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Subject: ‘British Towns’

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Permanent street lighting helped to banish fear and crime

Posted in British Cities, British Towns, Historical articles, History, London, Science, Technology on Tuesday, 4 March 2014

This edited article about street lighting first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 577 published on 3 February 1973.

Moving street lights,  picture, image, illustration
Before street lights, the rich employed people to hold torches to light their evening strolls

Man has always been afraid of the dark. Nobody knew in early days what terrible existence awaited them as soon as day crept into night and blackness magically floated down to earth. Nobody knew; not many dared to find out. The world about would sleep until the sun came out, as if to regenerate the chemicals of life.

But man could not hide from the dark for long. He had to conquer it. In ancient Babylon they used thick tow wicks containing about one hundredweight of fat. The flickering lights would pinpoint a route through the deathly dark to safety. The wicks were so expensive, though, that they could only be afforded at festival times.

Imperial Rome was not much better off. They had no lights, and the coming of night covered the city in a darkness that brought death and emptiness. If you went out to supper without having first made out your will, you would have been considered outrageously mad. Important people might just risk venturing out into the night by having torch bearers with them, or at least a torch of resinous pine. But ordinary folk just wouldn’t consider braving the dark streets, and if they had to, it would be planned well in advance in time for the full moon.

The moon was never sufficient, though. In the 17th Century watchmen along the streets of London used to sing:

“A light here maids, hang out your lights,
And see your horns be clear and bright
That so your candle clear may shine
Continuing from six to nine
That honest men may walk along
And see to pass safe without wrong.”

Honest men, and dishonest ones, come to that, were probably safer in Paris. People there were prepared to pay for their safety, and one distinguished gentleman had a monopoly hiring guides with hand lanterns to travellers at night.

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The fluctuating fortunes of High Victorian architecture

Posted in Architecture, British Cities, British Towns, Famous landmarks, London, Railways on Friday, 7 February 2014

This edited article about architecture first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 547 published on 8 July 1972.

St Pancras Station,  picture, image, illustration
The St Pancras, Midland Railway Station, London, erected in the years 1866-69

Fashions change. Victorian art, architecture and interior decoration and, indeed, Victorian costume are all very much “in” things at the present time.

Forty years ago you could not have given away odd bits of Victorian bric-a-brac, like vases, glassware, paper-weights, and similar oddments, all of which fetch enormous prices nowadays. In the years between the two World Wars, Victoriana was a great big joke and no aspect of Victoriana was more laughable than its architecture. Someone coined a jibe to the effect that the Victorians were jolly nice chaps, but that they should never have been allowed to get their hands on bricks and mortar.

However, there has been a reappraisal of Victoriana, and of Victorian architecture in particular – since this has a way of standing around and continuing to make itself known long after its creators, and their beliefs, have crumbled away to nothing.

Our light-hearted look at architecture, so far, has really been a matter of examining various architectural styles in relation to the people who did the building, and the environment in which they lived.

Nomadic people, like desert Arabs, dreamed up a portable house of sticks and skins and called it a tent. Firmly established in the rich and fertile Nile valley, the Ancient Egyptians went to the other extreme from the temporary and portable dwelling, and built their homes to last for ever.

It was the good Greek eye, sharpened by the clear atmosphere and the revealing sun, that devised the perfection of the Classical style. Those go-ahead and pushy fellows the Romans took over Greek architecture and bent it to their own needs; adding the techniques of building in brick and concrete, and exploiting the dome and the arch.

The Gothic style grew out of religion and added techniques that enabled men to show their adoration of God by extending slim shafts of stonework towards the skies of Northern Europe, towards Heaven.

All these architectural styles evolved for a reason. They were and are immediately recognisable because they each sing with one voice, in tune. They all have coherence.

By the 19th century, architecture ceased to have any coherence. There was no more singing in tune, everyone was singing solo.

