restaurant, the Knights Templar School and the Knights Templar Sports Centre.
The town is twinned with Eisenberg in Germany and Sanvignes in France. There are no plans to twin Baldock with the Iraqi capital!
While back in UK recently I was struck by how calmly the English public are reacting to Scotland’s forthcoming referendum on independence, now only weeks away.
The UK is facing the biggest threat to its existence since Adolf Hitler and yet the British Government is just sitting back and letting events take their course. What would Winston Churchill have done in these circumstances one wonders? Arrested Alex Salmond and his SNP cronies and put them on trial for treason perhaps? If David Cameron’s cabinet even fleetingly considered this drastic option they would have wisely concluded that nothing is more likely to get the Scots’ backs up than a perceived attack by the English. So the Scots are getting their bothersome referendum without excessive interference from Whitehall.
Does it matter that much even if the result is a Yes vote for independence? After all Scotland is not going anywhere – it’ll still be there, stuck on the end of England. We’d be like a divorced couple sharing this semi-detached island. The Scots would be staring over the fence at England (and Wales) wondering jealously how they can afford all those shiny new cars on the drive while the English would envy the Scots for their spacious garden with the loch water-features.
If the Scots do vote for independence, expect a backlash from the English. Why would the English continue to drink ‘foreign’ Scotch whisky for example when there are perfectly good English whisky manufacturers. As for shortbread biscuits, England will opt for south-of-the-border alternatives or make do with digestives. Apart from whisky and biscuits, there are few other exports from Scotland that English consumers are interested in.
And with all the controversy about EU migrants taking jobs from locals, how will the English feel about Scots coming over and taking all those plum City of London jobs, once Scotland is a foreign country? It will all be very interesting to see what happens.
But the annoying thing about this referendum is that even if the result is a resounding ‘No’, the issue will not go away for ever and Salmond and Co. will likely push for repeat votes every so often until they get their way. It would probably be best for everybody if, after the referendum (assuming the outcome is ‘No’), Salmond were to be quietly picked up and exiled to New Caledonia in the Pacific. Perhaps he’ll have more luck in leading that nation to independence (from France).