Westward Ho!

A vintage car behind an ice cream parlour in Penzance.

Endings are good, so let’s have one: a year since I left Cornwall for Bristol, and half a year since this project began, it feels done.

What have I learned? That there’s a lot more to learn, for starters.

One of the aims of this project was to jolt me from a rut, to make me look at towns and villages that didn’t previously have a place in my consciousness, and in that respect, it worked. I’ve read books, looked at maps, and even (money and time permitting) got on buses and trains.

Places I thought I knew turned out to be deeper than I had considered, with further depths to explore yet. The Torquay bread riots, for example, would bear further study, as would the mysterious Prince Tchajkowsky of Midsomer Norton.

The fun, silly stuff — the trivia — turned up in surprising places, and hardly ever when I was actually looking for it. I have no doubt there’s plenty more to stumble upon, and I hope to keep stumbling. Only the other night I learned that Paul the psychic World Cup octopus was hatched in Weymouth.

I have also reached some conclusions about the West Country. Despite having lived there for six years, and knowing that it was distinct and different, I never really doubted that Cornwall was part of the West Country. Having got to know Gloucestershire a little, at the other end of the scale, it seems absurd to consider those two places part of a single entity.

At the same time, lots of the photos I Tweeted — of folk traditions, or tower blocks, or mysterious moorlands — look, I have to admit, as if they could be anywhere in the country.

The West Country is more real to me than ever, but perhaps the idea of the West Country has slipped away.

I’ll be keeping the Twitter feed up, and this blog, but anything else I write about the West Country will be on my other, more personal blog, or on my other, less specific Twitter account. I’d love it if you joined me there.

If not, thanks for following and for reading, and I’ll see ‘ee round, my luvvers.

Impressions of Torquay: Riviera Blues

The Grand Hotel.

Take the wrong path through Torquay, in the wrong weather, and it can seem a decaying place.

Despite the very point of the English Riviera being the gentleness of the climate the buildings look weather-beaten. Their paint peels and they are streaked by gulls and pigeons. “You have to keep on top of it,” one local stopped to tell me as I stared up at one particularly forlorn building. “Lick of paint, keep it in good repair, or round here nature sort of comes and starts to take it back.”

Hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments with grand names have ageing Perspex signs that are missing letters, or sagging under the weight of crowns of nails intended to keep incontinent birds away. It’s as if they’re one good season away from the full refurbishment they need, but always one full refurbishment away from that good season.

There are too many junctions that make no allowance for pedestrians, or rather treat them as a nuisance to be managed, prodded out of the way of traffic by fences and obstacles. Boy racers fly through town using the gravitational pull of roundabouts to boost acceleration, although sometimes what looks at first glance like a Hot Hatch is actually just a Hatch being driven by a hunched pensioner hammering the pedal for fear that the car won’t make it up a steep hill.

Torquay Town Centre.

An entire row of shops in what ought to be a prime location is derelict, near collapse, while a huge post-modernist mall with galleries and walkways dominates the centre. The old market hall, built in the 1850s and with a plaque from the local historical society, has been gutted and partitioned so that the interior, like a reverse Tardis, barely has the grandeur of a Portakabin.

Riviera Centre.

A leisure centre lurks beyond the promenade – a last dry breath of brutalism from the 1980s, the grey Atlantic Wall intimidation exercise of its exterior undercut by a curl of fibreglass waterslide that pops out and back in again like some parasite. At ground level it is all warning signs, cameras and black grilles, some of which blast sickly-warm chlorinated air across the weed-covered car park.

The landmark Pavilion Theatre on the seafront is a beautiful Edwardian building that, scaled up, would look at home in Monte Carlo, except it is derelict and boarded up – too precious to demolish, but too much trouble to use, and so being left to rust and rot.

Mini golf. Bowling.

And yet come at Torquay from another angle, in the sun, in a better mood, and the Riviera fantasy of GWR posters and The Persuaders lives on. The marina is full of yachts, some of them sleek and substantial, and the streets nearby accordingly full of yacht people – tanned, posh and loud. Motorboats motor across the bay as middle-aged couples in designer clothes (men sockless, women perfumed) stroll arm-in-arm, summoning the spirit of Nice.

Torquay looking like the South of France.

Even the bland modern blocks on the hillsides add their own glamour, evoking the aggressive development of the coastlines of the Mediterranean.

My favourite parts of town, though, are those reserved for purposes other than tourism or shopping: the remarkable Central Church with its concrete launch gantry; the boldly Art Deco council offices, and more modest library of the same vintage; the Edwardian town hall; and St Andrews with its rows of dignified white war graves.

Torquay, I think, is a deeper town than all the seaside superficiality might suggest, with plenty more to discover yet.

West Country Stereotypes #1: Chewing Grass

A woodcut of a rural type.
By William Nicholson, 1898.

An outstretched hand brushing the stalks until, yes, this one, and then a soft snap. Tidy it up first, nipping it off with a thumbnail at the thick part above the knee; then stripping away the sheath to reveal the brighter green inside; and, finally, trimming straggling lower seed spikes to leave a neat arrowhead. It is ready.