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Britain is a living museum of fine domestic architecture

Posted in Architecture, British Cities, British Countryside, British Towns, Country House, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 5 February 2014

This edited article about architecture first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 543 published on 10 June 1972.

Tudor house,  picture, image, illustration
The construction of a Tudor house by Peter Jackson

Pharaoh Cheops’s pyramid was built around 3733 BC. Five thousand years have gone by, but no one in Medieval Europe, or indeed in the whole of the known world, has come within shouting distance of rivalling that fabulous edifice in sheer size or in technical brilliance of construction. And when we think of Roman plumbing, with all the luxury of running hot and cold water, and compare it with the plumbing facilities in 13th century London, we well may pause to wonder what progress is all about.

However, most of the architecture we have examined so far has concerned buildings that were put up for purposes of religious worship, to flatter the ego of some tyrannical ruler, or as an expression of national pride in craftsmanship.

There was hardly any choice, for not much else remains for us to examine. The mud hovels of the labourers who built the pyramids have long since crumbled to sand, along with the superior mud mansions of their masters. There are the much-cobbled fragments of a few Roman villas dotted about Europe and the Middle East, there are the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but not much else to tell of the humble millions who made up the mighty empire that once owned the known world.

If human progress can be measured by the increasing tendency for quite ordinary people to build houses for themselves and their descendants that rivalled, in soundness and structure, the temples and churches of religion and the palaces of their rulers, then there was some forward progress by the Middle Ages. Plumbing or no plumbing.

And of all Europe we are particularly lucky, in these islands, to have so many of the smaller domestic medieval buildings surviving; most of them still lived in, and most of them regarded (as the estate agents say) as very desirable residences.

The Romans made little or no impact on the native domestic architecture of these islands. Their villas, with inner courts open to all weathers, did not commend themselves to the natives; nor were the natives beguiled by all that insistence on baths and plumbing.

The largest domestic unit in Medieval England was the manor house. Every small community had one. It was the home of the local landowner, and the centre of community life.

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The murder of Becket made Canterbury a place of pilgrimage

Posted in British Towns, English Literature, Famous crimes, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Religion, Saints, Travel on Monday, 3 February 2014

This edited article about Canterbury first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 537 published on 29 April 1972.

Murder of Becket,  picture, image, illustration
The murder of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury by Peter Jackson

It was in the year 1171 when King Henry II of England, barefoot and dressed in a robe of coarse, common cloth, made his way to the shrine of Archbishop Becket. There, in the sight of the wide eyed people of Canterbury, their monarch knelt and prayed at the spot where this great churchman had been ruthlessly cut down. Murdered, many believed, at Henry’s own command.

Henry Plantagenet was to return often to the shrine. On several anniversaries of Becket’s death he even allowed the local monks to flog him as a penance for his part in the affair, although it seems likely that the beating was more symbolic than painful. And just how much remorse the king felt about the death of his one-time friend is impossible to tell, for his public sorrow was almost certainly necessitated by the need to impress a Pope who was outraged by the crime. Nevertheless, where a king goes, his subjects will certainly follow.

Almost overnight, Canterbury became a place of pilgrimage.

But there was more to those visits at Archbishop Becket’s shrine than just a desire to emulate the king. It was said that miracles had been worked at the martyr’s grave almost as soon as his burial had been completed, and that the waters of the well in which his clothes had been washed would cure a vast variety of diseases. After all, men told each other, only a few days after his penance at the shrine, Henry had won a great victory over the Scots at Alnwick. What better proof could there be of Thomas Becket’s powers? And not just Thomas Becket now, but Saint Thomas of Canterbury.

There were, in fact, several reasons why the old Kentish town should so speedily have become a hallowed place. The pilgrimage had long been an important part of many religions, although only a comparatively recent feature of Christianity. But over the years the custom had been growing. At first, men had wished to visit the more important sites of their faith from little more than curiosity. Later, it was thought that a pilgrimage counted as a penance, and that by undertaking an arduous journey a man could be forgiven his sins. And finally, a belief sprang up that places associated with certain of the Saints had the power to heal sickness. Indeed, that anything from these shrines, even a few specks of dust brushed into a spill of paper, was bound to be full of the same miraculous power.

