Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Strangely Appropriate Treasure Map

You will no doubt recall that in the book "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson, the young Jim Hawkins comes into possession of a treasure map whilst serving tables in the Admiral Benbow Inn. Well, a similar thing happened to me the other day. I was sat in the Rock Tavern enjoying the odd pint of Timothy Taylor Best Bitter when I was handed the above treasure map by my friend and fellow-drinker, Richard. With it came a couple of old newspaper cuttings which told the story of the mill that never was. The treasure, of course, was a historical treasure, the very best kind. Gold gets stolen, silver tarnishes : but historical treasure can continues to shine down the ages.

The story is an interesting one and is summarised in Richard's notes that accompany the map. At the beginning of the 1860s a group of local residents in the Scammonden and Blackburn valley area to the south-west of Halifax established the Scammonden Commercial Cotton Spinning Company to take advantage of the boom in cotton-spinning  that was then taking place. A group of local investors put up money ranging from as little as £10 to £150 or more to finance the project and a lofty six story mill was eventually built. It had abundant water power from the adjacent river and was large enough to house 38,000 spindles according to the company directors.

But like so many enterprises that were planned to take advantage of an existing commercial boom or fashion - one is reminded of James Ward and William Craven of the ill-fated Osset Spa - the timing was all wrong. By the time the foundations were built the lack of cotton imports due to the American Civil War had sent the cotton industry into sharp decline. Nevertheless the Scammonden investors kept on hoping, kept on investing, and kept on building, in the belief that the recession would come to an end before they ran out of money. It didn't. By August 1865 the mill was largely finished, but it was never occupied and the Scammonden Commercial Cotton Spinning Company went into liquidation. Attempts to sell the mill were hampered by the fact that one of the final pieces of the proposed project - a road to link the mill to the rest of the area - was never completed, and the mill building eventually fell into ruin.

According to Richard's notes, if you poke about in the undergrowth you can still find some of the old stonework. His map will help me to locate the site. But I think I will wait until next week before I go exploring. My niece and her husband are coming to stay for a few weeks so I think I will take them along with me as I go in search of my buried treasure. It would seem strangely appropriate. They live out in the British Virgin Islands. If you look out from their balcony you can see a string of small islands amongst which will be Norman Island. And Norman Island, it is believed, was the real geographic inspiration for Stevenson's Treasure Island. As I said, strangely appropriate.

Monday, August 30, 2010

West Yorkshire In Ten Squares : Square 6 - Osset Spa

This project attempts to provide a flavour of what is typical in my home county of West Yorkshire by focusing on ten randomly selected squares from throughout the County. Each of the 500 square metre areas has been chosen by a random number generator and here I explore each of them in images and words.

Spa resorts are difficult things to comprehend at the best of times. The idea that people will travel significant distances in order to soak themselves in some lukewarm, mineral-enriched (or, depending on your point of view, mineral-polluted) spring-water is somewhat counterintuitive : the idea that someone might be tempted to swallow rancid cup-fulls of the bubbling brew is a challenge to credulity. But given that spa resorts exist, the least they could decently do is to locate themselves in some suitable place. The most famous British spa resort is the magnificent city of Bath. I have no problems with that. Buxton, and even Harrogate, share a neo-Georgian paradigm which can be best described by the word "posh". But Osset? 

So when the random number generator decided to send me to square 38 on page 174 my immediate reaction was amazement on discovering that Osset Spa actually existed outside the realms of a drunken game of fantasy location. For those not familiar with West Yorkshire, or Britain, or even Europe, how can I explain this. It is like an Australian discovering that as well as a Sydney Opera House there is also a Wonglepong Opera House. Or an American having to come to terms with the Grand Canyon of Florida. It just doesn't roll off the tongue in the right way, it just doesn't seem to hold water.

And if the truth is told, Osset Spa doesn't hold much water these days. I am reliably informed that if you dig amongst the nettle beds in the fields that border Spa Lane you might find the ruins of the last remain bath house, but your intrepid explorer and guide made do with the more modern interpretation of an old enamel bathtub being used as a cow-feeder.

