Some familiar vehicles delivered this week plus a star car on Friday. Why a star car? Because I had not driven this top of the range, petrol powered version of the F-Pace before and I suspect it’s really quite rare on UK roads:-

Monday: Bentley Flying Spur W12 (2007), Nottingham to Syston, Leicestershire; Audi A1 Sport 1.4 TFSI (125hp), Syston to here, there and everywhere (and back).

Tuesday: Ford Transit Custom, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire to Croydon, Surrey via …. Worcester(!). Long story.

Wednesday: Audi A6 Black Edition 2.0TDI (190hp) auto, Leicester to Barnsley, South Yorkshire.

Friday: Jaguar F-Pace S 3.0 V6 supercharged (petrol) auto, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire to Preston, Lancashire.

It was off to the frozen north again on Friday amid more forecasts of freezing temperatures and heaps of snow. So, I dressed appropriately (a woollen tie rather than a silk one). In the end, I saw nothing but blue skies and clear roads as the supercharged Big Cat whisked me to a little town just north of Preston. I had never been to Preston before so what did I know about the place? I pondered this while sitting in the leather-clad and calm interior of the F-Pace and made a mental list:-

– Preston is in the county of Lancashire in the north west of England (knowing this came in useful when delivering the F-Pace).
– It has a football team (that’s soccer for any American friends) called Preston North End which is very old.
– It is home to the National Football Museum.
– The town shares its name with the arch villain (Preston, a robotic cyber-dog) in Wallace and Gromit’s A Close Shave.

So, not a very long list and I even got one of these things wrong – the National Football Museum moved to Manchester in 2010. But travel is an education so what did I learn about Preston on my travels? The couple to whom I delivered the F-Pace very kindly drove me into the town in their rather nice new toy. So I asked them: “What should people know about Preston?” They told me two things about the town. Firstly, it doesn’t have a lot going for it (very honest of them). Secondly, the first ever guild in the country was founded here. The Preston Guild controlled the right to trade in the town and the right to establish the Guild was granted in 1179 by none other than Henry II. You may remember him from an earlier post – he’s the bloke who imprisoned his missus at Old Sarum. What some people will do for a bit of peace and quiet.

Walking down Preston’s main street to the train station, I saw that their first point about the town may have been fair. Nothing offensive, mind you. Not like Croydon where I went on Wednesday. Horrible place. In the highly unlikely scenario that you are planning a day out and your options boil down to Preston or Croydon, take my advice and head for Lancashire. In the equally highly unlikely scenario that a Croydonite is reading this – my apologies.

Preston railway station is a traditional, pleasant-to-behold, Victorian affair where steam trains and young ladies waving tear-soaked hankies at their departing, uniformed sweethearts would not look out of place. Here I learnt something about Preston for myself and it is related to those uniformed sweethearts. Large lettering and brass plaques on the waiting room walls inform the waiting traveller that that very room was given over to a free buffet for servicemen during the First World War. Three and a quarter million soldiers and sailors passing through Preston station benefited from free refreshments “and comforts” in the buffet which opened around the clock between August 1915 and May 1919. Three and a quarter million. That’s a lot of tea and black pudding sandwiches. Ee, thems is reet generous, them northern folk.



And what of the F-Pace? Lovely. And with the supercharged engine, it felt a bit different. Quiet when cruising, a bit of a drone when accelerating gently and a distinctive howl when pressing on a bit more briskly. With 380 supercharged horses under bonnet, the F-Pace is obviously quick (0-60mph in 5.5 seconds) but a laid back driver may prefer the the less dramatic shove of the 3 litre V6 diesel where fewer revs are needed for the car to get up and go. I tend to divide SUVs into two categories: the squashy ones (very cosseting but very wobbly round corners and on country roads, e.g. Range Rover, Land Rover Discovery) or the firm ones (not necessarily uncomfortable and much better round the bendy bits). The F-Pace falls into the latter camp, as in fact I have alluded to in an earlier post after driving the 3 litre diesel version (and, incidentally, that same post features the wonderful Jaguar XE with the 3 litre supercharged petrol engine). And, by the way, the F-Pace is definitely more than comfortable enough.

Cats don’t normally like water but this big one seemed to relish its wash. As a treat for good behaviour over the 190 mile trip, I then took it round the corner for a small saucer of milk just before delivering it to its proud new owners.

Any downside to the handsome, practical and quick supercharged F-Pace? Well, it is a little thirsty, with an official fuel consumption figure of 32mpg (compared to 47mpg for the 3 litre diesel). Ouch (well its “ouch” by European standards!). And, of course, official figures bear no relation to the real world. I managed 28mpg over my steady 190 mile motorway trip. That’s less than I have got out of V8 Bentley Continentals (30-33mpg) on similar journeys!

