Monday 27 May 2013

Some Old Pubs

This is The Free Trade pub in Berwick.  The photo was taken at the time when it was hanging out the flags for the 'Jubilympics'. A man from CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, recently gave a talk here and told us that this is the only pub in Berwick that's on their list of historic pub interiors that ought to be preserved. I'm not much of a pub-goer myself and I'm afraid I've never been inside it.  But the artist Brita Granstrom has, and below are her paintings of Brenda the landlady at work.

I have never heard anybody comment on the significance of the name The Free Trade. I shouldn't think its regulars spend much time discussing the finer points of the history of economic ideas. But the name itself is a real period piece, preserving the memory of the bitter 19th century debates over protectionism versus free trade which culminated with the triumph of the latter and the abolition of the 'corn laws', resulting in cheaper food for the masses.

A great deal of nostalgia seems to be attached to old pubs and that goes for their names as well. One of the oldest pubs in Alnwick was called the Black Swan. Allegedly Robert Burns once stayed there on a trip south of the border in the course of his duties as an excise officer. So when in 2001 it was taken over by a chain who decided to modernise it in order to attract a younger clientele, there was quite a kerfuffle. There was an even bigger kerfuffle when it was announced that its name was being changed to The Hairy Lemon. The local council was concerned that this moniker might have an obscene reference. The reports of their deliberations, during which nobody ever dared to say exactly what they thought the hairy lemon shaped object referenced might be, were small masterpieces of unintentional comedy. Alas, they failed to make a case for forbidding the name change on grounds of decency and it went through.  But even this was not enough to make the pub viable during the present gloomy times for traditional pubs, and in 2012 it closed down, taking both its names into history.

EDIT  Just discovered that this pub has now re-opened under its original name of the Black Swan. Hoorah!

Tuesday 21 May 2013

A Wartime Plane Crash in the Cheviots

This is a photo of a memorial erected in a lonely spot in the Cheviot hills in 1968 by an Alnwick boys' club to the memory of the American airmen who died when their plane crashed in that place. My late father helped out with the club and his photos and other records of the unveiling of this memorial are now in my possession. This picture gives a good sense of the bleakness and wildness of these hills, which straddle the English-Scottish border. It is easy to understand why quite a number of Allied aircraft crashed into them - flying with primitive instruments, disorientated by bad weather, exhausted and nerve-frayed by repeated missions.

In recent years the subject of plane crashes in the Cheviots has attracted considerable attention and at least one book has been published on the subject. There is now a rather grander memorial to all the wartime flyers who died in the hills. Back in 1968 though nothing much had been done in that way and the Reivers Club of Alnwick were pioneers. While exploring the area they found traces of the wreckage of a plane, dug up the rest of it, investigated the story behind the crash and decided to set up the plane's broken and bent propeller as a memorial. This involved hauling bags of cement for 1,300 feet uphill from the nearest road. Try getting young people today to do that.

The propeller came from a Flying Fortress which crashed in December 1944 while returning from a bombing mission over Germany which was aborted because of fog. The pilot was flying in white-out blizzard conditions, following a weak direction signal to their home base in Cambridgeshire, when the side of a hill suddenly loomed in front of him. Two members of the crew died on impact. The seven survivors made haste to abandon the plane, mindful that it was still carrying a full load of bombs which could explode at any minute. They became separated in the fog. Three of them managed to reach a farmhouse, where they narrowly escaped being shot by the occupants, who thought they were Germans. Once he realised his mistake the farmer lent his motorbike to one of the Americans and he was able to drive to the nearest town and arrange for an ambulance to take them all to the RAF hospital near Berwick. The other four fliers, more badly hurt, had taken shelter from the storm as best they could on the exposed hillside by crawling into a ditch and wrapping themselves in a parachute. They were discovered by a collie dog called Sheila who belonged to two local shepherds who had heard the crash and gone out to search for survivors. The shepherds helped the airmen to the home of one of them and his wife tended to their injuries while his daughter walked several miles in the blizzard to reach a telephone and summon the RAF ambulance. In the 1940s ordinary people did not have phones - indeed they were still not that common in Northumberland in the 1960s.

The story of how the four men's lives were saved by a sheepdog captured the imagination of the public on both sides of the Atlantic and Sheila became the only 'civilian' dog during the war to be awarded a special animal medal, shown here.The two shepherds were also given medals, but the public was much less interested in that.

The PR potential of the story was recognised by the Honeywell company when the boys sent it a switch of its manufacture that they had found among the wreckage of the plane, which after more than twenty years buried in English mud still worked. The company arranged for the memorial to be unveiled in a state-of-the-art transatlantic ceremony. The son of one of the crew members who had died pressed this switch, suitably restored, in New York and a cover in the colours of the USAAF fell off the memorial in the heart of the remote Cheviot hills. This necessitated laying several miles of cable. A bunch of notables in the States made speeches praising the efforts of the local Brits in aiding American fighters during the war and commemorating them now. In the days before the internet it must have been quite something for a group of young lads from Northumberland to introduce themselves to a couple of US generals speaking live from New York. Here is the timetable for the event. My father once remarked on how pleased he was with his photo of the fly-past, but sadly I haven't been able to find it.

P.S.  I have now given these papers and photos to the local archives in Berwick, so if you want to see them, call in and ask Linda, the ever helpful archivist. 

Monday 13 May 2013

The Northumbrian Origins of a Great American Institution

I had vowed that no picture of Alnwick Castle would ever appear on this blog. The Percy family's highly efficient PR operation does not need any help from me, and I would rather spread the word about the lesser known aspects of life in Northumberland. However, this post really does need to be illustrated by a picture of the ancestral home of the Percys, so I have compromised. Rather than the standard tourist view of the Castle from the northern approach to the town, pretentiously known as 'the Canaletto view' because the artist of that name once painted it, I bring you a photo taken one wintry day from a freezing council allotment with the back side of the Castle just visible in the distance. This seems appropriate to my subject.

