Sunday, 29 December 2013


As this will be my last post of the year and the media is full of what has happened in the last twelve months, I thought I would offer some thoughts of my own. Over the last twelve months or so, some five books in the Through Time series with my name on have been released. As the name suggests these compare modern images with similar views from yesteryear and below I offer a taster from these books, where the older view in each case date from around a century ago.

In these images from Tamworth Through Time we see identical views looking up the hill in my home town of Tamworth, with Tamworth Castle on the right. The road is known as Holloway because it was quite literally hollowed out by the constant passage of wheels, hooves and feet as they crossed the River Tame at what was for centuries the only bridge for miles over this river.

A view of Dr Samuel Johnson’s Birthplace from Lichfield Through Time. Born here in September 1709, he was a sickly baby and his aunt is held to have announced on seeing him for the first time how she ‘would not have picked up such a poor creature in the street’.

From Stafford Through Time come these views of Stafford Common Station. The old image is at it appeared in August 1968, with the modern view from below the bridge featured in the earlier picture.

Two very different scenes from Solihulll Through Time but taken from the same position. What is now Riverdale Drive opposite Malvern Park was previously the former Solihull Brickworks. However there is one remaining landmark, out of shot to the left in both these images, of a Post Office pillar box which is still in daily use.

When photographing English Riviera Through Time, my favourite part of the world, I was struck by something clearly evidenced by these images. First we see the village of Galmpton around 1907, the home of Agatha Christie is situated behind the camera. Note the sapling in the old image is the same tree as that dominating the modern view. This is also true of the background which is devoid of trees in the old image but, although largely hidden in the modern view, litter the scene today.

The same is true in this view of Anstey’s Cove where vegetation is the dominant feature in the twenty-first century.

As usual I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you. Meanwhile I shall take this opportunity to say to one and all a very Happy New Year and wish for you everything you would wish for yourselves.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Origins of Pub Names

As this is the season when nearly all of us will be raising a glass or two, and the subject of pub names was raised over luncheon last week – in a pub, of course - I have decided to point out the origin of a selection of pub names. Thus if the beer or wine fails to entertain, you might have something to talk about.

Although it may seem odd, the inn sign pre-dates the first recognisable inns in this country by a significant period of time. Once upon a time every family brewed their own ale. It made sense as the water could rarely be trusted to be safe to drink and the boiling part of the brewing process effectively sterilises the liquid sufficiently to ensure it is safe to drink.

In order to earn a copper or two, some settlements would offer some of the brew to travellers on the road. Such refreshment, perhaps accompanied by a hunk of bread and pottage or similar, brought much-needed revenue to the household. We are not talking about the larger communities where the main road ran straight through the village but more isolated communities.

Yet these services would have to be advertised as any well-worn path was unlikely to run past the front door. Hence to draw attention to the home brew a sheaf of barley would be tied to a prominent tree. The bole of a large tree with its lower branches removed with be noticeable enough. With a sheaf of barley tied at or just above eye level, they would be guaranteed to receive a thirsty guest or two before long. These marked and still-living trees were known as ale stakes and are easy to see as the forerunner of the modern pub sign. This is how the logical order of pub – name – sign was, in reality, quite the reverse.

In later years landlords and owners were quick to realise the sign was the equivalent of advertising hoarding of its day. Just as modern advertisers use humour and eye-catching imagery to give their product any edge over the competition, so early inns employed every trick they could think of to bring in the customers. There was one big difference, however. Today we read the name, yet literacy is a fairly modern development and our forefathers will have had to recognise the image on the sign and be able read the message it contained.

Red Lion - At its peak there were more pubs known as the Red Lion in England than any other. Numbers once exceeded six hundred but in the twenty-first century this has fallen. For such a common name the name has only been seen since the seventeenth century and, rather ironically, the most common pub name in England is representative of the monarchy of Scotland.