Finally, going back to last week’s post about Edinburgh and the train journey between Scotland’s capital and Newcastle, I saw an episode of Coastal Railways with Julie Walters during the week. And guess wot?! The wonderfully funny Miss Walters (comedian, British national treasure and Mrs Weasley from the Harry Potter films) did much the same thing. The same train journey and a little exploration of Edinburgh itself, including some fascinating revelations about a clock and a secret passage between Waverley train station and a hotel. Definitely worth a watch if you have access to Channel 4’s catch up service (All 4) on the interweb.




Actually, I had two big days out last week. In addition to delivering a Mercedes to Edinburgh (work), I took myself off to the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, in the outer reaches of north London. What a brilliant place and …. it’s all free! Well, apart from a modest car parking charge and fees for some “optional” features such a flight simulator and the chance to sit in the cockpit of a Spitfire. From the earliest planes which look like they were built by budding Blue Peter presenters out of string, cocktail sticks, brown paper and a pair of Val’s bloomers to sophisticated fast jets made from very strong stuff, there are loads of interesting aircraft on view and all brilliantly preserved. The place is huge!

There are some whopping bombers such as (if this means anything to you) a WWII Lancaster, Flying Fortress, Liberator and a Halifax that was dragged up from the depths of a lake plus a monstrous Cold War Avro Vulcan. Lots of fantastic fighters – several Spitfires, Hurricane, Messerschmitt 109, P-40 Kittyhawk (I put one of those in a sandwich once), Meteor, Lightning …… and many more. There is a  WWII RAF Coastal Command section (including a Bristol Beaufort and Beaufighter), a helicopter bit and a brilliant World War I exhibition. Phew! Biggles would have loved it. A particular point of interest for me was the Hawker Hunter fighter, the very one flown by a good friend of my father’s (it even sports his name below the cockpit). My father’s friend is the last surviving pilot who flew in the flypast for the Queen’s Coronation in 1953.

Hungry looking Curtss Kittyhawk with supersonic English Electric Lightning in the background – proper heavy metal.
A gaggle of Battle of Britain fighters including a biplane – a Fiat CR42 Falco. Wonder if those Fiats suffered from rust? And you can just see the mighty Lancaster bomber off to the right.

So a great, cheap day out and one kids will probably enjoy too (there were some school groups there when I visited and they all seemed genuinely interested). BUT (there is a “but”) … now may not be the best time to visit, especially if you are travelling from a distance. Next year, 2018, sees the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Royal Air Force which became an independent service during the last year of the First World War. Prior to that, those magnificent (and very brave) fighting men in their flying machines were a part of the British Army – the Royal Flying Corps. To celebrate the centenary of the world’s first independent air force, the museum is having a bit of a revamp. One of the big halls (the former Battle of Britain museum) and a small part of another hall are therefore closed. However (on the up side, there is a “however” to soften the “but”) there is still a huge amount of interesting stuff to see. So, if you can’t resist a peek now, go! It’s free! You can always pop back again next year when the revamp is complete. I knew all this before I went but was itching to pay a return visit. I have made several visits over the years, the first as a kid shortly after the museum opened in 1972. And I fully intend to go back next year as well! If all this tickles your flying fancy but north London is a bit far for you, there is another (and also very substantial) branch of the Royal Air Force Museum in Cosford in Shropshire to the north west of Birmingham. Again, admission is free. Cosford majors more on the Cold War era (but not exclusively) whereas Hendon has a large number of World War II aircraft.

Apologies for the quality of the photos (mine are not great at the best of times) but the lighting in the museum was quite low. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Sticks and string. Part of the First World War collection. Typical max speed of these things was 100-120 mph (160-190kph). Most modern cars are probably faster.
The Bristol Beaufighter in the RAF Coastal command section.
The big B-24 Liberator. Next to a sign saying the area beyond is closed for the “RAF Centenary 2018 Transformation Programme”. 



Old Sarum. This little spot in Wiltshire sounds as if it should be inhabited by witches or druids. Or both. At the very least, there is a mystical ring to the name. Indeed, the whole county of Wiltshire has an ancient and mystical feel to it. This area was at the heart of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex whose most famous king, Alfred the Great, was knocked out in the first round of the Great Anglo-Saxon Bake Off when he famously burnt some cakes (the judges were a bit harsh, after all he was rather preoccupied by the problem of how to chase the Vikings from his homeland). Wiltshire’s chalk downland and hills have been home to settlements throughout history and pre-history: Mesolithic, Neolithic, Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, this Age and that Age right up to the Silicon Age. And the famous stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury are just up the road from Old Sarum. If you like your henges, Wiltshire is the place to go.