Not unnaturally, the most revered centres of the Christian faith were in the Holy Land and, to a lesser extent, around Rome, where hundreds of early converts had been martyred. But to travel abroad, even as an act of faith, was a tremendously hazardous undertaking, and permission had first to be granted by the Church. Strict rules were enforced regarding dress, and pilgrims made their journey wearing grey habits, fastened at the waist by a broad belt. They were also supposed to take with them a wide brimmed hat, a staff, sack and a container for drinking water, and all had to present themselves at a religious ceremony before setting off.

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The Cinque Ports were key strategic guardians of England

Posted in British Towns, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Sea, Ships, Trade, War on Thursday, 23 January 2014

This edited article about the Cinque Ports first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 524 published on 29 January 1972.

Henry VIII embarks at Dover, picture, image, illustration
The embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover by Hans Holbein the Younger (after)

The Cinque Ports are a confederation of maritime towns on the coast of Kent and Sussex. The original five ports were Hastings, Sandwich, Dover, Romney and Hythe. Two more ports, the “ancient towns” of Winchelsea and Rye were added to the five after the Norman Conquest.

Today, of the seven towns, only Dover remains a port. The once busy harbours of the other towns have long since silted up, and the sea has receded by as much as two miles from Rye and Sandwich.

The confederation was formed during the eleventh century and until the fourteenth century the Cinque Ports were the principal English ports, providing the nucleus of the King’s navy. By the sixteenth century, the ports were in decline. The tides were changing the coastline, silting up or eroding their harbours.

The origins of the Cinque Ports have been traced back to Roman times. After their invasion of Britain, the Romans set up a series of stations and fortresses to guard the South East coast, and governed the area as one country. The Saxon invaders who succeeded the Romans also sought to protect the shores of England and continued to use the south-eastern ports as the base for their defence.

In the reign of King Edward the Confessor, the special role of the Cinque Ports was recognised in a Royal Charter. The King needed to be able to call on a fleet of ships to protect his realm in times of danger. Earlier, Edward had raised a great fleet to sail against the Danes, paid for by contributions from the shires. The tax had been very unpopular and the King could not afford to keep a permanent royal fleet afloat.

The Cinque Ports already had the harbours, ships and seamen necessary for the defence of the kingdom. Edward’s charter granted the ports special privileges, exemption from paying tax and tolls throughout the land, and the right to govern their own affairs. In return, the Cinque Ports were to give the kings of England “yearly their full service of fifty-seven ships, at their cost, for fifty days, at the summons of us and our heirs.”

After the Norman Conquest, the ports became increasingly important. William I appointed the first Constable of Dover Castle and Lord Warden of the Ports, which was to become a powerful and well-rewarded office. It is now an honorary royal appointment which has been held by such men as Lord Palmerston and the Duke of Wellington. Sir Winston Churchill was appointed Lord Warden by King George VI in 1941.

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A surprisingly accurate futuristic vision of British life in 2001

Posted in British Cities, British Towns, Science, Technology on Thursday, 2 January 2014

This edited article about progress first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 501 published on 21 August 1971.

Life in 2001, picture, image, illustration
Shopping will be done using electronic images in 2001

In 30 years time most of you will be married and living in your own homes. Your children will be going to school.

What will life be like in the year 2001? What kind of homes will we live in? What will our schools be like? What sorts of food will we be eating? What strange styles of clothing will we be wearing? Will we still be wearing long hair or short hair? Will we still be using decimal currency?

It is difficult if not impossible to give very accurate answers to questions like these. We can, however, make fairly intelligent guesses about life in 30 years’ time. We can do this by thinking about the advances in science and industry which have occurred in the 30 years which have passed. We can also make reasonable predictions about the future by considering the kind of life we have today.