The Smithsonian Institution, the world renowned group of museums and research institutes in Washington D.C., was founded by James Smithson, who was an illegitimate son of a Duke of Northumberland. The Smithsonian's own website includes a full account of the origins of both James and his foundation. And one of its staff, Heather Ewing, has written a whole biography of Smithson which includes an account of his Percy paternity and his possible bitterness about his neglect by his natural father.

The story is remarkably little known in the area the Dukes call home. I grew up in Alnwick and I was unaware of it until I read it in The Encyclopedia of North-East England, an invaluable tome produced a few years ago by Professor Richard Lomas.  Reeling with disbelief, I looked it up in a few other places and discovered that it seems to be known everywhere in the world except North Northumberland. I'm not sure why Alnwick Castle's publicity machine does not make more use of this story, as it is normally very keen to work any American angle on its history to pull in more free-spending American tourists. Is the family still embarrassed about it after all this time?

James was born to Elizabeth Macie in Paris in the middle of the 18th century and initially took his mother's surname. His father was the 1st Duke of Northumberland, born Hugh Smithson, who changed his surname to Percy after he married into the family and was later bumped up the aristocratic ladder to a dukedom by a government that needed his vote. In adult life James changed his surname at the request of his mother, who seems to have kept trying to get his father to take some notice of him. Despite never having set foot in the United States James left all his wealth to the government of that country to be used for educational purposes, motivated it seems by sympathy with the egalitarian and anti-aristocratic ideals of the USA. He wanted to make his own name more famous than that of the Percys, and he succeeded in that in the most satisfying way. Personally I would be even happier about it if he had immortalised the name of his mother instead, but then it was she who wanted him to change his name. (And anyway, isn't Macy's a department store? That might have been confusing.)

I was already planning to write a blog post on this subject when I heard an item on the PM programme about a proposal to introduce gender equality in the peerage. Now that the royal family have decreed that Kate's baby will be first in line of succession to the throne regardless of sex, some radical peer was earnestly telling Radio 4 that inheritance of aristocratic titles should now also pass to the first born, boy or girl. I think this is the biggest piece of humbug I've ever heard on PM, and that's saying something. What about the gross inequalities of wealth and power passed simply by birth - legitimate birth only - down to the umpteenth generation of descendants of those who managed to blag a peerage a few centuries back? Are we actually going to care less about this if the wealth and power is being enjoyed by a woman? Give me a break.

Saturday 4 May 2013

County Council Elections: Memories of 1979

Last Saturday afternoon I was strolling around Berwick when a man who looked vaguely familiar walked out of the church hall and across the car park. Could it be ... surely not ... yes!  It's Vince Cable!  The finance spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, a highly placed cog in the coalition government in Westminster, walking round the streets at this far end of England just like a regular guy! I didn't want to behave like a 'pap' so I can't bring you a photo of this memorable sight. I also managed to restrain myself from running across the road to tell him that I've read his book and think it's pretty good, but as for the naff cover picture, really, what was he thinking?

I'd already got an inkling of the seriousness with which the Liberal Democrats were taking the elections to Northumberland County Council (no elections in Scotland this time) from the fact that my mail box was so stuffed with their electoral leaflets that there was hardly any room left for real letters. Spotting Mr Cable was an indicator of a whole new level of seriousness. And subsequently finding out that Nick Clegg, the party leader, was in Berwick at the same time ... well, that made me reflect that I haven't seen any party machine put this much effort into an election in North Northumberland since 1979. I should point out that I haven't been living in the area continuously since the 1970s so I've missed a few elections, but in my personal recollection I haven't felt this courted by a party since the local Liberals successfully resisted the national swing to the Conservatives in the general election which made Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister.  Yes, I was very young in those days, thank you for your astonishment.

Apparently at that age I had no scruples about behaving like the paparazzi - possibly because the term had not yet been invented - and I was very proud of this snap of David Steel, then party leader of the Liberals, descending from his Battle Bus in Alnwick market place, pursued it seems by a TV sound man. For the benefit of overseas and younger readers I should explain that in the 1980s the Liberals merged with a short-lived political experiment called the Social Democratic Party and gained nothing much except a cumbersome new name. The building in the background is the Northumberland Hall, an 18th century assembly rooms, now much favoured for coffee mornings. In the 1970s it was even rarer for highly placed politicians to travel so far from London than it is now, and local excitement at this visit was intense. Though to be fair, I seem to remember that the Conservatives fought back by despatching William Whitelaw northwards.

A real piece of Seventies retro, isn't it? That shade of orange hasn't been in fashion since. The Liberal Democrat party colour now is plain old yellow -possibly because they don't want to be mistaken for partisans of the Northern Irish Unionist cause, which nowadays would be a distinctly unwelcome form of confusion here on the English-Scottish border.

Alan Beith is the Liberal Democrat MP for the Berwick upon Tweed constituency, which includes Alnwick - it's the largest constituency by area in England, because the population here is so sparse. He's been our MP continuously since 1973, since the downfall of Lord Lambton, the previous incumbent, which I mentioned in a previous post (here). He works very hard for the area and people here tend to prioritise that over party policies. Unfortunately for them, everything they could throw at it was not enough for the LibDems to hold on to Northumberland County Council. They lost overall control to Labour. UKIP did not field any candidates up here. When they do, that really will be, in the term now being bandied about, a game-changer.