It began as a device on the coat of arms of the most powerful man in England in the fourteenth century, John of Gaunt. His vast riches would, in today’s money, be worth in excess of £100 billion, making him one of the twenty wealthiest people in history. His successors went on to become kings of England through lines resulting in Henry IV and Henry VII and, of course, their descendants. While few pub names can be traced to the fourteenth century and directly to John of Gaunt himself, his red lion symbol did come to England through a more circuitous route. Of his fifteen named children, four with Katherine Swynford were later legitimised by royal decree, taking the surname Beaufort. Their descendants thereafter became every ruler in Scotland from 1437 and, following the accession of the House of Stuart in 1603, every monarch of England.

Royal Oak - One of the three most common pub names in England this was unheard of before the middle of the seventeenth century, for it remembers one of the best known narratives in the history of our islands. The oak tree in question is the Boscobel Oak, a large specimen in Shifnal, Shropshire and where Charles II and his aide Colonel Carless hid from noon to nightfall to escape the Parliamentarian soldiers. Following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, King Charles was aided by a number of his supporters as he attempted to flee the country. After a number of close shaves he was smuggled to France by members of the Pendrell family disguised as a woodman, complete with a severe haircut and stained face and arms to make it look as if he was used to working outside. Nine years later at the Restoration of the Monarchy the 29th of May, the date of the king's birthday, being chosen as the official date and thereafter was known as Royal Oak Day.

The present tree is not the original, this was destroyed by souvenir hunters in the 17th and 18th centuries who removed pieces of bark and even whole branches. A second tree, from an acorn of the first, known as the Son of the Royal Oak grew until it was badly damaged by a storm in 2000. A third tree was planted as a sapling by Prince Charles in 2001, this had been grown from an acorn taken from the 'Son' and is thus 'the grandson'. Modern-day souvenir hunters can still acquire a piece of the history, for other grandchildren of the Boscobel Oak are on sale here. Buyers receive their small oak along with a certificate of authenticity.

Stewponey – A pub in Staffordshire which should correctly be the Stewponey and Foley Arms, for the family who made their fortune from iron. This pub near Stourbridge earned its first name when a British soldier came to run the pub after seeing action during the Peninsular Wars in Spain.

His military career now over, he brought with him his new wife, a Spanish woman born in Estepona. It was his intention to add the name of her place of birth to the sign but, as none of the locals were fluent Spanish speakers, it acquired the name of Stewponey.

Sun and Slipper – The local at Mamble in Shropshire was first recorded as an inn in 1642, when it was known as the Sun. This device found on the coat of arms of the Blount family. This coaching inn once offered a maintenance service for the coaches, including changing the brake of ‘slipper’ which was soon added to the name. During the twentieth century the name was changed to the Dog and Duck but, after a veritable outcry from patrons, quickly reverted to its original name.

Tame Otter - The river has not only given a name to the town of Tamworth in Staffordshire but also this pub in nearby Hopwas. For a time this was known as the Chequers, although in recent years it has reverted to its original name of the Tame Otter. As expected the sign-painter depicts the animal Lutra lutra, once hunted for its fur and in danger of extinction the European otter is now making a comeback. Yet the engaging creature has not given its name to the pub, this comes from a simple rowing boat. Shallow, blunt-ended and for just one man, this particular vessel is rarely found away from the Trent and its tributaries. It is possible the boat, used by fishermen, was named from the water mammal but there is no evidence to confirm or refute this.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Izaak Walton – The Compleat Angler.

December 15th 1683 saw the death of arguably the most famous British angler. On this, the 330th anniversary of his passing, I am reminded of a story which featured in my Paranormal Staffordshire.


Across the M6 from Stone is the tiny hamlet of Shallowford. The watery reference is appropriate, for here is the former home of Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653.

Featured on the cover of my book, Walton’s black-and-white thatched cottage is now a museum, a testimony to the man who is known as a fisherman but loved the countryside as a whole. This delightful building throws its doors open to the public for only limited times of the year. Any activity outside the normal opening hours seems to bother Miriam, the resident ghost here. Lights and electrical equipment turn on and off without warning, while her presence is almost always accompanied by a distinct drop in temperature. Why she is referred to as Miriam is a mystery; indeed the only reason for suggesting she is female is down to a psychic stating she is a busy lady.