When Jarge Balsh, the comic hero of William Jones’s once popular Somerset bumpkin stories, first appeared in 1925 it was with grass in his mouth:

One did not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to realise that he was connected with the agricultural industry. His boots and leggings were generously plastered with samples of the usual contents of the farm-yard, whilst to his slouch hat and old bottle-green morning coat there still adhered strands of hay…. Halting before me, and spreading his legs, he thrust his hands deeper into the cross pockets of his corduroy breeches, and changed the straw he was sucking to the other side of his mouth…. “Be you the young gent as is gwain ta bide wee widder Toop? ‘Cos if ye be, I be come vor ‘ee.”

The depiction of Balsh on the title page of the book cemented the image:

Jarge Balsh, 1926.

The prepared rapier of grass lightly bridges the lower teeth and lip, its feather-duster-head in the distance bouncing with each step, shaking its hair. Chewing the stalk destroys it quickly so instead it is held gently in place by the jaws and worked by the tongue like a rudder, pulling it in to make the seedhead swing out, and pushing it out to bring the brush swishing back to the centre. Relax the jaws and it droops; thrust the lower jaw out and the grass comes up to eye level. Up, down, left, right, swish, swirl – simple but absorbing.

Along with tractors, cider and smocks, the chewing of grass crops up over and over in lists of West Country stereotypes, often in the defensive form “There’s more to Devon/Somerset than…” There’s some embarrassment perhaps in the idea of being seen to ruminate dumbly, further evidence of the supposed animal stupidity of the bumpkin.

And yet it doesn’t take much to work out that chewing grass is a habit claimed, or disclaimed, by rural communities all over the country, and indeed around the world. Grass is not, after all, a scarce commodity, and the urge to nibble on it, I would say, is very nearly instinctive.

Eventually the bruised stalk begins to release its sap in the mouth – a bitter, raw taste that has a strange effect on the other senses. With a length of grass in the mouth birdsong seems louder, while traffic sounds diminish. The aroma of wildflowers intensifies. This is the easiest, cheapest, most innocent of psychedelic experiences.

I don’t believe chewing grass is something we, or anyone, should feel defensive over, or self-conscious about, whether alone on a quiet lane, or among the faux-rurality of the unkempt meadow-land in Hyde Park, sick for home.

Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney By Barry Lategan, 1969, via Paige Sterling.

There is no more sap, no more structure – the grass has become tasteless and is nearing collapse. Take it out, throw it away — it doesn’t matter, grass is free — then stretch out the hand, brush the stalks, until, yes….

Impressions of Weston-super-Mare

Statue of Liberty

My snapshot image of Weston from childhood is of great, clean whitewashed walls weaponised by the sun.

Blackpool was seedy – knickers for a nicker, pants for a pound, and drunks scrapping in the street – and Burnham-on-Sea was boring. But Weston… Weston was glamorous. Squint and you could be in Miami, or Nice. It was the posh seaside.

Revisiting it in 2018, especially on a rainy day, lifts the spell. There is more grey and more dereliction than I remember, and a sense that Weston’s problems – the same problems afflicting many towns – are breaking through its plaster façade.

Abandoned retail unit streaked with rain.

Though it may seem less pristine than 30 years ago, however, I find in it greater depth and detail as an adult.

Victorian back street building.

Alleyways and back streets reveal Victorian details, ghost signs, beerhouses and post-modern oddities.

Abbey National logo on wall.

There’s Art Deco.

ODEON cinema. Former Burton's building. A house near the station.

There’s plenty of post-war modernism.

Post-war church.

Post-war mosaic tiling.

And concrete brutalism.

Collage of brutalist buildings.

The museum, recently reopened, is small but dense: look down on an architectural model of a post-war Weston that never was; feed 20p to the What the Butler Saw machine and watch the imprisoned ghost of a long-dead dancer perform with a length of silk; and place a hand on a stretch of railing from the old pier where millions of fingers sticky with ice cream and rock have been before. The narrative also does a good job of bringing home the extent to which Weston was Blitzed – something that surprised me, and which helps explain some of the buildings above.

Amusement machines. Architectural model.

The pier is good, even in its post-2008-fire incarnation: worth walking up and down three or four times for the thrill of feeling truly at sea, and a little nearer mysterious Steep Holm.

Priests near a pier.

And there are memories. Having thought it long gone I stumbled upon Revolver Records the very smell of which – tobacco, damp, worn-in leather jackets – transported me back to standing at my Dad’s side as he flipped through racks of vinyl looking for who knows what.

Amusement arcade in red.

And I approached the Golden Gate amusement arcade from just the right angle to trigger a specific recollection: coming to Weston in about 1992 with the express purpose of experiencing virtual reality. At 14 I’d read William Gibson, was buying Wired most months, and fancied myself quite the cyberpunk in my Hi-Tec trainers and generic sweatshirt from Highbridge market. I went with two friends and we had to queue for about 20 minutes to pay £1.50 each for five minutes play time on a supposed combat flight simulator that actually consisted of a nausea inducing field of blue (sky) and green (ground) with occasional blocks of grey jerking across it.