Natural springs have existed in this area since time-almost-immemorial, but it wasn't the Romans who were the first to exploit their restorative powers, or even the Georgian Dandies. It was a couple of local Victorian chancers called James Ward and William Craven who built the competing Cheltenham Sulphurous Baths and the New Cheltenham Baths on land next to Spa Lane in the early 19th century. The idea of going to Osset (delightfully situated 'twixt Dewsbury and Wakefield) to take the waters never really caught on and even an attempt to convert the area into a more down-market pleasure gardens later in the century ended in the bankruptcy courts.

All that remains these days is the name, and even that can be difficult to spot unless you have been sent there by a random number generator that seems addicted to curiosities. When you get there you find that fairly typical West Yorkshire menu of fields, factories and terraced houses.

Anyone who has traveled through England will have probably been to Osset Spa. Some 20,000 vehicles a day speed up the M1 motorway that takes a bite out of the corner of my square. If you look out of the window of a passing car you might just see the odd factory or two or even the odd nettle patch. But you will have little idea of what might be hidden there. Such is the delight of this varied, history-soaked county that I am privileged to call home.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sepia Saturday 38 : What Else But A Pub

My apologies for being absent for so long : the hiatus went on until it almost became a recess. The Lad has been home, the Good Lady Wife has been on holiday and we have had visitors and therefore things have been busy around here. Next week should see a return to normality so I hope to start posting again soon and catching up with what has been happening to all my fiends. In the meantime here is my early Sepia Saturday contribution. And the subject of my contribution this week? Well, what else but a pub.

Commercial Street and the George Hotel, Brighouse
I bought this postcard showing the George Hotel in Brighouse fairly recently. I suspect the picture must have been taken about 1905, in the days when taking photographs was still unusual enough to attract a small band of onlookers. Those little children in the forefront will now be long gone, but most of the buildings still remain.

The George Hotel was built in 1815 and it originally had a small brew-house to the rear of the building. At the time of my earlier photograph James Dyson is shown as being the owner of the hotel (you can just make out the name under the George Hotel sign). Records show that James Dyson was licensee at the hotel from 1889 to 1915, at which time he moved to the New Inn in Marsden. The Hotel recently had "For Sale" signs up, but I am glad to see that it is now open for business again. In five years time it will be its' bicentenary and I intend to raise a glass in celebration there - if it and if I are still around.

Celebrate the other Sepia Saturday posts by following the links from the Sepia Saturday Blog.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Sepia Saturday 37 : Sweet Issy

Having last week appeared in my own Sepia Saturday post, it is only right that, this week, I feature the person I have shared my life with, my wife Isobel (to me she has always been, and will always be, Issy). This Wednesday we will have been married 37 years, but if Facebook had have existed in 1967, we would have been "in a relationship" since then. We have been together so long, supported each other through so much, shared so many memories and thoughts, that I find it almost impossible to peel apart two separate individuals in my own mind. We are one. That is love. Happy anniversary sweet Issy.

See all the other Sepia Saturday posts by following the links on the Sepia Saturday Blog.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Theme Thursday : I Brush My Teeth With A Tooth Brush

I know I am late for Theme Thursday but it is a tale worth telling. And it is a true tale. Some 25 years ago what had, until then, been a gradual hearing loss suddenly accelerated and within a comparatively short period of time I became more or less totally deaf. Whilst I could still just about hear myself - and believe me, this is by far the most useful function of hearing - I was unable to hear anyone else. It was a traumatic time, not just for me but for all those who were close to me. It was quickly decided - by my unofficial support committee made up of concerned relatives, friends and medical advisers - that I should learn to lip-read as a matter of priority and as soon as I had mastered this simple skill move on to sign language. The one problem with this splendid course of therapy was that I was completely incapable of learning even the rudimentary principles of lip-reading, never mind the more complex rules of sign language. My objections were swiftly swept aside and I was enrolled into a lip-reading class at the local college.