And Old Sarum itself has a very important ancient site – an Iron Age hill fort with a history extending far beyond that era (both before and after). Last Wednesday, a colleague and I had an epic tour of southern England. One hundred and fifty miles from Leicester to Southampton docks in a hire car.  There, I collected a new car to deliver just 24 miles down the road to Old Sarum, more or less in the shadow of the hill fort and about two miles outside the famous cathedral city of Salisbury. It happened to be lunchtime when we delivered the car and we needed a break, so we thought it would be rude not to go and have a quick look at the old fort. I also had an ulterior motive for going but more of that later.

Old Sarum. The Norman castle taking centre stage in this pic with the remains of the cathedral top left. If I had jumped a bit higher I would have got more of the Iron Age defences in (there’s a glimpse top left and top right). OK, you guessed, this is a library photo not one of mine.

Old Sarum fort started life as a settlement possibly as long ago as 3000BC, with the Iron Age fort being created around 400BC. Later, the Rotten Romans occupied the site, as did the Smashing Saxons and then the Stormin’ Normans (if you know your Horrible Histories, all these terrible tribes will be familiar to you). The reason for choosing this site as a defensive position is obvious – you can see for miles across the countryside in every direction, so you would have no problem spotting marauding Scandinavians coming your way. And that’s what happened in 1003. The Saxons spotted Scandi king, Sweyn Forkbeard and his advancing merry men and …. ran away, thus allowing old Prongface to sack and burn Old Sarum. Brilliant. Why did they bother building a fort? And no, I didn’t make up “Sweyn Forkbeard”; you may have heard of his dad, Harald Bluetooth who later lent his name to a useful bit of modern technology (wonder if his estate gets any royalties?).

Inside the Norman castle. Fabulous blue sky when we visited.

In terms of property development at Old Sarum, the Stormin’ Normans were the real masters. Just four years after stepping off the ferry at Hastings, poking King Harold in the eye and not bothering to go home (1066 and all that), William the Conqueror’s men built a motte and bailey castle surrounded by a stone curtain wall and later (when the skip finally arrived), a cathedral and a royal palace. Funds seem to have run out before the leisure centre and out of town shopping mall could be built. Nevertheless, Old Sarum flourished for a couple of centuries with the royal palace being used by Norman and Plantagenet monarchs. Henry II even imprisoned his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at Old Sarum (“It’s Ellie’s incessant nagging. Every time I go for a royal wee and leave the garderobe seat up. God, she goes on and on and on. I can’t stand it any longer. Anyway, I’ve shut her up for a while. Literally.”)

This heyday ended with a spat between the county sheriff and the local bishop in the early 13th century. Toys were thrown out of prams, footballs were taken home and, in a strop, the bish decided to build a new cathedral on the nearby plain. A town grew up around the new cathedral and eventually became the city of Salisbury. And get this – the new town received its city charter in 1227 under the name New Sarum (imaginative) and New Sarum remained Salisbury’s official name until …. 2009. Not a lot of people know that (I didn’t until I read the Wikipedia entry for Salisbury so it’s bound to be true).

All that is left of the cathedral. Would have made a good cricket pitch.

So what’s left of Old Sarum today? The concentric defensive rings and ditches around the hill are still there but there is not much left of the buildings. Much of the stone was removed to build New Sarum and its new cathedral, as Old Sarum was largely abandoned. Taking a break from beheading wives, Henry VIII eventually sold the long-neglected castle in 1514. Foolishly, he didn’t use Purplebricks and became a cantankerous old git in later life as he suffered from severe commisery through not using the right estate agent to handle the sale. As you can see from the photos, there are some of the Norman walls left and ground level remains of the old cathedral which was set between the Norman castle and the outer Iron Age defences. My colleague and I had the most fleeting of visits, literally a few minutes having a quick nose at what is left of the Norman castle and spending some moments drinking in the 360° panorama. It was a beautifully crisp, clear day but as cold as a witch’s heart in the biting wind. It was a very peaceful place and, despite the cold, it would have been great to wander around for longer and drink in the history. There were virtually no other visitors and certainly no druids to be seen. It was their lunchtime too so they had popped off to buy a sausage roll at the local Greggs.

Well, well, well. Old Sarum again.

There was one little bonus to take away from our flying visit and here we get back to my ulterior motive. Old Sarum is run by English Heritage, an organisation which manages hundreds of historic sites throughout the country. Gift shops at English Heritage properties often sell merchandise featuring an illustration of the property by artist, Dave Thompson. His work is a modern take on the classic travel poster art of the 1950’s and my daughter collects postcards of his illustrations. Not just English Heritage properties but pictures of famous landmarks from all over the country. So, I was able to gain a few brownie points by purchasing a postcard of Old Sarum as portrayed by said Mr Thompson. It only cost 60 pence but I’ll milk it for all its worth……

The Dave Thompson postcard of Old Sarum. Only cost 60p but should be able to get my daughter to make me several cups of tea next time she’s home from university.
My wife and I also like Dave Thompson’s work. Landmarks in the form of buildings are more usual subjects for his work, as seen in these three examples of poster size prints. Three places we have been and really liked. Sorry about the light on the Bamburgh Castle print. My brilliant photography skills again. Ha ha.



