Your collection of news, English humour, curiosities and unexpected stories.
GARDENER’S BANE, HISTORY’S GAIN
The heatwave may have caused a few garden plant casualties, but down at the Bishop’s Palace in Wells, Somerset, it’s unearthed a long-hidden secret.
As the days lengthened, the sun blazed, the temperatures soared and the grass turned from green to beige straw, the garden at the Bishop’s Palace started to reveal a crazy series of geometric patterns. These were soon matched to John Carter’s 1790s Map of Wells, and so attributed to a water feature in the form of Dutch-style canals, thought to have been laid out in the 17th century.
These gardens were likely redesigned in the 1820s by Bishop Law, who is said to have preferred the Picturesque style, popular in Victorian times.
As Jonathan Sawyer, who works at the Palace, says: “We know that people were drawn to the Wells pools in our gardens as far back as the Bronze Age, so it is so exciting when new stories emerge in exceptional circumstances like this hot, dry spell. The gardeners may not enjoy it, but it all adds to our understanding of this beautiful site!”
Let us say you want to sleep inside an iconic symbol of London. Buckingham Palace and the other royal residences may be out, but a better alternative might be to spend the night in a converted 1960s London double-decker bus parked at South Causey Inn in County Durham.
Philip Mosier and wife Susan are ready to welcome guests after converting and refurbishing the bus into the ultimate high-end experience.
There’s a queen-sized bed (how fitting!), red velvet interior, shower, bathroom, Wi-fi and television, as well as many of the bus’s original features and quirky twists, too – the entrance to the bus is an imitation of the door to number 10!
Just the ticket, we say! Thanks to John Greeves for bringing this to our attention.
CALLING ALL SCULPTURE VULTURES!
A metal sculpture of a rook holding on to a book with its claws has been unveiled in the riverside town of Fowey, in Cornwall.
Looking across to the former home of author Daphne du Maurier, it stands by the lifeboat mooring at Berrill’s Yard. It was commissioned from father and son metalworkers Gary and Thomas Thrussell, who are based on nearby Bodmin Moor. Their metal insect sculptures are a well-known feature at the Eden Project a few miles away at Bodelva.
The sculpture was unveiled by Kit Browning, the author’s son, who lives at her former home at Ferryside, just across the river.
The sculpture has been nicknamed “Daphne’s Crow” or “The Rook With A Book” by residents. It is a reference to du Maurier’s novel “The Birds”, which was famously made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1960s.
FOR THE BEST OF PETS
What do Walnut the whippet, Smudge the cat and Flora the “Dog Doctor” all have in common? And no, you’re not waiting for a punch-line.
Apparently, these animals are the first to be recognised with a green “pet plaque” on their owners’ houses for outstanding services to society. The scheme, launched by pet-sitting business Trusted Housesitters, has so far seen just over 20 plaques placed on homes all over the UK in the style of the English Heritage blue plaque scheme.
Each plaque gives a brief description of the animal’s achievement (in the case of Smudge, he saved a young boy from bullies), and even features ears to set these new plaques apart from any others.
By all accounts, the scheme was born out of research by the brand that revealed we value our pets as much, if not more, than friends or family – a third of people admitted they would rather spend time with their pet than their friends (though we’re pretty sure that doesn’t include the family goldfish).
No, we’re not expecting English Heritage to roll over just yet, but here’s to some serious paw appreciation!
POLICE IN THE DOCK
It seems West Midlands Police went one fright too far when they attempted to attract thrill-seekers this Halloween.
Boasting a “ghost-hunting evening” at the Steelhouse Lane cells in Birmingham (which date back to 1891 and are owned by the West Midlands Police), they added “These cells were occupied by none other than . . . Fred West.”
According to a report in the Telegraph, local residents expressed dismay at the stunt, accusing police of “glorifying killers”, and, somewhat spookily, the reference disappeared from the event’s promotional material sharpish.
Ghostbusters can still pay good money to be locked in the cells overnight in complete darkness, after first hearing stories of the building’s dark past – the cells were also occupied by the original Peaky Blinders, a notorious crime gang during World War I – and must also bring “their own sleeping bags and pillows, plus a camping mat or inflatable mattress”.
At £75 you may say it’s not just the location that’s criminal. But then the Ghost Hunting Mission is all for a good cause, raising money for modern slavery charity Hope For Justice.
IT’S AMAZING WHAT RAVENS CAN DO
There is a legend that, should the ravens leave the Tower of London, it’ll crumble to dust and the kingdom will fall. To mitigate this, the Tower is launching a raven breeding programme, having secured planning permission from Tower Hamlets Council to build an aviary in the moat next to the Salt Tower.
Although the Tower currently has its full complement of six ravens plus a spare, you can never be too careful. The breeding programme will be overseen by Ravenmaster Chris Skaife (whose work is the subject of a new book by Harpercollins) and will find a way of overcoming the difficulty of sourcing new ravens.
It was Winston Churchill who ordered that the flock be returned to six after numbers fell to just one after the war, but in recent years it has become increasing difficult to replace the ravens if they go AWOL.
