History

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In June last year, I was at Streedagh strand in Co Sligo, on Ireland’s west coast, on one of Auriel Robinson’s wonderful SeaTrails walks. The walk covered a huge amount: local geology dating back 350 million years; prehistory, we examined an interesting Bronze Age Wedge tomb; 16th century history, hearing the story of the shipwrecks of three ships from the Spanish Armada which sank here in 1588; botany, walking over the machair grassland with its profusion of wild flowers; marine geology: marvelling at the fossilized corals, sea lilies and other creatures strewn in profusion along the shore; and 20th century history, seeing Mullaghmore harbour where the tragic murder of Lord Mountbatten, and three other people, two of them children, took place in 1979.

Murraghmore: looking towards Benbulben

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The story of Nathaniel Bentley, otherwise known as ‘Dirty Dick’ is a curious one. He was born in 1735, or thereabouts, into a well-to-do City of London merchant’s family. His father owned a successful hardware business with a house, a shop and a well-stocked warehouse in Leadenhall St in Bishopsgate, and he saw to it that his son was given a good education, as befitted his status as a gentleman. Mr Bentley, senior, died in 1760, when Nathaniel was about twenty-five-years old, leaving his son a successful business.

Nathaniel Bentley, also known as ‘Dirty Dick’

So far, so good.

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This painting, ‘The Wounded Cavalier’ by William Shakespeare Burton, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856, has something about it which has always intrigued me. What’s going on? Why is the young Puritan looking down so disapprovingly. Why is the Cavalier lying wounded in the middle of a wood?

‘The Wounded Cavalier’ by William Shakespeare Burton (1824-1916), the Guildhall Art Gallery, London

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What must it have been like to be held in a prison where the gallows was always visible? Suppose that you had been condemned to hang and would soon be climbing those wooden stairs and feel the hangman put the noose around your neck. The very stones of the place must have smelled of misery and hopelessness – the thoughts jostled through my mind when I visited Downpatrick Gaol, now a museum, in County Down, Northern Ireland.

  1. The gallows in Downpatrick Gaol

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I first met the quagga when I was about seven in an aquatint dating from 1804 by the painter Samuel Daniell in a book in my grandfather’s library called African Scenery and Animals. There was something about it which appealed to me – it looked a noble animal, standing in the South African veldt with wildebeest in the background – almost a creature of legend. I liked its unusual name, for a start. And it wasn’t quite like anything else I’d seen; almost a zebra with stripes at the front but becoming a sandy colour at the back, with a white underbelly, legs and tail.

Quagga by Samuel Daniell, 1804, in ‘African Scenery and Animals’

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By 1938, to many thinking people, the triumphant rise of Fascism in both Italy and Germany was an ominous portent of another war. To others, yes, the situation in Europe was worrying and Fascism was certainly on the rise but another war? Surely not.  Wasn’t the Great War supposed to be ‘The War that ended Wars?’

 

St Leonard’s Court, East Sheen

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‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very Heaven!’

So wrote the poet, William Wordsworth, about his arrival in Paris in 1790 when he was young, in love, and an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. But Wordsworth’s words could equally describe being young in the 1960s, a similarly heady period when the old social mores were chucked out, and a revolutionary, youth-led counter culture in fashion, ideas, music, and much else, swept in.

Swinging London; note the new Post Office tower – with a slowly-revolving restaurant at the top

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Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) was one of my favourite books as a child. The heroine, Sara Crewe, says early on: Whenever I play I make up stories and tell them to myself.’  I, too, told myself stories, and I knew at once that this would be my sort of book.

Sara was born in India and, as was usual then for health reasons, was sent to England for her education when she was seven. We first meet her with her much loved father in London, being taken to Miss Mitchin’s Select Academy for Young Ladies. She will be a parlour border, that is, she will stay there during the holidays. I, too, was at a Primary boarding school – so that was another thing we shared.

‘Oh, Papa!’ she cried, ‘There is Emily.’

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Last week I visited the splendid global headquarters of the Institution of Civil Engineering (ICE) at 1, Great George Street, just off Parliament Square and within a stone’s throw of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the Royal Courts of Justice. It is a huge Grade II listed building, designed by James Miller RSA, and built between 1910-1913, an era of huge (if unknowingly teetering on the cusp of collapse) Imperial self-confidence. There it stands in all its Imperial glory; a ‘monumental neo-classical design’ in Portland stone, and I have to say that it is extremely impressive – both outside and in.

The Institution of Civil Engineering (ICE)

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‘For they were young, and the Thames was old,

And this is the tale that the river told.’  Rudyard Kipling

The current exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands, Secret Rivers, is about the various rivers which once flowed openly into the Thames but which nowadays are largely hidden from view. The visitor follows the stories of, in particular, the Fleet, the Walbrook and the Westbourne, all now channelled underground.

We begin in the Bronze Age; metal-working is well established and people have settled down in tribes. This is a time when rivers are thought to be mysterious places which marked the transition between two elements, land and water, and, perhaps, between life and death. We can see this in the offerings found in the Thames, particularly near where the Walbrook flowed into the Thames.

This human skull, 1260-900 BC is one of the oldest objects found in the Thames and it is thought, from its condition, to have been put there deliberately

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