I had two trips to the county of Lancashire this week, including a visit to Wallace and Gromit’s home town of Wigan. Apparently, they live at 62 West Wallaby Street but  strangely, I couldn’t find it on any map:-

Monday: Nissan Juke 1.2 DIG-T Envy, Leicester to Wigan, Lancashire

Tuesday: two Ford Transit Customs, Doncaster to Nottingham

Wednesday: Audi A1 Sport 1.4TFSI, Syston, Leicestershire to Grantham, Lincolnshire; Bentley Continental GTC Speed W12 (2015), Grantham to Syston; Volvo XC60 D5 Power Pulse R-Design Pro AWD (auto) in and around Leicestershire; Bentley Continental GT W12 (2008), Syston to Rugby, Warwickshire, Peugeot 2008 Active 1.2T (82hp), Rugby to Birmingham to Syston.

Friday: Range Rover Velar D180 S, Derby to Colne, Lancashire

From what I saw of Lancashire, it certainly lived up to an image. Victorian towns built in a uniform, yellowy grey stone, hidden amongst the hills of an imposingly bleak countryside, made bleaker on Friday’s visit when grey clouds crept ever lower and blew drizzle across the landscape. Remnants of those dark Satanic Mills from the days of the Industrial Revolution can still be seen, some starkly empty and haunting, others put to more modern uses. When the trains eventually arrived, the trip from the small town of Colne in the Red Rose county of Lancashire across the Pennines to the White Rose county of Yorkshire was fascinating. The vista alternated between the grand but often grim Victorian industrial architecture and nature’s daunting best.

Forest of Bowland2
The natural Lancashire landscape. The Forest of Bowland, in fact.
So, from the perspective of an ignorant non-Lancastrian, what characterises Lancashire which, historically, included the great cities of Manchester and Liverpool until 1974? I have done a little research:-

– Industrial Heritage. Although most of the county is rural, Lancashire was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. Liverpool and Manchester grew and dominated world trade. Many folk swapped a hard life in the fields for what was arguably a harder life in the cotton mills that sprang up in many Lancashire towns such as Accrington, Burnley, Blackburn, Bolton and Colne (there are places in Lancashire beginning with letters from further on in the alphabet by the way). By 1830, 85% of all cotton manufactured worldwide was processed in Lancashire. If you are interested, The Road To Nab End, an autobiographical book by William Woodruff, is a very readable and vivid insight into the grinding hardship and miserable poverty endured by those living in the Lancashire mill towns as late as the 1920s. Lancashire also boasted one of the country’s most important coalfields, Britain’s first proper canal (the Bridgewater Canal) and the world’s first properly signalled and timetabled inter-city railway. This line between Liverpool and Manchester was opened in 1830.

Burnley’s industrial landscape of yesteryear.
– Rivalry.  With neighbouring Yorkshire that is. This reached its bloodiest peak during the War of the Roses when the House of Lancaster and the House of York were constantly at each other’s throats. Think Game of Thrones, subtract a witty dwarf, a Wildling or two and a bit of incest and you get the picture. This bit of medieval fisticuffs lasted about 30 years and culminated in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 when Lancastrian Henry Tudor won the game (and the throne) after the infamous Yorkist king, Richard III was stuck with a few pointy ends. He lost his horse and his life. In more modern times, battlefields became cricket pitches and Yorkshire tends to get the better of things (33 County Championship titles to date versus Lancashire’s 9).

– Comedians. Has any other county in the UK produced so many top class comedians? Stan Laurel, Eric Sykes, Arthur Askey, Ken Dodd, Eric Morecambe, Les Dawson, Peter Kay and Lee Mack to name but a few. I guess there is a joke in there somewhere about needing a sense of humour to live in Lancashire. And no, I haven’t forgotten the utterly brilliant Victoria Wood who is now, sadly, beating angels on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly.

– Food. Lancashire hotpot (lamb stew with a crispy, sliced potato lid), Lancashire cheese (a white, creamy cheese which comes in hard or crumbly varieties), black pudding (a blood sausage), Eccles cakes and the similar Chorley cakes (both flattish sweet pastries filled with raisins and/or sultanas). All good hearty, no nonsense stuff.