I’m glad I now live near enough to Weston to visit whenever I like. I suspect there’s plenty more to find yet.

Rogue One: The Strange Career of Bampfylde Moore Carew

Bampfylde Moore Carew.

A thief, conman, beggar, trickster, adventurer and teller of tall tales, Bampfylde Moore Carew is the most famous West Countryman they never tell you about in school.

I first learned of his existence in a book called Somerset Legends by Berta Lawrence, published in 1973, a copy of which I bought for 10p in a sale of cancelled books at Bridgwater Library when I was about thirteen. Reading this was the first time it ever occurred to me that my home county might be anything other than rather flat and rather dull, and I took the book away with me to university, and then to London, as an antidote to homesickness.

Now, thanks to the magic of online book archives, I’ve been able to go back to Ms. Lawrence’s source, namely a book called The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew, published in 1745. We would probably now recognise it as having been ghost-written for Carew by one Robert Goadsby, though its status as autobiography-biography, or perhaps even a form of picareseque proto-novel, remains muddy. It is almost certainly a pack of fibs built around some kernels of truth, but was nonetheless a bestseller in its day and reprinted, with further embellishments, many times in the century that followed.

Here’s the story it tells, as the precursor to the embroidered gangster memoirs of today, with a few details taken from other sources, and quotations taken from this Project Gutenberg version of an 1850s reprint.

Carew was born in July 1693 in Bickleigh, a village near Tiverton in Devon. His father was the rector of Bickleigh and his family was well-to-do. He was sent to Blundell’s, the famous West Country private school at, at the age of 12, but (according to his own account) ran away rather than face punishment for tearing up farmland with his horse-riding hunting pals and a pack of hounds. And this is where his life got interesting.

Painting of a gypsy camp.
Morland, George; Encampment of Gypsies; The Fitzwilliam Museum.

He joined a band of gypsies and made a living with them through trickery and petty crime. As a well-spoken, gentlemanly figure he was uniquely well placed to win over respectable folk and relieve them of their money, as in the case of Mrs Musgrove of Monkton just outside Taunton, in Somerset. (Now best known for its garden centre — such romance!) She called on young Carew having heard that he was an expert gypsy-trained treasure diviner. 

When he came, she informed him that she suspected a large quantity of money was buried somewhere about her house, and if he would acquaint her with the particular place, she would handsomely reward him. Our hero consulted the secrets of his art upon this occasion, and after long toil and study informed the lady, that under a laurel-tree in the garden lay the treasure she anxiously sought for; but that her planet of good fortune did not reign till such a day and hour, till which time she should desist from searching for it; the good lady rewarded him very generously with twenty guineas for his discovery.  We cannot tell whether at this time our hero was sufficiently initiated in the art, or whether the lady mistook her lucky hour, but the strict regard we pay to truth obliges us to confess, that the lady dug below the roots of the laurel-tree without finding the hidden treasure.

This is a classic con-man story in which the mark positively asks to be ripped off because of her greed, and her stupidity — perhaps one of the earliest in print?

Eventually he was convinced to come in from the field and return to Bickleigh where he was welcomed with tears of gladness and the ringing of church bells. But having had a taste of freedom and adventure, he got bored and went back to the gypsies, via their camp at Tiverton, and set out on a new phase of his career: he became a fake shipwrecked seaman.

Our hero’s wit was now set to work, by what stratagems he might best succeed.  The first that occurred to his thoughts was that of equipping himself with an old pair of trowsers, enough of a jacket to cover his nakedness, stockings such as nature gave, shoes (or rather the body of shoes, for soles they had none) which had leaks enough to sink a first rate man of war, and a woollen cap, so black that one might more safely swear it had not been washed since Noah’s flood, than any electors can that they receive no bribes.  Being thus attired, our hero changed his manners with his dress; he forgot entirely his family, education, and politeness, and became neither more nor less than an unfortunate shipwrecked seaman.

He learned the jargon and the manners of a sailor and in this persona conned multiple people out of “a considerable booty”, before reinventing himself again as a simple Kentish farmer who had lost his cattle in a flood:

His habit was now neat but rustic; his air and behaviour simple and inoffensive; his speech in the Kentish dialect; his countenance dejected; his tale pitiful—wondrous pitiful; a wife and seven helpless infants being partakers of his misfortunes; so that if his former stratagem answered his wishes, this did still more so, he now getting seldom less than a guinea a day.

Next, he adopted the persona of Mad Tom, a half-naked lunatic, roving the countryside and observing human nature, learning more “than most of our youths who make the Grand Tour”.

Carew the trickster disguised as a ghost at South Molton, Devon.