We can begin by being reasonably certain that most homes will be centrally heated in 2001. Thirty years ago most people used to heat their homes by having a coal fire burning in a grate in each room. Fewer people used gas or electric fires in much the same way, which was more expensive than just using coal.

Today more and more new houses and flats are being built which have central-heating. There are many gas and electric fires still being used, but these for the most part are of a modern kind which warm the air in the room, rather than just giving off a friendly glow which in very cold weather makes us too warm in the front and leaves us too cold in the back! And the coal fires still being used burn the new smokeless fuels which are also designed to warm the air.

It now seems unlikely that future homes will use central-heating which relies upon coal or gas, or even mains-electricity. We are already finding that supplies of coal, gas and oil are rapidly diminishing. It is likely that we will become more and more dependent upon atomic energy.

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Royal visitors were common at the Easter Fair in St Ives, Huntingdonshire

Posted in British Towns, Historical articles, History, Religion, Royalty, Trade on Thursday, 12 December 2013

This edited article about St Ives first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 490 published on 5 June 1971.

Mediaeval fair, picture, image, illustration
Mediaeval fair by Dan Escott

The year King John came to the throne of England was a landmark in the history of fairs. Kings before him may have been extravagant and vain, but to John, the finest clothes and the costliest foods were temptations too delightful to resist! As John patronised fairs, the eyes of the merchants fixed on them with increased interest. Because John spent so much money on himself, he was always short of it. As well as spending at fairs, he made money by granting charters for new fairs and recognising charters for existing ones – at a price.

During King John’s reign the Easter Fair at St. Ives in Huntingdonshire became one of the most important in the land. This was mainly because its geographical position was excellent. There was access by water and road from surrounding areas and the east coast, even though, by our standards, the roads and bridges were in a shocking state. Then, too, the charter giving the right to hold the fair was in the hands of the Abbey of Ramsey, and as the Abbey kept 20 monks busy organising the fair, arrangements were on the whole efficient and stable enough.

When it came to life’s luxuries, John’s son, Henry III, was no better than his father. His eagerness to spend money made him the best customer St. Ives Fair ever knew. Royal clerks would turn up on horseback in their fine fur-trimmed robes and create quite a stir. They were allowed to cast their eyes over all the goods on sale before anyone else so that they could take first pick. Sometimes they would buy up the complete stock of a particular item – in 1235 they took all the horses – and hard luck to anyone else who wanted one!

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Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham in 1642 and started the English Civil war

Posted in British Towns, Castles, Historical articles, History, Legend, Royalty, War on Monday, 2 December 2013

This edited article about Nottingham first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 472 published on 30 January 1971.

Arrest of Mortimer, picture, image, illustration
Roger de Mortimer was seized by knights who entered the castle by underground passage, by C L Doughty

Nottingham Castle was ringed with an armed guard, for Roger Mortimer was not one to take chances. He knew only too well the perils of his position – and had done his share of plotting. He had been imprisoned in the Tower in 1322 but had escaped to Paris two years later. There he had met and fallen in love with Queen Isabella, who had fled from England because she could no longer put up with the treatment she received from her husband, Edward II.

In 1326 the couple had returned to England and had seized power. Since the murder of the King at Berkeley Castle in 1327 the Queen had ruled as regent for the young Edward III and Mortimer had been her adviser. Now the young king was nearing the age of 18 and was determined to take over the reins of government. Roger Mortimer had already learnt of one plot and knew his position was perilous, but he felt safe for the night as he had men from his own Welsh border Marches around the castle.