The instructor was a rather sweet middle aged lady who had taken up good works to fill the somewhat dark winter afternoons that characterised Sheffield in the 1980s. Her class was made up of rather sweet middle aged ladies who had taken up the mantle of education in order to carry out good works at some stage in the future. And then there was me. I was the only man in the group, the only person under the age of forty, the only person who could not master the basic principles of lip-reading, and, interestingly enough, the only person who was deaf (why the others had gone to lip-reading classes I never managed to discover). I would sit at the back of the class, with a permanent look of embarrassed perplexity, and daydream about pints of beer and similar stuff. Meanwhile the rest of the class would do exercises.

The exercises comprised of the teacher choosing a common theme or subject which she would announce to the class (you can see how the ability to hear was a distinct advantage in the learning process). She would then silently mouth a series of phrases and, where appropriate make little actions to provide an extra clue to their meaning. She would point to a member of the class and they would have to say out loud what the particular phrase was (again you get an idea of the value of being able to hear). I would try to keep up with what was happening and desperately hope that the dreaded finger would not point in my direction. 

On the day in question the chosen theme was announced (to this day I am not sure what it was) and the first phrase was mouthed with all the flourish of a Shakespearean actress. The accompanying actions (a finger pushed along the front of the teeth) meant that even I worked out the phrase. The finger pointed towards a little lady on the front row who always seemed to be knitting during the lessons and had the remarkable ability to knit one, pearl one and lip-read one at the same time. "I brush my teeth with a tooth brush" she must have said because the teacher smiled and gave a cute little clap of her hands. She then started to run her fingers through her hair and mouthed out what was obviously "I brush my hair with a hair brush". This time the finger was directed at a shy lady who rarely spoke except to provide the word perfect answer at the prompt of the pointing finger. The third phrase was more problematic and was accompanied by a rather delicate brushing motion and a look of deep satisfaction on her face. 

The dreaded finger swept around to me and I desperately tried to match up the actions with the few mouth shapes I had managed to recognise. As the entire class stared in my direction I tried to find a solution to the puzzle before me. And then I had it. It was so simple once I had made the breakthrough. It was obvious. In a loud and slightly triumphal voice I shouted out "I brush my thighs with a pastry brush". 

I never attended the class again. It was the straw that broke the camels back. To this day, whenever I see anyone with a pastry brush, brushing milk or egg-white onto their freshly made pies I think of that poor lady and the shock on her face when I made that particular accusation about her private life. 

For other excellent Theme Thursday posts please visit the Theme Thursday Blog.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Hiatus, Some Clouds, And A Prize-Winning Beauty

It is days since I posted to the blog and days since I was able to get around and visit all my favourite blogs. There is no single reason for this unfortunate hiatus, but just as a million insignificant water droplets can bind together to form a cloud of almost impenetrable solidity, minor events seem to have been stacking up in my world and detaching me from my routine. The clouds should lift later this week. I will return. In the meantime here is a picture I took of one of the prize-winning beauties at last weeks' Halifax Agricultural Show.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sepia Saturday 36 : Finding Myself

Time moves on and I become part of my own Sepia Saturday quest.
I would like to say I remember the moment the shutter froze forever this slice of time.
But I don't.
That is undoubtedly my mother, I will remember that smile as long as I live.
And that is my brother : active, eager, inquisitive.
And, in the pram, that must be me.
The same me, that sixty years later looks back and thinks he sees a stranger,
But really finds himself.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

West Yorkshire In Ten Squares : Square 5 - Skelmanthorpe

This project attempts to provide a flavour of what is typical in my home county of West Yorkshire by focusing on ten randomly selected squares from throughout the County. Each of the 500 square metre areas has been chosen by a random number generator and here I explore each of them in images and words.