– Sport. A hot bed of Rugby League (13 rather than 15 men running around with odd shaped balls); many old and famous footballs clubs, several in the Premier League (Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Everton, Burnley) and others dreaming of past glories (e.g. Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End). And cricket, with Lancashire County Cricket Club having been founded in 1864 and managing to finish as runners-up in this year’s County Championship. England’s best ever Test bowler hails from Lancashire – the Burnley Express a.k.a. James Anderson. Jimmy is generally more reliable than the trains in Lancashire. Hopefully, he can work his magic this winter in Australia and help England retain the Ashes (but I must confess, I’m not optimistic!).

– Countryside. I suspect Lancastrians would say that Lancashire has it all (except the weather to go with it): rambling countryside, hills, deep valleys and challenging moorland some of which is covered by two officially designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Forest of Bowland and Arnside & Silverdale. And there’s coastline too, including that most famous of old seaside resorts, Blackpool.

And what of the cars? I had not driven the new Volvo XC60 before Tuesday. The old one was a worthy car but a tincy bit unrefined. So the new one has that sorted, right? Well, I’m not sure. It was unmistakably a diesel and road noise was more noticeable than I expected. The much cheaper VW Tiguan is quieter. However, the Volvo definitely feels more upmarket and is something a little bit different. I quite liked it. And it has the best 360 degree camera I have come across so far (i.e. where the touchscreen gives you a shot as if you are actually looking down on the car). How do they do that? I even stuck my head out of the window to see if there was a camera drone hovering above the car. To see what I think of the other cars (and van), click on the links in the list above. The Juke was still bumpy but I liked the 1.2 turbo petrol engine. The Peugeot 2008 was still horrible.

Volvo XC60. Smart.
By the way, as well as being grey, damp and cold, Friday was also one of my worst days travel-wise. En route to Colne, the M6 was closed which resulted in a lengthy detour and over an hour’s delay in delivering the Velar. Plan A for my return trip was scuppered by a bus which didn’t turn up – another hour’s delay. Then a train cancellation caused yet another sixty minute delay and all five trains needed to get home ran late. But at the end of the day, many people in this world have far bigger problems than coming home to a congealed curry. So, am I bovvered? No, I count myself very lucky.

Friday evening. After six hours and five trains, I began to hallucinate. On the last train, I thought I was sitting behind Martin Clunes doing an impersonation of Vincent Van Gogh.


‘Ey up. Not so much work this week, Gromit but eeh, what a Grand Day Out on Friday:-

Monday: Audi A1 Sport 1.4TFSI, Syston, Leicestershire to Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire; Bentley Continental GT V8S (2015), Newport Pagnell to Syston. Audi A1 Sport 1.4TFSI, Syston to Nottingham and back.

Thursday: Volkswagen Tiguan SE Nav 2.0TDI 4Motion DSG (auto), Kettering, Northamptonshire to Leicester.

Friday: Volkswagen Tiguan SE Nav 2.0TDI 4Motion DSG (auto), Leicester to St. Austell, Cornwall.

By gum, it were a long journey so I were up before crows, stumbling round in t’dark – almost put Wrong Trousers on, I did. Close Shave that was. Would have looked reet stupid in t’wife’s kecks. I went t’moon again, Gromit. In case yer’d forgotten lad, it’s just north of St. Austell in Cornwallshire. Have a gander on’t Google maps, t’stattylite view and yer’ll see it. All white it is, a reet desolate landscape. Actually, nay – it’s not really t’moon but it’s still made of cheese. Thems is Cornish Yarg quarries just like Wensleydale quarries back oop north. And those reet bright green pools thee can see on stattylite picture, thems is hot Manchester caviar springs … or mushy peas to thee, lad. It’s a good job I had decent car for that long trek, Gromit. Two hundred eighty mile on t’bumpy old motorbike and sidecar and me old eyeballs would’ve been rattling in their sockets. And….”

Wallace & Gromit
It’s the wrong transport, Gromit! Try a Volkswagen Tiguan
No, that’s enough. It’s very difficult writing in Wallace’s Wigan accent (oh, so that’s what it was supposed to be!). It was a Grand Day Out though and I breezed down to St. Austell in the Volkswagen Tiguan, leaving home at 4.30am and arriving at 10am. A couple of planned stops and no traffic jams – all quite effortless, due in no small part to the Tiguan. This was a four wheel drive version; notably thirstier then the two wheel drive examples I have driven but equally as refined on the motorway. In St. Austell, there was a quick car wash, customer handover, walk to the station (welcome exercise in the sunshine) and … pasty! Well I had to get at least one of my Cornish Five-A-Day, didn’t I?!  The first part of the train journey back to Leicester was interesting. Across tranquil, muddy creeks at low tide, alongside rivers and the sea. For a time, after we had passed through Teignmouth, it seemed as if the train was running along the beach, the sea was that close. This is the stretch of track that often features in the news in extreme weather and it was actually washed away during a storm in 2014. It added a bit of spice to my journey knowing that Storm Brian was approaching. But then again, how can a storm called Brian be anything to be feared??

