Tuesday 25 June 2013

An Earlier Percy Wedding

My previous post may have led some readers to believe that there has been enmity between the Housbys and the Percys for generations. Not so!  My grandparents were present in Westminster Abbey for an equally spectacular Percy wedding back in 1939. My grandfather was chairman of the local council at the time and in this capacity got to go to many interesting events.  Lady Diana Percy was married to Viscount Brackley in grand style only a few months before the outbreak of World War II.

The yellow card below is the golden ticket that actually got you into the Abbey, the larger white document is the formal invitation. On the inside are directions to Syon House, where the reception was held. This is the Northumberlands' official London residence, though it's actually in Brentford. Well, that's what this 1939 invitation says, anyway, though in modern times the rather downmarket associations of Brentford have led the custodians of the house to prefer to describe it as 'in West London' or 'just across the Thames from Kew Gardens'.

The lower picture in this newspaper cutting shows an elderly woman wearing the traditional costume of Cullercoats, an old fishing village that is now a suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne. My grandmother has written on one of the cuttings that they saw Mrs Donkin seated in the Abbey in her fishwife's outfit. One wonders what the high society guests made of her. She must have been one of the last women to wear this costume 'for best'.

The imminence of war lends poignancy to these mementoes of a happy occasion. My grandmother has also written on the cutting that the wedding reception at Syon House was the last time they saw the young Duke of Northumberland, brother of the bride. "He was killed at Dunkirk."

Sunday 23 June 2013

Ça Ira

I can't believe I don't have any photos of St Michael's Church, Alnwick, but I don't. Apparently it was such a taken-for-granted part of my life for so long that I never bothered to photograph it. So instead I have scanned the cover of an old guidebook to show you what it looks like. This serves the additional purpose of proving that my family has been involved with St Michael's for a long time. Observe the pre-decimal price.

I was christened in St Michael's church and the funeral services of both my parents and of many other people I was close to were held there. So as far as I'm concerned, this is my family church. The Duke of Northumberland, his heirs, successors and hangers-on, are at liberty to regard it as their family church as well, even though their attendance is generally limited to turning up on Christmas Day and sitting in a row in the special ducal seats down the side of the chancel, at a right-angle to the rest of the congregation and featuring comfortable cushions and fancy wood carving that the rest of us have to do without. And since they are formally resident in the parish they are entitled to hold their weddings there, even if they do spend a lot of time out of the parish, at their London residence or at their private home in the Scottish Borders, purchased reportedly as a bolt-hole to escape the visitors to Alnwick Castle whom they expect the rest of the town's inhabitants to welcome with open arms.

Do not, however, expect me to be unequivocally thrilled when one of the Percy daughters gets married in St Michael's church wearing a dress that I'm guessing probably cost as much as some families in the parish earn in a year and invites half the royal family to be her guests. All I know so far about yesterday's 'society wedding' in Alnwick is taken from grudging peeks at the website of the Northumberland (for which read Alnwick) Gazette, which in relation to the Percy family habitually displays a degree of fawning adulation for an unelected local leader seldom seen in a newspaper outside North Korea. If you want to see the pictures, go ahead, click on this link, because you won't see any of them on this blog. During the preparation (for which read massive hype and tourist promotion) for the wedding the paper was reporting that the family hoped the whole town would see it as 'their' wedding. Given the level of security necessitated by the number of royals present, I can't see that this can mean much except that they were all encouraged to stand for hours in indifferent weather waiting to cheer as the procession of their betters walked past. But to be fair, there was a firework display at night to reward them. The ducal family are well known locally for their fondness for very large, very loud and very late firework displays.

A few years back the oldest Percy son modelled for a statue of Harry Hotspur, the scion of the family immortalised by Shakespeare. I made a point of being out of town for the unveiling ceremony. In fact I went to Paris for a few days, where I stood in the Place de la Bastille and sang a few snatches of  La Marseillaise and Ça Ira, two songs of the French Revolution. (Don't worry, the Parisian traffic was far too noisy for anyone to be able to hear me.)  Since then I have taken the more constructive step of  leaving Alnwick permanently. At the time Lady Melissa was walking down the aisle I was sitting in a park in Berwick enjoying performances by a string of great local bands, congratulating myself on my good sense in moving out of the feudal zone.