For Square Five, the random number machine sends me south, to the southern borders of West Yorkshire, to the land where the weaving shed meets the coal seam. We are between the villages of Skelmanthorpe and Scissett in the borough of Kirklees. Skelmanthorpe is an ancient place : the village is reputed to have been established by Viking invaders in the 9th century. By the time of the Doomsday Book in 1066 it is described, rather unflatteringly, as follows : "In Turulsetone and Berceworde and Scelmertorp, Alric and Aldene had nine carcucates of land to be taxed, and there may be five ploughs there. Ilbert now has it, and it is waste. Value in King Edwards time 4 pounds. Wood pasture one mile long and as much broad". By contrast, the neighbouring village of Scissett is a more recent and a more artificial creation, having been created in 1830 by two brothers, Joseph and George Norton, to provide housing for workers in their new woolen mill.

My square contains neither of the village centres : Skelmanthorpe is to the west, Scissett to the east. But it is rich in other ways, containing some lush pastures, some fine houses, a pub, and, the diamond in the square crown, a graveyard. It might be neither here nor there in terms of village life and industry, but urban life and industry make up only a small percentage of even an industrial county like West Yorkshire. Most of the time, most of the places are neither here nor there.

The graveyard is designated as Skelmanthorpe Cemetery and must have been a fairly recent development as none of the graves date back much more than 120 years. There was a great wave of cemetery building in the last decade of the nineteenth century as people began to fear that burial spaces would soon run out. Cremation wasn't legalised until 1902 and even then was slow to get public support, so at the turn of the century, most towns and villages were on the look out for parcels of land that could be given over to the dead and departed. 

Despite their somewhat doleful function, I have always been attracted to graveyards and can think of few better ways of spending a summer morning than wandering around through the sloping headstones and the wind-worn memorials. 

It took a considerable effort to leave the cemetery behind. It might have been easier if the pub across the road had been open - can there be a finer combination that a dusty graveyard and a quiet country pub - but the Windmill was shut. Not permanently shut I should add, from what I can gather the pub remains an active part of the local community (just take a look at its' Facebook page if you need confirmation). It is another of those places I need to flag up for a later visit (or perhaps my next series will be ten randomly chosen Yorkshire pubs!). The pub itself is neatly sandwiched between a surviving Giles Gilbert Scott telephone box at the front and a fine bowling green at the back.

Besides the graves, the beer mugs, and the bowls, the square offers a few houses, a lot of green fields and a handful of appreciative cows.

From the Windmill Inn, two roads radiate out like the tendrils of some tarmacadam plant, both going to Scissett in their own sweet ways. From the bottom road, Highbridge Lane, you have good views to the south which include fine mature woodland and grazing pastures that almost make you wish you were a cow. From the northern tendril, Busker Lane, you get magnificent views towards Emley and the striking Emley Moor Television mast. In both directions you are constantly reminded that West Yorkshire is not just a place of mills and moors, woods and water, but also a place of fields and pasture. A green place. A beautiful place.

That little square, that little parcel of land that is neither Skelmanthorpe nor Scissett, that is neither here nor there, is a fine place. If this is typical of West Yorkshire, I have no arguments. None at all.

To read the other installments of this series follow these links :

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Pickin' On A Wishbone From The Frigidaire

Have you ever noticed how many song lyrics feature the word Frigidaire? It's uncanny and the result, I suspect, of an active and successful product placement department in Frigidaire's advertising agency back in the 1930s and 40s. Here are just a few I have come across recently (and be warned, once you start looking out for them they are all over the place) :

Two Sleepy People (Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser)
Here we are, in the cozy chair, 
Pickin' on a wishbone, from the frigidaire,
Two sleepy people with nothing to say but too much in love to break away.

I'm Through With Love (Gus Kahn, Matt Malneck & Fud Livingston)
I've locked my heart, I keep my feelings there
I have stocked my heart like an icy Frigidaire
For I need to care for no one
That's why I'm
thru with love.