There is a second, less well-documented presence that has not been named. However, there is no doubt as to his gender, for he has been seen walking through a hedge and following the line of an old path before vanishing from sight. He wears a costume dating to the seventeenth century. Perhaps, if not the man himself, he is a friend and colleague of Izaak Walton. If so, he would be sure to have much information to add to the museum, although maybe this would further irritate Miriam.

As always I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Berkshire Place Names

This week the publication of Berkshire Place Names by Fineleaf Editions means there are now 43 books of mine on the shelves, more than half on the subject of place names.

To promote the book I was interviewed on BBC Berkshire by the delightful Anne Diamond. Among the names discussed was that of Wargrave, a name from Old English waer graf speaks of 'the grove by the weir'. This name is seen in the Domesday survey of 1086 as Weregrave.

From baer meaning 'swine pasture' comes Bear Grove, Bear Place, Bear Ash, and Bear Hill. Similarly Culham Court, Upper Culham Farm, Middle Culham Farm, and Lower Culham Farm share an origin in either cylen ham 'the homestead near a kiln or kilns' or cylen hamm 'the hemmed-in land with a kiln or kilns'. Worley's Farm is from horu leah 'the dirty woodland clearing'. Bottom Boles Wood has had a complicated and tortuous evolution but originated in 'the bottom place of the rounded hills'. Highcockett literally means 'cocked hat', a description of the shape of the field. Knowl Hill takes cnol or ‘rounded hill’ and adds the modern equivalent.

Pubs named the Greyhound have three possible origins. The most obvious is the breed of dog, one bred for hunting but it was the chase which was more important than the statistically unlikely kill. It was also the name of a famous stagecoach, one running from London to Birmingham and a second from the capital to Exeter. However the most common is heraldic, this being found on the coat of arms of the dukes of Newcastle, an important landowner. The White Hart also began as an heraldic device, one representing Richard II but has lasted when it became the generic name for every public house.

The Seven Stars has stood for more than four centuries, it being the traditional meeting place for workers at the now-defunct Star Brick Works. The addition of ‘seven’ is either for alliteration or luck, most likely both. Many pubs known simply as the ‘George’ refer to the saint and not any of the six kings. Indeed, there seems to be a general tendency for pubs known as the George and Dragon to lose the mythical beast. Yet in Wargrave the reverse is true, for this leaves no doubt in the possibly unique name of the St George and Dragon.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Northamptonshire Ghosts

Last week I mentioned two books in the pipeline, both a collection of ghost stories. Last week I covered Warwickshire, offered a story and appealed for personal experiences. This week the other volume, this time Northamptonshire, and again should anyone have any tales to tell within the county I would be delighted to hear from you.

As with last week I offer a taster, this time we travel to Abington and a very strange tale indeed. It is September of 2002 and a lovely antique china cabinet was purchased for Julia Warren by her daughter. Almost immediately problems began for Mrs Warren. Not wishing to appear ungrateful she tried to ignore the chills and difficulty with the doors but eventually was forced to admit defeat.

The cabinet doors were locked and, as the key was missing, seemingly would remain so. However on more than one occasion a cabinet door was found off its hinges. Yet the crunch came when Mrs Warren saw a figure standing alongside the now unwanted gift. She described this as a woman, very tall and gaunt, wearing clothing from the 1930s and appearing more miserable than anyone Mrs Warren had ever seen in her life.

Thankfully her daughter fully understood and advised her mother she had bought it from Trends on the Wellingborough Road. Hence one day manager Mark Kypta had a visit from Mrs Warren asking him to take the cabinet back. She required no refund, wanting nothing more than to get the cabinet out of her house and so the cabinet was, once again, back at Trends.

This was not the end of the story for no sooner had the cabinet been returned to the retail outlet than it began causing problems for Mark Kypta. At first he tried to find the previous owner but when that drew a blank he left it in his shop until he could decide upon his next move. It was then the cabinet began to create problems. On the second occasion the troublesome door was found wide open in the morning, when still no key had been found, he decided it had to go.

Hence the local press were approached to announce Trends were to auction off the cabinet, with the proceeds going to charity. Did anyone bid on a haunted cabinet? Was a key ever found? Does the cabinet still exist and is its guardian now content with their new home? Presumably as nothing has been heard the answer to all three questions must be in the affirmative.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.