But what about the Cornish Yarg quarries? Well, of course, it’s not cheese, it’s china clay (duh, cheese comes from the moon not earthbound quarries). The last few miles of the route to St. Austell took me down the A391 between the Cornish Yarg china clay pits which are eerily moon-like (although you don’t get a good view from the road).

China Clay Pit St Austell
A lunar china clay pit (on a grey day) near St. Austell, Cornwall
Europe was about ten thousand years behind China when it came to fine porcelain. But when Europe started catching up in the 18th and 19th centuries, it turned out that St. Austell had the biggest china clay deposits in the world. Boom time! The stuff was exported all around the world and to facilitate this, a chappy called Charles something or other built a harbour just down the road from St. Austell’s clay pits (by the sea actually, smart bloke). I’m guessing he didn’t do it all on his own although it did take ten years to finish (1791 to 1801). Rather modestly, he called his creation Charlestown (and why not, if he built it?). What’s more, there is a very strong likelihood that you have seen Charlestown even if you have never been to Cornwall. It has remained largely unchanged since the early 19th century and has been a popular location for film and TV over the years. Charlestown’s credits include The Eagle Has Landed, Mansfield Park, The Onedin Line, The Three Musketeers, the recent Tom Hardy drama, Taboo and, inevitably, …. Poldark.

Charlestown Poldark set
The BBC at work creating a set for Poldark in Charlestown
Charlestown is privately owned but you can still visit this wonderfully preserved bit of history. For just a modest charge (£5), you can walk in Michael Caine’s and Aidan Turner’s footsteps and enjoy all the olde worlde charm. A further charge gets you into the Shipwreck and Heritage Centre. It’s a very long time since I have been but it gets excellent reviews on TripAdvisor.

The china clay pits are still being worked today but far fewer people are employed there compared to their heyday. One of the disused pits has been put to good use though – as the dramatic location for the spectacular Eden Project. Definitely, absolutely worth a visit if you have never been to this global garden housed in “biomes”, encapsulating different climates and flora from around the world, including a tropical rain forest. Go for a walk in the rain forest canopy or fly over the biomes on the UK’s longest and fastest zip wire. We have been two or three times over the years. Had a great Thai green curry there on one occasion (but didn’t go on the zip wire which was probably a good thing).

Panoramic view of the geodesic dome structures of Eden Project
The amazing Eden Project and its biomes  Not to be outdone by Charlestown, the Eden Project had a role in the James Bond film, Die Another Day.


We had never been to the very old city of Hereford before; in fact a lot of the area west of Birmingham to the Welsh border is a mystery to us. All we really knew about Herefordshire is that it is famous for apples, cider and its own breed of cattle. So, it was time to put that right last weekend. En route, we stopped at Brockhampton Estate, a National Trust property in Herefordshire just off the very scenic A44 (nice drive). What a hidden treasure this is. Not the usual, grand stately home but a remote manorial farm house surrounded by a moat and hills. Built sometime between 1380 and 1420, this half-timbered house sports a wonky gate house which was basically a 15th century status symbol since electronic gates had not been invented. We were so lucky to visit on a quiet weekday and in almost sunny weather. It is such a truly magical, rustic place that it was surely built by pixies. For a short period of time, the pixies lived at Brockhampton, bog snorkelling in the moat each morning in search of the much-prized white bog truffle (slice, pan fry in butter, add a handful of chopped, wild grungewort for a traditional accompaniment to roast pop weasel on pixie feast days).  In the fields around Brockhampton, the pixies could be seen bareback badger racing (brock is an old English word for badger by the way) until a reckless wager with a human saw the estate pass to one John Dumbleton in settlement of a crushing gambling debt (actually, it may have been Mr Dumbleton who built Brockhampton). Pixies have lived underground ever since. Eventually, the estate passed into National Trust ownership in 1946 (when badger racing and bog snorkelling on the estate were promptly banned).
Brockhampton farm house complete with moat and gate house. Beautiful. Makes your quaint bone tingle.
On to Hereford; not in the Premier League of quaint historic cities like Bath and York but capable of some giant killing – as Ronnie Radford proved in the 1972 FA Cup third round replay against Newcastle United. Radford’s 30 yard wonder strike helped non-league Hereford United beat top-flight Newcastle and became one of the most famous and muddiest FA Cup goals ever. Today, Hereford’s giant-killing wonder strikes are the Mappa Mundi, the Chained Library, the 12th century cathedral and one of four originals of the 1217 Magna Carta still in existence (not the first version famously signed by the infamous King John in 1215 which was actually a bit of a failure). The picturesque River Wye adds to Hereford’s attractions. The city itself has a long and eventful history involving civil wars, fire, sieges, executions, bishops, flirtations with Welshness (during which inordinate amounts of cheese on toast were consumed) and a castle that has long since vanished, although part of the moat remains (no bog snorkelling though).
Hereford Cathedral viewed from a Victorian suspension (foot) bridge across the River Wye.
It costs an entirely reasonable £6 to see the Mappa Mundi, Chained Library and Magna Carta which are all housed in a modern building attached to and styled on the cathedral. The Mappa Mundi is a map representing the Christian world in or around the year 1300 when the map was produced by one Richard of Haldingham and Lafford while he was still at enfants school. No, I mustn’t joke. Yes, at first glance it appears childishly simplistic but actually if you rotated it through 90 degrees, pulled and stretched it somewhat, it’s quite a good representation of Europe, Asia and Africa (the known world in 1300 unless you were a native American or kangaroo). Being a religious map, it has Jerusalem at the centre and the east at the top. Considering the majority of people in that era probably travelled no further than their local corner shop, the map shows a remarkable level of knowledge. It measures 1.59m by 1.34m (the largest medieval map known to exist) and is drawn (or painted?) on vellum – calf’s skin to you, me and the poor baby cow. It’s a wonderfully “busy” picture, covered in hundreds of place names (most recognisable in today’s world) and little graphics like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Sphinx in Egypt and the Labyrinth on Crete. We spent a good while studying the original and an English translation of the map … but we still couldn’t find Wally. You may remember the map making the headlines about thirty years ago when a man from Sotheby’s valued it at £7million. Part of Hereford Cathedral was falling down and the bishop or whoever considered selling the map to pay for the restoration. Happily, donations flooded in, the Cathedral was repaired, the map stayed in Hereford and everyone went home for tea as happy as can be.
Hereford Mappa Mundi
Where’s Wally? Hereford’s Mappa Mundi. Amazing.