But there is usually a chink in every defence and lack of local knowledge was to be Roger’s undoing. For the great rock on which Nottingham Castle was built is riddled with caves and passages – some natural and some man-made. On that night of 19th October, 1330, a small band of picked men made their way up one of these passages right into the courtyard of the castle. The guards kept an alert watch above, but the attackers had slipped beneath their feet! Once inside, the desperate party made their way to Mortimer’s room, taking him and his companions completely by surprise. There was a brief, ineffectual scuffle and Mortimer was taken prisoner. The next morning, the young king took over the government of his country and, in due course, Mortimer was tried and executed at Tyburn. This underground entrance to the castle, now known as Mortimer’s Hole, was so well hidden that all trace of it was lost and it was not rediscovered until 1864, since when it has been open to the public.

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Llangollen was home to some famous sightings of fake fairies

Posted in British Towns, Historical articles, History, Magic, Music on Monday, 2 December 2013

This edited article about Wales first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 471 published on 23 January 1971.

Plas Newydd, picture, image, illustration
Plas Newydd, Llangollen, home to the "Ladies of Llangollen"

St. Collen paused and looked around. He saw a valley which Hazlitt was to describe many centuries later as being “like an amphitheatre, broad barren hills rising in majestic state on either side with green upland swells . . . and the River Dee babbling over its stoney bed.” He realised that this was a natural meeting place and knew that he had found what he was seeking. There he built a small hut and the first church, so that the place became known as Llangollen – Collen’s enclosure.

He had been educated at Orleans and had spent some time at Glastonbury and in Brittany before setting out on the journey which had brought him to this spot in North Wales. At that time, in the 7th century, the place must have seemed very remote and, although perhaps the saint had some hopes that a few pilgrims might come to it, he could not have foreseen that the town which was to grow up round his church would be world famous for the warmth of its welcome to visitors.

Probably the most he had dreamt of was achieved in 1200 when Valle Crucis Abbey was founded for the Cistercian monks between the town and the foot of the Horseshoe Pass. Little now remains of this except the West Front, but we have a poem by Guttyn Owain which describes the costly carvings of foliage in the choir and also the great welcome which was given to travellers, with a meal of four courses of meat served on bright silver dishes and accompanied by fine wines.

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The Great Fire of Warwick was the fifth act of destruction suffered by the town

Posted in British Towns, Castles, Disasters, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History on Friday, 29 November 2013

This edited article about Warwick first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 468 published on 2 January 1971.

Warwick Castle, picture, image, illustration
Warwick Castle by R P Leitch

On the 5th September, 1694, a man in one of the cottages in a lane off High Street, Warwick, went to a neighbour’s home to light a brand to start his fire. But he had not reckoned with the strong wind that was blowing. Sparks were whisked off his brand and swept upwards, setting light to the thatched roof. In a few minutes, the conflagration spread into Castle Street and before long it had taken a firm hold and was raging across High Street and into other streets.

The primitive fire-fighting equipment could do little and the timber-built houses with their thatched roofs quickly burnt. Panic-stricken folk dragged what furniture and belongings they could save from the buildings. Some took their possessions to St. Mary’s church which they felt would be safe but unfortunately some of the articles were already smouldering so that soon the famous church was itself alight and a large part was burnt down.

At last, the spread of the flames was halted by a sturdy stone house and gradually the blaze died down. When the losses were counted it was found that a great many buildings had been destroyed or badly damaged. The first task was to provide shelter for the homeless and, when this was completed, consideration was given to the rebuilding of the devastated town and a body of Commissioners was set up to supervise this task. Some 19 years previously Northampton had suffered a similar fire and the Commissioners took the benefit of the advice from that town and from the experience gained in rebuilding it afterwards.

In order to avoid a repetition of the disaster, the Commission ruled that the new buildings should be of brick or stone with slate or tile roofs – and they showed their wisdom by taking advantage of the opportunity to re-plan the streets. How well they did this can still be seen for, although Warwick has the air of an old town, it is unlike its neighbours in that it has well laid-out streets of stone buildings in place of the half-timbered houses and awkward streets of many of its contemporaries.

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