From Dartmouth in Devon He travelled to Newfoundland where he acquired a “fierce and large dog” and stayed just long enough to learn enough about fishing and sailing to take his shipwrecked mariner act to the next level. On his return, via Newcastle, he fell in love, eloping with one Miss Gray, marrying her in Bath, and settling in Bristol, where they turned heads with their dandy dress.

Going back on the road, he impersonated a clergyman to prey on Quakers; developed a wheeze whereby he would turn up anywhere there had been a notably large fire and pretend to be a survivor, with a singed hat for evidence; and strapped himself up to portray the part of a one-legged beggar. Circling back to Bristol, he pretended to be the son of a Newfoundland gentleman whom he vaguely resembled, lately arrived in England and in need of credit on clothes and provisions. On one occasion he witnessed a shipwreck off the Dorset coast and had the presence of mind to strip and fling himself into the surf to be rescued as a survivor or, as he tells it, to attempt to rescue one of the crew like some kind of superman, only to be quite innocently mistaken for a member of the ship’s crew.

Eventually, all this caught up with him and he was arrested at Barnstaple in Devon, and taken to court in Exeter, from where he was transported to Maryland in the American colonies. You might think this was the end of Carew’s West Country career but, no, he somehow escaped custody, convinced some Native Americans to remove his irons, and made his way back to England via Philadelphia, New York and various other fascinating places out of the scope of my project.

A parade of convicts.
British convicts in chains ready for transportation, via Early American Crime.

He carried on where he had left off (shipwrecked sailor act, turban-wearing Greek, French smuggler, Presbyterian parson, and so on), got caught again, and sent back to Maryland, from where he escaped a second time. (If he was making this up, he could have done with a firmer editor – who would invent this repetitive narrative structure?)

In the third and final phase of his career as a conman he tried some bigger schemes, such as convincing a group of his school friends to join him at St Matthew’s Fair in Bridgwater, Somerset, in the guise of a group of crippled, deaf, dumb, blind beggars. The mayor, though, suspected the trick and had them thrown in prison for vagrancy, but contrived to let them escape so that he could see which of them broke into a run on leaving their cell and then re-arrest them on more serious charges. (This sounds like something from one of the sillier spaghetti westerns to me.)

Although the book presents all of this with a sort of smirk, and its sales are evidence that people found Carew’s antics to some degree charming or at least entertaining, his admitted tendency to prey on the bereaved is simply grim. For example, he tricked a man whose son had died at sea into giving him money in exchange for a supposedly first-hand account of his death and burial, which of course Carew knew nothing about that he had not learned from gossip around the village. In another instance, at Buckfastleigh in Devon, he got an accomplice to dress as a victim’s dead grandmother as part of another ‘hidden treasure’ con:

In order for the execution of this scheme, Coleman put a woman’s cap on his head, washed his face, and sprinkled meal on it while wet, stuck the broken pieces of a tobacco-pipe between his teeth, and wrapping his body in a white sheet, planted himself in the road that Collard and Mr. Carew were to come; the moon at this time shone very bright, which gave an additional horror to the pretended spectre.  Our hero, by virtue of his supposed profound learning and most mysterious science, spoke to it in an unknown language, to the following effect:—“High, wort, bush rumley to the toggy cull, and ogle him in the muns;” at which command the terrific hobgoblin fiercely advanced up to poor Collard…

But this couldn’t go on forever and eventually, having made a small fortune, and growing old and ill, Carew retired to a cottage in the West Country, published his memoir, and died in 1759.

The Famous Bridgwater Manchip

Bridgwater Famous Manchips

I ate my first manchip when I was around 8-years-old.

Dad pulled up outside in the sky blue Cortina and came running into the house – actually running — holding a paper bag transparent with hot grease. He was shiny-faced with excitement, a rare occurrence in those days of night-shifts, money troubles and headaches.

“Manchips! Bloody manchips!”

He said it as if my brother and I should know what a manchip was.

We, thrilled to see Dad thrilled, couldn’t wait to see what was going to emerge from the wrapping.

“Ooh, ow, hot, Jesus wept!” he said, throwing the thing from hand to hand.

This was why he’d been in such a hurry: the manchip, we learned, is a dish best served dangerously hot.

There were two in the bag; my brother and I got half each.

What we were presented with was a pocket of flaky, rolled pastry filled with semi-molten jam and dusted with granulated sugar. It was lardy and not especially sweet, the jam a mere smear. It was, frankly, a let-down after all the hype but we played along and ate up while Dad, apparently reverting to childhood for five bites, made yum-yum noises and licked jam off his factory-scarred fingertips.

Perhaps we confessed our disappointment or maybe Dad just guessed but, either way, I never saw another manchip. That is, until December 2017, with my 40th birthday looming, when I made a return trip to the old home town.

Walking up Cranleigh Gardens and waiting to cross St John Street I saw a chalkboard sign outside Judith’s Bakery: “Bridgwater Famous Manchips Sold Here”. Bridgwater’s famous manchips? This being the 21st century I Googled it while I waited for the lights to change and was astonished to read that, yes, the manchip is Bridgwater’s own contribution to the culinary catalogue.