After a long, interesting chat with the guide about the map and a brief peruse of the 1217 Magna Carta, it was into the Chained Library, so called because there are still dusty skeletons chained to the walls as a stark warning to users of the library. The penalty for overdue books and for not shushing when shushed at by the librarian was harsh in those days. No, hang on, that was just a nightmare I once had when I forgot to take a copy of The Railway Children back to our local library on time. In reality, the Chained Library contains rows of books chained to their early 17th century bookcases, clearly for security reasons (the need arising after Rufus Gable, a shady roofing contractor, stole several editions of What Tiler from the library in 1601). There are many ancient manuscripts and crusty old printed works, some dating back to the earliest days of printing – 1473 is the oldest printed book. Each weighty tome is tethered to a metal bar on the bookcase by a chain attached to the leading edge of its front cover.

The Chained Library. Books go in spine first because of the chain. The framed document hanging on the end of the bookcase provides a key for locating each book.

The cathedral itself is not in the major league in terms of size but it is still impressive. Last year, a new stained glass window and memorial to the UK’s most famous (but still secretive) elite military unit  – the Special Air Service – was unveiled. The SAS is based in Herefordshire and there is an SAS cemetery in another of Hereford’s churches.

Hereford Cathedral in a distinctive pinky stone. The building on the right is the modern annex housing the Mappa Mundi, Chained Library and Magna Carta. “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” Tony Hancock in Hancock’s Half Hour (Twelve Angry Men).
The new SAS memorial in the cathedral. Above it is a striking new stained glass window, also part of the memorial.

After that dose of history and culture, we did something very unusual for us – we went on a guided tour of the city for more of the same. We normally like to explore places on our own but it was worthwhile tagging along with a guide. Hereford has loads of old buildings, churches and history and our guide had plenty of anecdotes to bring it all to life. I asked him where the statue of Ronnie Radford was and was a bit shocked to learn there isn’t one. Later in the afternoon, I was tempted by Hereford’s Cider Museum but we were quite exhausted by that time so gave it a miss. To make up for it, I had a bottle of Herefordshire cider when we got home (by coincidence, we happened to have a bottle of Henney’s Exhibition Cider ready and waiting in the fridge – excellent buy, £1.29 at Aldi!). Another coincidence we discovered over the weekend – with the exception of Chrissie Hynde, all of the original members of The Pretenders came from Hereford. We are going to see The Pretenders in Nottingham tonight. The Chained Library was the inspiration for their hit, Back on the Chain Gang. No it wasn’t.



After I had delivered the Audi A4 Avant to Oakham last week, I had a very pleasant, sunny stroll through this tranquil town situated in the county of Rutland. As I made my way to the train station I noticed that Oakham has sufficient quaint bits to make it interesting, including a castle with England’s most complete Norman great hall (yes, I looked that up afterwards). However, the walk did not take long because most things in Rutland, the UK’s smallest historic county, are, well … small. Including Oakham. Multum in parvo is Rutland’s motto. A lot in a little.

