Swan Dive

Death of an Airman in Berkhamsted, 23 September 1942

Schoolboy David Russell of Castle Hill Avenue was in his garden when he saw, through his telescope, the fighter plane ‘either a Tomahawk or a Mustang’ approaching. It seemed slow for a fighter and fairly high up. It did two rolls as it crossed over the town where it lost speed and turned on its back. He saw smoke coming from the plane. It righted itself but was at an odd angle with its nose at 45 degrees.… More

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Common People Part III – Roads

Berkamsted Common Postcard, Alice Des Clayes (1891–1968)
Berkamsted Common Postcard, Alice Des Clayes (1891–1968)

In this final instalment of Common People we will look at an egregious instance of ‘Road Capture’ on Berkhamsted Common – the arbitrary closure of a public road by the local landowner – and show how it may always have been part of a cunning plan to enclose (privatise) the central part of the common. We will hear some of the people who put the road out of action (I don’t mean the 7th Earl) – and how local people adapted to the new reality: keeping calm and driving any way they could.… More

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Common People Part 2: Bricks

In the second part of our exploration of 19th-century voices from Berkhamsted Common we will meet a bona fide war hero who fought alongside Lord Nelson and later made the bricks behind the stone facade of Ashridge House. We will also learn about the high calorific value of gorse not to mention its high monetary value: people risked jail to smuggle it to other Chiltern brick works under the eyes of the estate keepers. We will also meet the amazing William Ashby who was never seen without a donkey load of the golden weed: but nobody had ever seen him cut it.… More

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Common People Part I: Sheep

‘… Common ’tis named/And calls itself, because the bracken and gorse/Still hold the hedge where plough and scythe have chased them’
‘Up in the Wind’ by Edward Thomas

Battle Lines

In 1866 Lord Brownlow, the young and fabulously wealthy owner of the Ashridge Estate, erected iron fences to enclose (privatise) about 400 acres of Berkhamsted Common. Resistance was led by the Commons Preservation Society which had been formed the previous year. The fences were taken down in a celebrated moonlight raid and, after a lengthy legal battle, stayed down.… More

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Common People: Introduction

Oh, dear. I’m enjoying not blogging every week too much. Maybe it’s reached a natural end. And, well, we have plans: more on which later. Perhaps the blog needs ditching or reinventing. I’m also enjoying getting back into music: which is great, but a time-drain. First-world problems, perhaps. Meantime, I shall carry on posting older stuff. For the next month or so, I shall publish the original version of a deep dive into the 19th-century history of Berkhamsted Common.… More

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Last Orders Part 3

Admiral Carter, EC1 – D.H. Lawrence at Hampstead

‘So it is the end – our world is gone, and we are like dust in the air…’ DH Lawrence To Lady Ottoline Morrell, 9 September 1915.*

It had been a gift from the bomb factory to the Zeppelin commander. Three-hundred kilograms of high explosive – the biggest bomb of the airship campaign so far. Every single building in the close was damaged by the blast and many buildings set alight by incendiaries.… More

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Last Orders Part 2

Liebesgabe: a charitable gift

The airship crew called their incendiary bombs, twenty-five pounds of thermite wrapped in tarred rope, ‘fire buckets’. At 10:40 they dropped five of them on a field at Decoy Farm in Hendon. The farm took its name from a duck decoy built for the Abbots of Westminster just below the point where the Dollis and Mutton Brook combine to become the Brent. The lake, in Brent Park, is still a feature of the modern landscape.… More

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Last Orders Part 1

Trench Art, High Barnet – Sandwell School, Finchley

empty pub sign

Invisible to drivers hurtling by on the A1, Water End retains the peace, if not the quiet, of a village. It has a small industrial area which until recently supported a workers’ cafe. There are some pretty cottages and, when I started walking here, two pubs whose names echoed a rural economy not quite disappeared a hundred years ago: The Woodman Inn and The Old Maypole. The latter built in c1520 and now a private house was boarded up and for sale in April 2010.… More

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Best Kitchen Knife To Do a Murder

This month was a small landmark for the blog: it passed a thousand views. I didn’t keep records before last summer, so I’m very pleased and would like to thank everybody who has looked in. I’m not going to analyse the figures too carefully. I suspect a third of them arrived by accident and never returned. Another third were bots trained to look for phrases like ‘bomb recipe’ and ‘best kitchen knife to do a murder’.… More

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Cold Case 5 – A Kentish Town Panorama

‘It should never rain at a public place, as it prevents intercourse and drives everyone to his own bad lodging to breed spleen and ennui.’

Byng’s Tours, The Journals of The Hon. John Byng 1781-1792.

I threw a ten: ‘J’. I don’t have that many files beginning with J. A couple of people connected to Tring Museum a hundred years ago. Another on Jung, with nothing in it, presumably because it’s all in my subconscious.… More

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