I'm Going To Move To The Outskirts Of Town (Roy Jacobs & William Weldon)
I'm gonna tell you baby
We're gonna move away from here
I don't want no ice, man
I'm gonna get me a Frigidaire.

I am sure there are many others and I confidently expect a more than usually active comments section with suitable nominations. There may be more recent songs that I don't know about, but it does seem that lyrical product placement may be a dying art. In my contribution to its resurrection, I have rewritten the first verse of Cole Porters' classic song "You're The Tops". If any of the companies concerned would like to show their appreciation, I can be contacted in the usual way.

You're The Tops (Cole Porter & Alan Burnett)
You're the tops,
You're an Apple iPhone,
You're the tops,
You're a Gucci Gemstone,
You're a flat-screen TV, made by LG, there
You're a Big Mac breakfast, a Toyota Lexus
Tesco Camembert.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Some Thoughts On A Virtual Gathering

Some days I have a plan. Some days I don't. Some days my blog posts are part of a long-running project with some aim in sight, however strange and inconsequential that aim might be. Some days they are not. Some days they are thought doodles. Experiments in the land of what if. What if I take a collection of faces from some recently acquired Victorian Carte de Visites and bring them together? No digging. No searching for clues as to names, locations or histories. Just invite them to a virtual party. Throw them in the same room and leave them to it. Will No. 9 fall in love with No. 8? Will No. 4 take an instant dislike to No. 6? Will No. 1 discover her long-lost older sister in No. 3? Will this odd collection of faces, today brought together for the first time in human history, somehow sit at peace with each other and create an image that eases the passage into a new week? Perhaps. Some days it works, some days it doesn't.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Sepia Saturday 35 : Fowler Found

You may remember that a few weeks ago I was trying to identify my mothers' Uncle Fowler Beanland from his postcard and photograph collection. The rather hit and miss method I was using was to identify which face appeared most frequently in the photographs and assume that this might be the elusive Fowler B. I had hoped that I might be able to get the new version of Picasa to do the job for me - it has rather neat facial recognition software built in - but I never quite worked out how to do this. But, the problem is solved. Today I can launch a picture of Fowler to the world. Exclusive. Fowler is found.

Whilst sorting through some junk yesterday I found the old album his postcard collection had originally been kept in. About twenty years ago I took the postcards out of the crumbling dog-eared album in order to protect them and I just assumed that I had taken them all out. But on carefully examination it appears that I had left a few in place as they had been glued to the inside cover of the album. One is a handwritten note which sets out the origin of both the collection and the album.

The other is the picture of the proud, solid, gritty, flat-capped Yorkshire man which appears at the head of this post. Surely this must be Fowler himself. Surely Fowler has been found.

Having found Fowler you can join me in finding all the other Sepia Saturday 35 posts by following the links on the SEPIA SATURDAY BLOG.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

A Hero Of Old, Sat Astride A Brown Horse

Sometimes I surprise myself with the lengths I will go to in order to fulfill a Theme Thursday challenge. My willingness to make sacrifices, my overriding sense of duty, my resolute acceptance of my mission should be held up as examples to all. In better days my story would have been serialised on the inner pages of The Eagle comic under the generic heading "Men Who Helped Build The Empire". In years to come people would talk with pride of the exploits of Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Scott of the Antarctic, and Alan Burnett. What did I do, you may ask. I went to the pub, I will reply.

Not any pub. Oh, that would have been easy. That would have been a challenge for a mere mortal. No, to meet the challenge set, the pub would need a "brown" somewhere in the title. I could have set out for the Brown Cow in the centre of Halifax .... but that closed in 1863. The Brown Cow in Elland rose up to public house heaven in 1934, followed with indecent haste by a whole succession of Brown Cows in King Cross, Ripponden and Sowerby Bridge. It was almost as though some dreadful disease - some alcoholic BSE - was laying waste to all the cows. I went in search of a Brown Bear but one couldn't be found within the County and any hopes that someone had named a pub the Brown Ferret or the Brown Chihuahua were dashed with a cruelty that was almost palpable. But then, after hours of weary searching, just as I was about to give up, just as I was about to settle for a cup of brown tea, then I found the Brown Horse.