The origins of the manchip, like those of most even slightly interesting things, are vague. They are sometimes also called ‘manchits’ or ‘manchets’, and the Oxford English Dictionary traces the similar ‘manchet’, meaning fine wheat bread, back to the 15th century.

A more obvious Bridgwater connection occurred to me, though: I was at school with several Manchips, and the Manchip or Manship clan has been a prominent one in Bridgwater for a couple of centuries. In fact, if you look up distribution of the surname Manchip in 1881 you find that every single one, give or take, lived in Somerset.

Nobody seems to have pinned down the exact origins of the Bridgwater manchip though Glyn Hughes has tracked down a 1938 reference to lardy pastries using that name which would seem to demolish the popular myth that it was a response to rationing during World War II.

Armed with the variant spellings I was able to find a tantalising reference to ‘french rolls and manchets’ in the precis of an 1885 book about St Mary’s Church in Bridgwater and (this is a bit complicated) an 1899 letter to the Taunton Courier in which a correspondent recalled a Taunton baker, Mr Betty, “famous for the excellence of his breakfast manchips” (20/09). Perhaps most useful, though, is this letter to the Taunton Courier printed on 22 June 1946, which contains reference to the foodstuff itself:

The reference to Manchets in last week’s Herald carried my memory back 50 or 60 years to the days when small boys went through the streets of towns in this part of England very early in the morning, crying “Hot Rolls and Butter Manchets” or “Buttered Manchips” or “Buttery Mansions” or some other variation of the last two words. These Manchets, Manchips, or Mansions were a plain kind of flat dough cake, or tea cake, kept hot, cut open and buttered for breakfast…. [As] far as my memory serves me they were eaten in my young days only, or at any rate mainly, at breakfast time.

That’s odd, isn’t it? No jam. Not notably lardy.

I’m going to keep looking for more information but here’s my current assumption: ‘manchip’ was being used to describe a kind of fancy roll in Somerset during the 19th century but its use dwindled until it was reinvented during or after World War II as something sweeter and more pastry-like.

Regardless of its origins, my second ever manchip, eaten hot on the platform at Bridgwater station as I waited for a train back to Bristol, was delicious – fat slicking the tongue, just enough fruit acid to tame it, and flakes of pastry falling like gold leaf around my feet. Once I’d dusted myself down and wiped my fingers on the paper bag, I knew I owed Dad an apology.

Cousin Jim and the Severn Bridge Disaster

The Severn Bridge under construction.
The Severn Bridge in 1879 via Graces Guides.

A few months ago I was with my parents having a pint overlooking the water in Bristol when my Mum said, out of nowhere, “My cousin Jimmy Dew was involved in a shipping disaster on the Severn.”

I naturally asked for more information but she didn’t have much – it happened in the sixties, she thought; and he was the skipper of a barge. When I got home I looked it up in the newspaper archives expecting to find a passing mention of some minor incident but what I discovered instead was the notorious Severn Bridge Disaster which saw the deaths of five men and ended with the demolition of the bridge.

Though I’d never heard of it before, it turns out to be incredibly well documented, being of interest to local historians and waterways enthusiasts among others, and has received plenty of coverage in the national press over the years, too.

Here’s what happened: at around 9 o’clock on the evening of 25 October 1960 a convoy of sixteen barges carrying various flammable oil products was travelling up the Severn towards Sharpness in Gloucestershire. As they passed Berkeley a heavy fog came down and two of the barges, Arkendale H and Wastdale H, overshot Sharpness. The Wastdale H was the vessel skippered by my distant cousin, James Dew, and was carrying 350 tons of petrol; the Arkendale was loaded with heating oil.

Wastdale H
SOURCE: Friends of Purton.

With the tide against them they struggled to come back towards the harbour and, at a narrow point in the river, collided. This sent them spinning out of control, stuck together, up the river and into the Severn Bridge.

The Severn Bridge, now generally referred to as the Severn Railway Bridge, was an iron structure completed in 1879. Though old it was still in active use by trains travelling across the river between Sharpness and Lydney, and by pedestrians. Fortunately, the stretch where the collision occurred was empty at 10:30, though a train had just passed through and was still on the bridge.

The conjoined and out-of-control barges hit hard enough to bring down one of the bridge’s piers (the upright bits) which sent chunks of the span above crashing into the Wastdale. That in turn caused its highly flammable cargo, already spilling into the water, to ignite and explode; the oil on the Wastdale soon caught, too.

The crews of both barges were cast overboard. George Thompson, skipper of the Arkendale, swam to safety, and his engineer was fished out of the water by rescuers after four hours. Cousin Jim boarded the Arkendale in an attempt to get it out of gear and then, when it caught fire, he stripped off before jumping into the water with a life-buoy. He turned up naked at a pub on the shore after three hours struggling in the water.

