Sidney Street Siege

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.

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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 Finding the police equipped only with out-of-date firearms he ordered a detachment of Scots Guards from the Tower of London to assist.

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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.

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Peter the Painter, as he appeared on his wanted poster in 1911

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.

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The original Sidney Street siege location no longer stands  but just down the street are some similar looking blocks.

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.

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Elegant terraced houses in Jubilee Street.

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.

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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.

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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.

‘The Mouse That Roared’ Solution to Britain’s Brexit Dilemma

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.

Introducing …..

The Mouse That Roared Solution

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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?

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St. Mary the Virgin, Great Brington

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.

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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.

Early History

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. 

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In an amazing piece of record keeping, the church displays a full list of its priests from 1086 up until the present day, albeit with a few gaps. The last name on the list, from 2010 onwards, is the church’s first female vicar. That took long enough!

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.

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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:

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Here lieth the bodi of Laurence Washington – sonne & heire of Robert Washington of Soulgrave in the countie of Northampton Esquier – who married Margaret the eldest daughter of William Butler of Tees in the countie of Sussexe esquier – who had issu by her – 8 sonns & 9 daughters – which Laurence decessed the 13 of December – A:DNI: 1616.

English spelling had obviously not been standardised in those days!

(I wrote about Sulgrave Manor, Lawrence Washington’s home, in a previous blog post.)

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.

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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

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The impressive stained glass East window was designed by William Morris and dedicated in 1912 by the 6th Earl Spencer to various members of his family. It represents the adoration of the lamb (whatever that means). The fenced off area to the left of this photo is part of the Spencer Chapel.
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There are a couple of tombstones embedded in the church floor which appear to commemorate family servants, such as this one of Mrs Hannah Cane who died in 1732 and was seemingly the nanny for Lady Morpeth.
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There is a huge and ancient-looking chest, contents unknown, capable of holding every church collection for the past 800 years.
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There is a fine foliate head carving, or Green Man, whose original purpose or meaning is lost in the mists of time, possibly even pre-dating the arrival of Christianity in Britain.
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This copy of an ancient seating plan, informs who sat where. It tells us for example that the first two pews on the North side were for John Middleton, his wife and children (Middleton? – Another royal connection?)
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Note the elaborately carved bench-ends, also known as poppy heads, in the bottom left of this photo, one of which dates from 1606.
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The graveyard outside is still in use. In English churches, our ancestors are all around us.
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There is a tomb under a gable on the external wall of the church with a weathered effigy of an unknown former cleric dressed in priestly vestments and holding a communion chalice.
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The base of a large cross stands in front of the church, thought to have been erected around 1300 as a common memorial to all those buried in the churchyard.

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!

 

 

 

Baghdad, England

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.

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Old 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.

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Baldock Town Hall & Museum

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.

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Baalbek on a 1967 Lebanese Postage Stamp

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!

North Cornwall – Castles & Coves

Last summer we had a family holiday in England and spent some days exploring the beautiful coast of North Cornwall. Here were some of the highlights.

Port Isaac

The beach at the quaint fishing village of Port Isaac. This scene may look familiar to fans of the TV series Doc Martin which was filmed here. Doc's house is the second from the right.
The beach at the quaint fishing village of Port Isaac. This scene may look familiar to fans of the TV series Doc Martin which was filmed here. Doc’s house is the second from the right.
White and grey is the colour code for house in this village.
White and grey is the colour code for houses in this village. They might not appreciate it if you painted your house exterior pink or blue.
Baby seagulls are cute but the grown ones were keen to get some of my delicious crab sandwich, purchased at the harbour front.
This baby seagull was cute but the grown ones were keen to steal some of my delicious crab sandwich, purchased at the harbour front.
A prop from the Doc Martin TV series advertising Large's Restaurant in Port Wenn.
A prop perhaps from the Doc Martin TV series advertising Large’s Restaurant in Port Wenn.

