Thursday, 12 January 2006

Tread softly...

The history of our country is totally fascinating. Events can be interesting as solo reading or fed into the totallity of what made this place what it is. The destruction of our history and background of influence is at risk from the one-size-fits-all policies and apologise-for-everything agenda now almost rampant.

Take a walk on the legal side

IF your new year’s resolution was to take more exercise, there is no need to travel too far to take in interesting trips with a legal flavour.

Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson have compiled an engrossing compendium of English towns and villages entrenched in some mysterious folklore. The Lore of the Land will take you to places such as Five Knolls in Bedfordshire, the site in 1667 where Elizabeth Pratt admitted to bewitching her two children at her subsequent trial; Manningtree in Essex to discover the burial place of Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General; or Alton, in Hampshire, where in 1867 a solicitor’ s clerk brutally murdered a girl in the local fields. Fanny Adams was so mutilated that her murder led to the expression “Sweet Fanny Adams” whenever a foul dish of meat was served for dinner.

IF it is fact rather than legend that you need, then Clive Aslet’s Landmarks of Britain will be a reliable guide for your travels. It surveys the history of Britain through the places where events actually happened. From the Old Bailey, described as “rotund as a barrister’s peroration, as florid as a judge’s face after luncheon”, to Shire Hall in Monmouth, the scene of the biggest Chartist trial in 1839, convened after the Newport rising earlier that year, this book is startling in its comprehensive account of the nation’s history through its towns and cities.

Some of the landmarks noted in the book are contemporary. The Blind Beggar pub, 337 Whitechapel Road, London E1, is described as the “Nemesis of the feared Ronnie Kray”, where he shot George Cornell, a South London gangster, three times in the head, and the Grand Hotel in Brighton also demands an entry where at “nearly three o’clock in the morning of October 12, 1984”, the Brighton bomb became “the IRA’s worst atrocity on the British mainland ”.

But there is always the opportunity of retreating back in time if our recent history is too unpalatable — visit the Market Place in Wells, where in 1685 Judge Jeffreys, Lord Chief Justice of England, presided over the Bloody Assizes where 2,600 of the rebels who fought against the King were tried and mostly executed.

ENGLAND, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY, edited by John Lewis-Stempel, should accompany both of the works mentioned above. It records 2,000 years of English history in the words of people alive at the time.

As you visit Canterbury Cathedral, one of Aslet’s Landmarks of Britain, read Edward Grim’s account of the murder of St Thomas à Becket. Grim was Becket’s attendant and describes in detail the end of the Archbishop: “Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound . . . the crown which was large was separated from the head; so that blood white with brain . . . dyed the surface of the Virgin Mother Church with the life and death of the confessor and martyr in the colours of the lily and the rose.”

If you visit the Grand Hotel, take some time to read Norman Tebbit’s account of the outrage. Read Kenneth Tynan’s report on the Lady Chatterley trial at the Old Bailey in 1960, “Gerald Gardiner, counsel for the defence . . . prowled up and down like a wounded lion, waiting for those 12 inscrutable citizens to come to their conclusion”, one of many examples of the most articulate of their age giving us the temperature of their times.

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