The next day, the fog being driven away by rain, the two barges lay smouldering on the mud flats while a helicopter from RAF South Cerney swept overhead, police searched the banks, and coastguard patrolled the river helped by local fishermen. They were looking for Percy Simmonds (34) and Robert Nibblett (25) of the Arkendale; and Jack Dudfield (46), Alex Bullock (40) and Malcolm Hart (17) of the Wastdale.

All five were found dead over the next few days.

Cousin Jim seems to have been quietly blamed for the disaster, even though he was officially cleared of any negligence. The Ministry for Transport suggested at the time of the inquiry that he made an “error of judgment” and he also described his own attempts to push the Arkendale off by revving into it (not technical nautical language but this is my understanding) as a “mistake” which only caused the two vessels to stick together ever more tightly. More recently BBC reporter Andy Vivian turned up official papers which seem to suggest that officials thought him “inept” and (as I read it) that he rather panicked under pressure.

I don’t know what became of cousin Jim – it’s something I’ll look into – but I was amazed to discover that the wrecks of the two barges are still there near what little remains of the bridge.

Plymouth the Wonder City, 1964

Book cover: Britain in the Sixties

One of my favourite paperbacks is The Other England by Geoffrey Moorhouse (1931-2009) and here I want to share a few of his observations on a favourite city of mine: Plymouth, in Devon.

The book was published as a red Penguin Special in 1964 and contains a set of essays on every part of England except, pointedly, London, though of course a few digs are made along the way. It employs a mix of observation, political commentary and sly wit which makes it as fun to read as it is interesting.

When I lived in Penzance, Plymouth was the nearest ‘proper’ city (sorry, Truro) and a mere two hours away by train compared to three for Exeter (which feels distinctly less metropolitan) or four for Bristol, another great maritime city with which Plymouth shares a certain style and atmosphere.

Moorhouse sets the scene for his observations with a cinematic wide shot:

There is an element of surprise about Plymouth if you approach it from the East. After the bleak and haunted bulk of Dartmoor you don’t reasonably expect much in the way of civilization beyond; the idea of an ultra-modern city of 200,000 people sprawling down from that boggy plateau is faintly preposterous.

Plymouth doesn’t seem ultra-modern today and, indeed, is gaining considerable traction as a kind of living museum of mid-century planning and architecture. In 1964, however, it was ahead of the curve:

It was as early as 1943 that Plymouth, with the help of Sir Patrick Abercrombie, drafted its post-war plan. It decided that the city centre had been a pretty awful mess anyway, and that this was a chance to make something better of it. Instead of the narrow, wriggling maze bequeathed by generations of city fathers and commercial hardheads, there would be broad traffic and pedestrian ways keyed into a rectangular grid. The Plymouth Plan was something the town-planners from half Europe came to marvel at, for no one had thought of attempting anything like this before. Perhaps Plymouth got off the mark with this vision of the future just a bit too soon; if it had waited until Coventry and then the New Towns had hit upon the idea of shopping precincts totally devoid of traffic it would doubtless have been happy enough to follow suit.

A department store.
Dingle’s in 2016.

Despite being from Bolton in Lancashire Moorhouse had a personal connection with Plymouth because, like many British men, he had lived there while serving in the Navy. In this book he recalls the excitement around the opening of the first of the city’s newly built shop, a department store, in 1951:

[You] couldn’t, as I remember, do much shopping in Dingle’s that Saturday, so congested was it with West Countrymen who had come not only to wonder at the extravagance of it all after years of buying from makeshift shops rigged up out of Nissen huts, but simply to travel up and down all day long on the escalators. It was the first time this new-fangled device had been known West of Bristol.

There’s an unfortunate hint of ‘Ho ho, get a load of these bumpkins’ in that last line but I don’t doubt it’s true.

Tower block
Civic Centre and Council House.

Revisiting the city in the early 1960s Moorhouse found the transformation remarkable:

The city centre is now just about finished, a gleaming thing of Portland stone and as fine a shopping area as any you’ll find out of London; as the official guide book remarks, ‘Many London fashion houses and Bond Street tailors have seen fit to open branches in the Metropolis of the West’. It is true that hardly any of the buildings there quite dare us to accept a revolutionary line or two — thought out of Crownhill there is one of the most adventurous of our post-war churches with a free-standing altar and a flower-bed by the font. In the centre they have laid out a mosaic piazza, planted a swathe of trees…. and conjured up a pool beside the civic centre in which sailors are apt to bathe after a roistering night ashore.

Murals and architectural details
Plymouth Pannier Market, Walls & Pearn, 1959-60, as it looked in 2016.

He was quite won over by what he called a ‘smart and enterprising city centre’:

In its way it is all as exciting as a New Town, though they have meticulously reconstructed the Guildhall shell in a fanciful mixture of English and Italian Gothic, presumably to keep faith with the past. An almost tangible air of ambition hangs about this work of restoration and not long after the visitor arrives and starts investigating it dawns on him that Plymouth, having got well into its stride, doesn’t know where to stop.