According to the sign, it is Yorkshire's only Brown Horse. The fact that there may be other Brown Horses in other counties meant nothing to me. Try telling a dying man who falls upon a desert oasis that it is no big deal because there is another oasis a few hundred miles away. For me, the Brown Horse was a sign of salvation on the road to Keighley. For me, for just a few precious moments, it was home. As I went inside and ordered a brown ale (Newcastle Brown - creamy and nutty taste, fresh and malty) I recalled those famous words written by my good friend Martin Hodges

One of the courageous few,
Alan traveled each lonely mile.
In desperate search of the perfect brew
Wood cask, brass tap and porous spile.

For other courageous attempts to match up to this week's theme, go to the THEME THURSDAY BLOG.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Looking In The Mirror And Seeing The Poetic Young Blogger

I have a feeling that I have said this before, but I will say it again. Indeed I will carry on saying it until someone takes heed of what I am saying. I will repeat myself again and again, without rest or repose, until the cows return home, unpack their suitcases, settle down for the night by a warm fire, and nod off in front of yet another repeat episode of All Creatures Great And Small. I will say it with a certainty that is unsullied by doubt and untouched by even the faintest possibility of contradiction. Charles Dickens invented blogging. There, I have said it, but just in case those momentous words somehow got lost amongst the lettered apostles that walk with them, let me say it again : Charles Dickens invented blogging.

Whilst this is not the place to assemble evidence or construct fine arguments, all you need to do is to reflect on how Dickens worked.  Those stories divided up into neat little weekly packages were nothing but the first entries in some Victorian meme. Those descriptions in which the prose drips with vibrant words are his submission to Theme Thursday or Creative Tuesday or even Sepia Saturday. Dickens may not have known it, but he was a born blogger. Dickens may not be celebrated for it, but he invented blogging. So let us imagine CD's blog post for today. Let us imagine that he was describing the typical blogger : describing you, describing me, describing himself. The following few sentences are taken from the chapter on "The Poetic Young Gentleman" from "Sketches by Boz" All I have done is substitute "the blogger" for "the poetic young gentleman". It's like looking in a mirror!

"The favourite attitude of the blogger is lounging on a sofa with his eyes fixed upon the ceiling, or sitting bolt upright in a high-backed chair, staring with very round eyes at the opposite wall. When he is in one of these positions, his mother, who is a worthy, affectionate old soul, will give you a nudge to bespeak your attention without disturbing the abstracted one, and whisper with a shake of the head, that John’s imagination is at some extraordinary work or other, you may take her word for it". 

"The blogger is fond of quoting passages from his favourite authors, who are all of the gloomy and desponding school. He has a great deal to say too about the world, and is much given to opining, especially if he has taken anything strong to drink, that there is nothing in it worth living for. He gives you to understand, however, that for the sake of society, he means to bear his part in the tiresome play, manfully resisting the gratification of his own strong desire to make a premature exit; and consoles himself with the reflection, that immortality has some chosen nook for himself and the other great spirits whom earth has chafed and wearied".

"When the blogger makes use of adjectives, they are all superlatives. Everything is of the grandest, greatest, noblest, mightiest, loftiest; or the lowest, meanest, obscurest, vilest, and most pitiful. He knows no medium: for enthusiasm is the soul of poetry; and who so enthusiastic as a blogger?" 

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Wentworth Connections

Are connections a function of age? The kind of connections I am talking about are those chance connections of memory and experience, those synapses of daily life which interrupt your train of thought and tempt you to go wandering down some separate but connected line of thought. As I get older I seem to experience the phenomenon more and more, but this is probably due to a greater accumulation of memories : there are so many events, people, places, sounds and images filed away inside my brain that it is a more than fertile ground for connections and distractions. I am currently reading Catherine Bailey's quite excellent book "Black Diamonds : The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty", so let me use this to illustrate what I mean.