When my mother died some close friends of our family planted a tree in her memory in the churchyard of St Michael's. I like to think that some of the HRH-es may have thrown it a passing glance. I'm sure it will grow better after the light of the royal countenances has shone upon it.

P.S.  Some time after writing this post I visited my friend Margaret in Alnwick. She is a church warden at St Michael's and in this capacity she could have been present at the wedding service if she had so wished. Instead, she announced that she was sure her fellow wardens could manage without her and took herself off to visit her family on the other side of the country for the weekend of the celebrations. Respect!

Saturday 15 June 2013

Beautiful Spittal

This week I've decided to big up Spittal, a village semi-detached from Berwick that never seems to get as much recognition as it deserves. It has one of the best beaches on the Northumbrian coast and yet hardly anyone is cashing in on this. The sum total of the facilities available in Spittal, other than pubs, is one cafe, a shop which is closed on Sundays, and one grossly inadequate set of public toilets. Meanwhile Berwick itself is awash with coffee outlets, probably  more than it can sustain. If I had a wodge of capital to invest in a business, I would be setting up a rival cafe in Spittal.

Spittal Gala is taking place this weekend and the publicity for it in the local paper made me think. The paper commented that this annual festival is usually assumed to have its origins in the fishing industry, as with the Tweedmouth salmon festival, but that in fact 'galas' are always associated with mining. And Spittal was indeed a mining town in the past. A 'directory' of Northumberland published in 1855 says that the inhabitants of Spittal are 'mostly fishermen and pitmen'.  This is a valuable reminder that mining was not confined to stereotypical 'it's grim up north' style towns. In some parts of Northumberland the coal seams extend under the sea and so some pit villages are on the coast. Spittal used to have extensive factory operations as well, but the big chimney seen in the photo is now the only survivor of those. It is a much loved landmark, the sign of being back home when seen from the window of the train. Certain interest groups would like to knock it down and cover the whole of the Point with houses. N-O-O-O!  Another suggestion is to cover the chimney in some sort of shiny cladding so it looks like a space rocket. I quite like that idea.

 The heritage industry (which, as regular readers will have gathered, I dislike) seems to have trouble processing such conflicting images. A place can be branded as a picturesque fishing village or a family-fun seaside resort or a former mining community or a former industrial site, but not all of them. Spittal is a wonderful miniature example of how real communities just do anything they need to do to get by and have fun whenever they can as well.  Shine on, you crazy chimney.

Friday 7 June 2013


This is a picture of the exhibition mounted last summer by Berwick Civic Society. They put one on every year and the theme changes each time. Because of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, last year's theme was 'coronations and jubilees'. This week we were supposed to be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the coronation of the present queen, as opposed to her accession to the throne, so it seemed appropriate to produce these photos now. I have to say that this particular anniversary appears to have generated no interest whatsoever among the general public. We were all Jubilee-ed out last year.

One of the items on display (because I put it there) was this special coronation edition of the Northumberland volume of the series usually known as The King's England, although the title had of course just been changed to The Queen's England. A copy of this book was presented to schoolchildren in Northumberland by the county's Education Committee, with an uplifting message reminding them of their 'duty to Her Majesty and to the beautiful county of Northumberland'.  If you click on this picture to enlarge it you can read the message.

The subject of coronations has some special interest in a town which faces both ways, regarding itself as part of both England and Scotland. The monarch's claim to the throne of Scotland is arguably separate from her or his claim to the throne of England. The two monarchies were united in one person in 1603 but a vocal body of constitutional opinion maintains that the two thrones and the claims to them are still separate. Because of this many Scots would like to see the next monarch crowned in Edinburgh in a ceremony additional to his coronation in London. If Scotland has by then opted for independence from the Rest of the United Kingdom, no matter, the monarchy will not be affected. Charles will still be King of Scotland until his Scottish subjects hold another referendum and decide to become a republic. Or, of course, to re-install the Stuart line which was ejected from the throne in 1688 for being too Catholic and replaced with the Protestant Hanoverians from whom the present royal family descends. Don't laugh, there are still some Jacobites out there.