That last thought suggests that, despite his admiration for the city, Moorhouse was aware that Plymouth’s post-war reconstruction was in the process of grinding to a halt. The grand architects’ plan was hobbled at various points (see this post from Municipal Dreams for details, or the account in John Grindrod’s 2013 book Concretopia) and long before the mid-1960s locals had begun to grumble about the vast empty spaces, the howling winds and how inhospitable it was for smaller independent businesses.

If you come across a copy of this book, do you pick it up — my copy cost £2 — and if you get chance, take it on a trip to Plymouth to trace for yourself the outlines of a more optimistic time.

High Times Out West

Illustration: Strummer, Coleridge, the Star Inn and Glastonbury Tor
Incorporates an image of Joe Strummer by John Coffey under Creative Commons.

It is it any wonder that the West Country, with its yin-yang of boredom and tranquillity, its distance from authority, its big skies and mystic tendencies, might have a drug habit?

A few months ago I was at my desk in Penzance (I’ve moved to Bristol since) when I heard a boom so loud I wondered if the earth might have cracked. A little later the air ambulance, that scarlet Valkyrie, flew so low overhead that my skull vibrated. A little later again I learned that what I’d heard was someone slamming their car into a bus stop seriously injuring a 16-year-old bystander. When the case came to court the gossip I’d picked up queuing in the grocers was confirmed:

A former addict who hadn’t slept for five days and mowed down a teenager whilst high on a cocktail of drugs claims she took the drugs to avoid the wrath of a masked gang who stabbed her boyfriend…. [She] was spared jail after her defence barrister told the court she’d taken the drugs to stay awake and was fleeing a violent gang who she felt were going to carry out a revenge attack on her when she crashed.

I’d picked up hints of that back story, too — sirens and cordons in the middle of the day, boarded windows, whispers in the pub, people threatening each other in the street, and incautious statements in the comments below news stories. I knew that there people dealing drugs in the flats near my house, on the estate near my house, and possibly in a house near my house.

This is all, I gather, part of an ongoing problem in the West Country. Despite the beauty of the landscape and ever more dominant beach-hut bourgeois tendency, the region is a target for big city drug dealers and, at the same time, an in-route for drugs with its many miles of coastline and secluded backroads. “Quieter counties, like Cumbria, or Devon and Cornwall are seen to have less proactive policing operations,” one ‘drug dealing insider’ is supposed to have told the Liverpool Echo.

Hence some bizarre headlines: a yacht stuffed with drugs is intercepted at Scilly and the skipper dies as he attempts to evade police by climbing the main mast; cottages and nuclear bunkers are rented, stripped, blacked out and turned into cannabis farms run by near-slaves everywhere from Cornwall to Wiltshire; secret factories are found beneath old caravans on Somerset farms; a young man in Exeter is attacked in a dispute between gangs of dealers and one of his assailants stabs him so hard that the blade snaps away in the wound. And so on.

I suppose I’ve always been vaguely aware of this side of West Country life. It has, after all, been going on for a long time. When Joe Strummer, late of punk band the Clash, relocated to Somerset in the 1990s he caused some local upset when he told an interviewer the reason for the move: “The drugs are better down here. It’s like the Wild West.” (I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the original article — tips welcome.) A 1995 interview with electronic musician Richard James, AKA Aphex Twin, includes this passing observation:

Growing up in hippie Cornwall, drugs were part of local life. One of his earliest memories is the “funny smell” in the house of one of his mum’s friends. Sometimes he finds drugs come in handy when writing…. “I find it quite interesting, the way they make things turn out. It’s like using a different sequencer. Drugs just make things sound different.”

Is it true that planes from Holland used to land at the disused airfield at Westonzoyland in the middle of the night during the 1980s? That was certainly the gossip in Bridgwater and as a child I used to lie awake listening for them.

In his 2016 book The Swordfish and the Star, about the gritty reality of life on the Cornish coast, Gavin Knight records the connection between the Cornish fishing industry, drug smuggling, and drug use from the 1970s onwards:

In the front of the Swordfish people would be drinking but in the back, there was any drug you wanted. One time, to get to the bar, you had to step over a fisherman lying on the floor unconscious from coke.

The gentler 1960s drug culture came West, too, manifesting in the Glastonbury Festival and the St Ives hippy invasion. In 1966 Bristol publicans were trained by police on how to recognise the smell of weed using hemp burned over a gas stove (Birmingham Post, 25/08/66) while raids in Cornwall found LSD, cannabis and other drugs from Land’s end to St Agnes. (Times, 28/05/73.) Looe, a particular hot spot, even gained its own local drug squad, “known as Brian even to the people he was nicking”.

Go back far enough and you’ll find Samuel Taylor Coleridge composing the proto-psychedelic ‘Kubla Khan’ in Nether Stowey, Somerset, in what was probably an opium daze. It was published in the same 1816 volume as ‘The Pains of Sleep’ which is now generally reckoned to be an account of drug withdrawal:

…yester-night I pray’d aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng,
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorn’d, those only strong!