Boscastle

The harbour village of Boscastle is one of the most unspoilt in Cornwall.
The harbour village of Boscastle is one of the most unspoilt in Cornwall.
This ancient building had a narrow escape when Boscastle was struck by a devastating flood in 2004.
This ancient crooked cafe had a narrow escape when Boscastle was struck by a devastating flood in 2004.
This old lady working at the Witchcraft Museum looked friendly but she wouldn't answer our questions.
This old lady working at the Witchcraft Museum looked friendly enough but she didn’t talk much.
Typical Cornwall scene in Boscastle
Typical Cornish scene in Boscastle

Launceston

Launceston is known as the Gateway to Cornwall and its Norman castle, dating from around 1070, was built to dominate the approach to the town.
Launceston is known as the Gateway to Cornwall and its Norman castle, dating from around 1070, was built to dominate the approach to the town.
View from the top of Launceston Castle.
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One of the residents at the Tamar Otter & Wildlife Centre, near Launceston.

Bude

The beach at Bude.
The beach at Bude.
A row of hideous beach huts at Bude. For some reason which escapes me, the British are very fond of their beach huts and are willing to pay quite a lot of money for them. The huts seem to be exempt from Britain’s normally strict planning laws, perhaps because they are deemed as temporary structures even though these ones have obviously been around for a long, long time.
Considering that our visit was during summer and the weather was good, the beaches were very empty.
The North Cornish coastline is wild and rugged in places and many secluded coves and beaches are not easily accessible without a boat.

Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Castle was built on a rocky outcrop joined to the mainland by a narrow neck making it easily defendable.
Tintagel Castle was built on a craggy promontory joined to the mainland by a narrow neck making it easily defendable. 
The site has been occupied since Roman times or earlier but is best known for its association with the legendary King Arthur.
The site has been occupied since Roman times or earlier but is best known for its association with the legendary King Arthur.
Centuries of erosion have taken their toll on the castle walls and buildings but there is still a lot to see.
Centuries of erosion have taken their toll on the castle walls and buildings but there is still a lot to see.
The ruins were interesting but the spectacular setting with sheer cliffs, great views and a bracing cool breeze were what we enjoyed the most.
The ruins were interesting but the spectacular setting with sheer cliffs, great views and a bracing cool breeze were what we enjoyed the most.

Crackington Haven

Crackington Haven has a relatively sheltered shingle and sand beach and is popular with surfers.
Crackington Haven has a relatively sheltered shingle and sand beach and is popular with surfers.
The village of Crackington Haven is tiny but has a pub, a tea room and a shop.
The village of Crackington Haven is tiny but has a pub, a tea room and a shop.
One of the best things about Cornwall and Devon is the South West Coast Path (630 miles long) which hugs the coastline at Crackington Haven and provides great views over the bay.
Creativity at Crackington Haven
My daughter practicing her photography and flower arranging skills.

Padstow

Padstow is a picturesque fishing port turned tourist destination. Despite having over 1500 years of history it is best known as the base for Rick Stein's seafood cooking TV series.
Padstow is a picturesque fishing port turned tourist destination. Despite having over 1500 years of history it is nowadays best known as the base for Rick Stein’s seafood cooking TV series.
As a sign of Padstow’s gentrification, harbour tour operators offer rides in upmarket Riva-like speed boats.
Facing Padstow, on the opposite bank of the River Camel, is a lovely sandy beach at Daymer Bay. The gorgeous scenery of this area, together with the ‘Rick Stein effect’, has pushed up property prices in Padstow so much that only rich out-of-towners can afford to buy (second) homes here.
Cozy Padstow pub.

 Goodbye Cornwall – See You Next Time

Contemplating at Widemouth Bay.
Contemplating at Widemouth Bay.

Scottish Independence- Keep Calm and Stay United

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.

English Whisky CompanyIf 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.

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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).

Northampton – Historic Sites

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I was back in England last month, to be with my parents as they celebrated their 65th Wedding Anniversary.