FULL STEAM AHEAD
After a summer of train delays and general malcontent with the state of England’s railways, it’s gratifying to hear of one form of rail travel bucking the trend. Yes, steam is having a moment and we couldn’t be more chuffed.
Not only is the splendidly restored 7029 Clun Castle steam train being coaxed out of retirement to ferry commuters around the Midlands – well, from Stratford-upon-avon to Birmingham – but the Gloucestershire to Warwickshire railway has good news to report, too. Some 72,000 passengers used the service last year, up a whopping 52 per cent on the year before.
People, it seems, can’t get enough of steam. Colin Fewell, the volunteer commercial director, says: “Our railway now goes through more than fourteen miles of glorious landscape from Cheltenham to arguably the most delightful of Cotswold villages, Broadway. Businesses in Broadway are telling us that they have noticed an increase in the number of visitors to the village since the station opened once again, fifty-eight years after it was closed by British Railways.”
And unlike other railways which seem prone to strikes by their workers, the Gloucestershire to Warwickshire is run by 950 cheery volunteers.
Its enthusiasts, who are behind the revival of Clun Castle – 750, to be precise – have funded Vintage Trains Ltd and have big plans to run regular steam trains around the country. We can’t wait!
THAT’S CLEAR, THEN . . .
Apostrophe sticklers everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief as Land’s End has confirmed it is now officially Land’s End. Yes, that’s right – not Lands End or Lands’ End, but Land’s End.
Councillors at Cornwall’s most south-westerly point unanimously approved the correct placing of the apostrophe after seeking advice from historian and archaeologist Craig Weatherhill, who has written a book about Cornish place names.
It is not the first time apostrophes have been hotly debated in council chambers. After Cambridge City Council’s decision to axe the apostrophe from its new street names, there was such an outcry – including guerrilla punctuators altering street signs with black marker pens – that the decision was reversed.
THAT’S THE WAY TO DO IT!
A book landed on our desks full of gems gathered by Suffolk doctor Philip Rhys Evans, who compiled a newsletter of “wonders and absurdities” every year to send to his friends and family.
This book is a compilation of his last sixteen newsletters and one of our favourite entries is this letter from HMRC to one resentful recipient of a tax demand: Dear Mr Addison, I am writing to you to express our thanks for your more than prompt reply to our latest communication, and also to answer some of the points you raise. I will address them, as ever, in order.
Firstly, I must take issue with your description of our last as a “begging letter”. It might perhaps more properly be referred to as a “tax demand”. This is how we at the Inland Revenue have always, for reasons of accuracy, traditionally referred to such documents.
Secondly, your frustration at our adding to the “endless stream of crapulent whining and panhandling that vomits daily through the letterbox on to the doormat” has been noted.
However, whilst I have naturally not seen the other letters to which you refer, I would cautiously suggest that their being from “pauper councils, Lombardy banking houses and puissant gasmongerers” might indicate that your decision to “file them next to the toilet in case of emergencies” is at best a little ill-advised.
In common with my own organisation, it is unlikely that the senders of these letters do see you as a “lackwit bumpkin” or, come to that, a “sodding charity”.
More likely they see you as a citizen of Great Britain, with a responsibility to contribute to the upkeep of the nation as a whole.
Which brings me to my next point. Whilst there may be some spirit of truth in your assertion that the taxes you pay “go to shore up the canker-blighted, toppling folly that is the public services”, a moment’s rudimentary calculation ought to disabuse you of the notion that the government in any way expects you to “stump up for the whole damned party” yourself.
The estimates you provided for the Chancellor’s disbursement of the funds levied by taxation, while colourful, are in fairness a little off the mark ...
A couple of technical points arising from direct queries: the reason why we don’t simply write “Muggins” on the envelope has to do with the vagaries of the postal system.
You can rest assured that “sucking the very marrows of those with nothing else to give” has never been considered as a practice, because even if the Personal Allowance does not render it irrelevant, the sheer medical logistics involved would make it financially unviable. I trust this has helped. In the meantime, whilst I would not in any way wish to influence your decision one way or the other, I ought to point out that even if you did choose to “give the whole foul jamboree up and go and live in India”, you would still owe us the money. Please forward it by Friday.
Yours sincerely H. J. Lee, Customer Relations
John Julius Norwich included this in his 2012 Christmas Cracker, with this explanation: “The following letter from the Inland Revenue, passed on to me by Mark Tennant, was published in the Guardian, which had previously asked them for special permission to print it.”
Extract from A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book: Wonders & Absurdities by Philip Rhys Evans. Now available to buy from Slightly Foxed, RRP £14, www.foxedquarterly.com.
South Lawn with archaeological features, Bishop’s Palace, Wells.
Philip and Susan Mosier’s high-end, converted 1960s bus at South Causey Inn.
The interior of the bus is much more luxurious than your average double-decker.
The “Rook With A Book” sculpture in Fowey, Cornwall.