So, that yin-yang: hard work, hard lives, hard drugs. Dreamers and dancers, poets and rock stars. Visions and cramps. Men from Porlock and men from Merseyside.

Industrial Light & Magic

Above: an easter bonnet competition at Sealed Motor Construction, Bridgwater, c.1973.

For years when I told people I was from Somerset their response would usually be something like “Oh, how lovely!” at which I would laugh inwardly, and grimly.

I knew that they were picturing a summer day at Minehead, the roaring log fire of a country inn, or perhaps Bath, or maybe even confusing it with Devon at its most lush and rolling. They were thinking about the cover art on Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles.

What they did not have in mind was the industrial estate on Wylds Road in Bridgwater where Grandpa vacuum-formed plastic cups for vending machines and Mum packed aerosol solvents. They weren’t picturing the heat and filth of the factory where my Dad worked nights making pistons, or the one before that where he waded in chemicals, or the one before that where he (and Mum, and her parents) put together waterproof motors, or… You get the idea. They didn’t have in mind the thundering lorries or freight trains and the infrastructure that served them.

Bridgwater was shaped by industry even if many of the factories have gone, and there are other places like it up and down the West Country. What I want to do here, for my own learning, is highlight some of those industrial towns and villages and the sheer, mad range of work undertaken in a part of the world more usually associated with tourism and agriculture. It’s nothing like complete and I’ll no doubt come back to this subject when I’ve done more reading.

Advertisement for Plasticine.
From 1933, via the British Newspaper Archive.

1. At Bathampton outside Bath, for example, William Harbutt’s factory produced Plasticine, the non-drying modelling clay, from 1900 until 1983. This might sound like a bit of a joke but it was a substantial industrial operation. You can see some (small, watermarked) photos of the factory at Bath in Time.

Men scowling at the camera.
The Clarks factory at Street in (I’d guess) about 1930, via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Street, Somerset, was home to shoe manufacturing firm C &J. Clark, founded in 1825, and was the site of the original factory. Clark’s eventually had factories all across the West Country in places such as Radstock, Bridgwater and Minehead. The last, at Ilminster, closed in 2005. Clark’s head office is still in Street but the original Clark’s factory buildings have been absorbed into Clark’s Village, a rather characterless discount shopping centre with upmarket pretensions.

Men on stacks of paper.
The paper mill in via the Exmoor Magazine/Contains Art.

3. The Wansbrough paper mill at Watchet, Somerset, was a major local employer for several hundred years, from the middle of the 17th century. It closed in 2015.

Woman looking into the camera.
The Westland factory, in pre-helicopter days, via the Heritage Lottery Fund/Westland Oral History Project.

Yeovil, also in Somerset, has been a centre for the manufacture of helicopters since the end of World War II. What was Westland Helicopters is now owned by an Italian firm, Leonardo, whose almost 3,000 staff build military and civilian models including a licenced version of the Apache Longbow for the British Army. Growing up I remember that the local news was always either ‘Westland in trouble’ or ‘Westland to expand’; a helicopter came and landed on the school playground one day but I’m not sure if they were recruiting for Westland, the armed forces, or both. An oral history project recording the experiences of workers at Westland is online here.

Job advertisement.
From 1960, via the British Newspaper Archive.

5. Centrax has been making industrial gas turbines and jet engine components since the 1940s and relocated to Newton Abbot in Devon in the 1950s. Today it employs around 700 people. From 1964 to 1979 one of the local football teams was called the Newton Abbot Dynamos and played at the Centrax Ground. (Very Soviet.)

Industrial buildings.
China clay works by Kev P Bur via Flickr under Creative Commons.

6. Cornwall is of course known for mining and its landscape is marked by the debris, architecture and scars of this once great industry. At Geevor near Land’s End you can visit the remains of a tin mine that only ceased operating in 1990 and which is preserved much as it looked in those final days with lockers unemptied and curling calendars on the office walls. At Par outside St Austell a large and fully operational China clay works sits surrounded by fences on the seafront – a gritty two-finger salute to the tourist industry. China clay has been mined and processed in Cornwall since the 18th century and still employs around 2,000 people today.

Brewery buildings with a vintage car.
The derelict Bridgwater brewery in 1969 via the Brewery History Society.

7. Bridgwater in Somerset and Tiverton in Devon shared a notable brewery in Starkey, Knight & Ford. It was taken over by Whitbread in 1962 and operations were concentrated in Tiverton which became Whitbread’s western outpost until operations ceased there in 1982. Devenish, another big West Country brewer, had breweries in Dorset (Weymouth) and Cornwall (Redruth), with the latter still working as a brewery into the 21st century. There are still substantial historic working breweries at, for example, St Austell in Cornwall, Bridport in Dorset (Palmer’s) and Devizes in Wiltshire (Wadworth).

 

* * *

For starters, then, that’s a vast range of industry, from toys to war machines, and I haven’t even touched on bricks, dairy products, seafood processing, furniture manufacturing, chewing gum, chocolate bars, semiconductors…