A 65th (Sapphire) Anniversary is quite a rare achievement – only 1% of couples stay married and alive that long – and Mum and Dad received a card from the Queen to mark the occasion (the Queen and Prince Philip celebrated their own 65th a couple of years ago).

Congratulations to my parents and we look forward to their 70th anniversary.

We were staying near the ancient town of Northampton, centrally located in the heart of England.

The town is best known for its shoe industry. In the 1830’s around a third of the male population were engaged in shoe making (hence the nickname of the town’s football team, Cobblers). That industry is virtually all gone now – one or two up-market brands survive such as Church’s, but the old factories are nearly all demolished or converted into flats or offices.

The town has successfully reinvented itself as a services and distribution hub and the southern half of the county currently enjoys the second lowest unemployment rate in Britain.

The town of Northampton is not especially renowned for its historic sites (thought the county of Northamptonshire has many) but a few gems exist and are worth a visit.

St Peter's Church, Northampton

St. Peter’s Church

St. Peter’s is reckoned to be the finest Norman church in the county and erected around 1170 by Simon de St.Liz (Senlis), first Norman Earl of Northampton, on the site of an earlier Saxon church. The fine two-tone banded stonework on the exterior and on the interior arches is a particular feature and reminiscent of Moorish architecture (perhaps an early Crusader brought back the idea from the Middle East). The church marks the location of the original Saxon settlement of Hamtun from which the town developed.

Anglo Saxon Grave Slab, St Peter's Church, Northampton

Displayed inside the church is this fine Anglo-Saxon grave slab, which was possibly the tomb lid of St. Ragener, a soldier who died in 870 fighting the pagan Vikings, for which he was awarded sainthood. Yes, Northampton even has its own saint! The slab depicts the face of the Green Man entwined in foliage and various animals and birds.

When this grave was discovered beneath the floor of the old Saxon church it was said to have helped a crippled woman to walk and performed other miracles. Impressed by this, King Edward the Confessor had a gold and jewel encrusted shrine erected here for the Saint. Sadly no trace of the precious shrine remains.

Hazelrigg House

Hazelrigg House, Northampton

This well preserved example of Elizabethan architecture is located close to St. Peter’s on Marefair. The building is thought to date from around 1570, with later additions. It is one of the few houses to have survived the Great Fire of Northampton in 1675. Folklore has it that Oliver Cromwell stayed here on the eve of the Battle of Naseby in June 1645. The town was known to have sympathies with the Parliamentarian side in the English Civil War and provided several thousand pairs of boots to Oliver Cromwell’s roundhead army, for which the makers never received payment. After restoration of the monarchy King Charles II punished the town by pulling down its castle and walls.

Guildhall

Northampton Guildhall

A much newer landmark is the Guildhall built in 1864 in imposing Victorian Gothic architectural style. They were holding a vintage fair during our visit so we were able to get a peek inside. The main hall is decorated with stain glass windows and portraits of British Kings and Queens (and that man Cromwell again!).

Church of All Saints

All Saints Church, Northampton

In the centre of town is All Saints which was built in 1680 following the Great Fire. Charles II supplied the timber and stone for its construction (perhaps feeling guilty about demolishing the castle?). In gratitude the townsfolk erected a statue of the king above the portico from where he has a good view of McDonalds but, as a snub, he is depicted wearing a Roman skirt tunic, which, together with his long hair, makes him look rather effeminate. Obviously the locals were still smarting over supporting the losing side in the Civil War.

Market Square

Market Square, Northampton

Talking of Romans, it was they who are said to have laid out the town’s market square and used it a marshalling point for distributing supplies to their forces around the region. Even those days the town’s strategic location was recognised as a logistics hub.

Today the Market Square is reputed to be the largest fully enclosed market square in England and many of its surrounding buildings have retained their historic old world charm. There are said to be secret tunnels running underneath the square.