The book tells the true story of the Fitzwilliam Family of Wentworth in what is now South Yorkshire. Their family home (until  the 1980s when it was sold), Wentworth Woodhouse is a magnificent eighteenth century country house with the longest facade of any country house in Europe. The sight of this frontage is truly breathtaking and it is a sight I am slightly familiar with (Connection No. 1) as it is one of the places I used to occasionally teach at in the early 1980s. At the time, the main part of the building was being used by Sheffield Polytechnic and for an entire term I used to teach there once a week. I will never forget the first time I drove down the long driveway and saw the spectacular proportioned and columned building, only later to discover that this was merely the stables and the main house was a further half mile down the drive. I still find it rather hard to believe that I would walk those marbled corridors and deliver dull lectures in those finely proportioned drawing rooms. As I remember the house and its gardens I recall that the family of one of my close friends were gardeners on the staff at Wentworth (Connection No. 2) in the early part of the twentieth century. What I am not sure is whether they worked at Wentworth Woodhouse or Wentworth Castle which is about six or seven miles away and which was owned by another branch of the Wentworth family. I must ask her the next time I see her.

Part III of Catherine Bailey's book tells the story of the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Yorkshire in July 1912. During the visit they stayed at Wentworth Woodhouse as the guests of William, the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam (or Billy FitzBilly as he was known locally). The intention was for the royal couple to visit what was then the industrial heartland of the British Empire, including the steelworks of nearby Sheffield and the South Yorkshire coalfield which surrounded Wentworth (and which, coincidentally, was mainly owned by Billy FitzBilly and his family). The visit was overshadowed by the dreadful mining disaster which occurred on the second day of the Royal visit at the nearby Cadeby Colliery in which 88 miners were killed. The book tells of the later investigation into the disaster and the cold-blooded attitude to the loss of life of people such as the manager of Cadeby Pit, W. H. Chambers. As soon as I saw the name, connective alarm bells begun to ring. 

At about the time I was teaching at Wentworth Woodhouse I would often stop on my way home to Sheffield at a small collectables shop in Rotherham which sold, amongst other things, old postcards. It was here that I bought a series of postcards which had been sent at the end of the nineteenth century to a certain May Chambers of Sheffield. Over the last year or so I have tried to find out a little more about May Chambers from census records, but have only discovered that she was a young school teacher and that her father - William Hoole Chambers - was a mine manager! (Connection No. 3).  Could this possibly be the same W H Chambers who was manager of Cadeby in 1912? At the time of writing it is looking as though the answer is "no" as the dates don't seem to match. But connections don't need solid evidence : speculation and possibility provide just as secure foundations.

As I read the Bailey book I couldn't help thinking of the privileged and wasteful life of the British aristocracy. The book is just as much about the fall of a dynasty as it is about its rise. Wentworth Woodhouse was eventually sold in the late 1980s (amazingly, the guide price at the auction was just £1.5 million) and the Fitzwilliam line more or less died out with the death of the 10th Earl in 1979. Perhaps the great hope for the continuation of the family had been the 8th Earl, Peter Fitzwilliam, who had died with his mistress in a plane crash in 1948. As the last book I read had been Edward Kennedy's Autobiography, True Compass, I couldn't help but compare the fortunes of the British and the American aristocracy. In terms of wealth and privilege there are many similarities between the Fitzwilliams and the Kennedys, in terms of drive, ambition and talent there seemed to be so few. If Peter had lived and gone on to have heirs it might have been different. At the time of his death he was planning to divorce his then wife and marry his mistress. But they were both killed in that plane crash. And the mistress? None other than Kathleen Kennedy, sister of John F, Bobby and Ted (Connection No. 4).

Black Friar

For a time, during the late 1970s, I had a job leading parties of foreign visitors on tours of historic London pubs. One of my favourite sto...