Oakham Buttercross
The Buttercross (market place) in pretty Oakham

However, it was not all tranquility in Oakham’s recent and bloody past. Rutland is a historic county but that long history was interrupted when it lost its county status in 1974 and was absorbed into neighbouring Leicestershire. The population of Rutland then had to kowtow to the tyrannical Leicestershire County Council (LCC). But the feisty Rutlanders were not going to take this lightly. The Rutland Independence Party (RIP for short) led by Nicholas Barage organised resistance while Rutland Weekend Television (anyone remember RWT??) broadcast subversive propaganda in an attempt to undermine the authority of the LCC’s despotic leader, Percy Soulless. The LCC instigated a clamp down. Thanks to the LCC’s notorious secret police, several Rutland freedom fighters disappeared in the dead of night. They were sent to a concentration camp known as Skegness (known by some as Leicester-by-the-Sea) and forced to read the Leicester Mercury (readily available in Skeggy) in an attempt to brainwash them. Their families were notified of their incarceration by means of saucy postcard. The suppression continued. Leicestershire, famous for Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton and Red Leicester cheeses, banned exports of these dietary staples to Rutland. In retaliation, the RIP threatened to cut-off water supplies from Rutland Water, England’s largest reservoir by surface area (like Nicholas Barage’s ego, not everything in Rutland is small. By the way, Rutland Water is a good place to hire bikes and cycle round). However, that plan backfired when someone pointed out that Rutland Water did not actually supply Leicestershire with its water.

Normanton Church Rutland Water
Rutland’s most famous landmark, Normanton Church on Rutland Water nearly became a watermark(?!). When Rutland Water was created in 1976, the church was thankfully spared.

Nevertheless, the hardy Rutlanders, surviving on black market Lincolnshire sausages and Cheddar cheese, would not give up. The RIP laid low but not idle in the rural idyll that is Rutland and would be forever Rutland, the beauty of its little villages and countryside comparable to those of the Cotswolds but without the hordes of tourists. The RIP planned and executed forays into Leicestershire causing chaos and confusion. Cling film was surreptitiously put over all the toilets in the LCC offices; all the potato peelers were stolen from the Walkers crisp factory and Percy Soulless’s wheelie bin was stolen not once but three times. Things came to a head when the LCC tracked down Nicholas Barage to Oakham Castle and laid siege. The siege lasted until tea time when Barage said he needed to go home to feed his cat and watch Coronation Street. Finally, common sense seemed to prevail when a meeting was held between the leaders of the RIP and LCC in Oakham’s bijou and very ancient Lord Nelson pub which dates back to the 1500s.

Great Hall Oakham Castle
The Great Hall of Oakham Castle, scene of the Great Siege in March 1997. The siege lasted until tea time.

However, the meeting started badly and went downhill from there. Things got heated, people’s parentage was brought into question and other insults were thrown. And, when everyone “stepped outside”, handbags and punches followed the insults. It was the bloodiest battle Oakham had ever seen – Barage suffered a cut lip and then threw a Bloody Mary over Percy Soulless’s Armani suit. That was the final straw. Soulless could stand no more and promised independence for Rutland on condition that Barage let go of his hair, paid the cleaning bill for his suit and returned his wheelie bin. Thus on 1st April 1997, Rutland became an independent county again. Peace reigned and Rutland celebrated. The “disappeared” were returned from Skegness by donkey, bearing sticks of rock, knotted hankies on their heads and burning copies of the Leicester Mercury. The Rutles sang songs in the streets (now do you remember Rutland Weekend Television?? Eric Idle? Neil Innes?). The Rutland Navy was disbanded and its battlecruiser, the Rutland Belle, was converted back to its original pleasure cruiser rôle by removal of its armament (3 x .22 air rifles). The Rutland Belle still plies its trade on Rutland Water today, so after your cycle ride, watersports or wildlife watching, you can enjoy a relaxing cruise on the reservoir then go and explore the delights of this charming little county in the East Midlands.

Rutland Belle
The Rutland Belle in today’s happier, more peaceful times. It never saw action in the War of Independence as its armament (3 x .22 air rifles) did not have the range to hit any part of Leicestershire.


P.S. I do apologise for the appalling drivel in the above post but it was enormous fun writing it. Hopefully, you can separate fact from fiction. If you can’t, please let me know which planet you live on and how I can get there; it is probably a fun place to be. In case there is any doubt, Rutland did cease to be a county in 1974. The story of how it really re-gained county status in 1997 is probably very boring.

P.P.S. Rutland Weekend Television was a TV sketch show with two series broadcast in 1975 and 1976. It was ex-Python Eric Idle’s first television project in the post-Monty Python era with music written by Neil Innes (ex-Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band). The show spawned the Rutles, originally a fictional then actual rock band parodying the Beatles.