How signmakers in Victorian Stratford left a cast-iron mark on the world

A metalwork company that started making garden labels would leave its imprint on the globe and gain Queen Victoria’s approval. History writer Martin Kenny goes on the trail of the Royal Label Factory

In the early 1870s, the first clangs of metal rang out in a workshop overlooked by Shakespeare’s church – sounding the humble beginnings of a company that would go on to gain royal patronage and become a world leader in its field.

Bell & Thorpe’s company began producing metal garden labels in unassuming surroundings on Chestnut Walk, close to the playwright’s final resting place at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The business gained the attention of Stratfordian John Smith, who eventually took over and moved the premises from College Paddock to 41 Rother Street, behind the former Great Western Arms pub, which is now The New Lamplighter.

He named the company ‘The Metallic Label Works’ and trademarked ‘The Stratford’ in 1875. The document, and notes about the company’s history, are held in archives at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT).

Queen Victoria was so impressed by the cast iron garden labels, with their raised lettering and bold, clear rendering, that she commissioned them for her rose gardens at Sandringham and granted permission for the business to use the ‘Royal’ prefix in its title.

The company became known around the world as Royal Labels Factory, with the unmistable imprints denoting roads, streets and other places in Africa, Canada, India and the West Indies.  The raised lettering on the signs, which at this time was unique, had made such an impression on the Queen as it was reported that she was experiencing problems with her eyesight and the letters could be used like braille.

The words made in Stratford were shipped to some of the farthest reaches of the world

In fact, the quality of these labels has been recognised again in recent years when Westonbirt Arboretum unearthed over 100 late 19th century metal labels in 2007.

The labels that were discovered were a variety of sizes bearing the names of trees and shrubs and on the reverse side appeared the words ‘J.Smith, Royal Labels Factory, Stratford on Avon.’ By November 1918, Royal Labels moved to College Lane in Old Town where it began to produce road signs in vast quantities that met the specification of the Ministry of Transport.

Across the world and in particular the Commonwealth, the company’s cross road, level crossing, Halt and Slow signs were renowned and were produced for these export markets in aluminium and iron. During the Second World War a further diversification took place with the factory producing aircraft parts as part of the war effort. After the war, the firm returned back to sign production. An insight into the high level of craftsmanship can be seen in an illustrated catalogue by the industrious makers which is held at the SBT.

By now, the signs were cast in high-grade silicon aluminium and finished by spraying with synthetic enamels and oven stored, according to notes held at the SBT. The opening of the Chipping Norton site in 1963 signalled the beginning of the end for the Stratford factory and slowly production was transferred over until the eventual demise of the College Lane business in 1982. The site was converted into housing and there are now few clues as to the previous occupants of College Mews.  

Royal Labels has continued to trade and are now located in Buxton in Derbyshire where they are part of Leander Architectural, producing signs currently for the National Trust and Military Memorials.  Far from being flossy Victoriana, the bold, durable letting can still be seen on signs and lamposts today.

Much of the manufacturing business of Stratford has now disappeared, but it is important to remember the contribution of many local firms in the Second World War and a time when the words made in Stratford appeared around the world.

Hearts set to flutter at Stratford Butterfly Farm this Valentine’s

Couples invited to pop the question, and make a bond with nature, at one of Warwickshire’s foremost indoor beauty spots

With its rocky waterfalls, tropical vegetation and Mayan-themed statues, Stratford Butterfly Farm has long been one of Warwickshire’s most charming spots.

The graceful wing-beats of hundreds of butterflies and bridges over indoor ponds make an immersive setting for couples affirming their bond in the heart of the town.

Men, and women taking advantage of 2020 being a leap year, have an added incentive to pop the question at the UK’s largest tropical butterfly haven this time round. Dainty marble hearts (pictured, above) will be given free to each visitor between February 14 and 16, either to keep or to present to a loved one.

Guests are being asked to return the love by making a pledge to the environment with a green action promise; written commitments that will be displayed in the Discovery Zone.

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Stratford Butterfly Farm makes an inviting spot for lovers ready to pop the question

Love will also be in the air in the shape of hundreds of butterflies, such as the citrus-eating swallowtails (pictured, below), that inhabit the rainforest flight area.

As the days start to get longer the intricately-patterned creatures, around a third of which come from the visitor attraction’s farm in Belize, begin their own courtship dances to suss out potential mates.

The angel of Stratford who casts a quiet light in Shakespeare’s church

Younger visitors will also have plenty of activities to enjoy during the half term between February 15 and 23. Children and adults can take part in the popular, twice-daily Meet the Mini-Beast handling sessions and hold creatures such as a giant African millipede, African land snail and a variety of stick insects.

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A wealthy noble man will keep watch over courting couples at Stratford Butterfly Farm

A tradition dating back to the 5th Century has it that women can propose to men on February 29 in a leap year, and the window of opportunity is likely to be embraced at Stratford Butterfly Farm.

Marketing Manager Jane Kendrick said: “Here at the Farm we love to see couples propose to each other and with it being a leap year I hope we see plenty more proposals on February 29!

“Our marble hearts are a lovely keepsake and we want to encourage everyone that visits on those two days to make a pledge and do something positive for our environment.”

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A swallowtail butterfly displays its wings at Stratford Butterfly Farm

•To see hundreds of spectacular butterflies, insects, reptiles and spiders visit the Butterfly Farm from 10am to 5pm, last entry 4pm. Open every day of the week except Christmas Day.

For more information including admission prices and group rates, visit www.butterflyfarm.co.uk or call 01789 299288.

The forgotten day a Prince met his subjects on a crumbling bridge

The future King George IV drew gawping crowds as he walked over Stratford-upon-Avon’s ‘so very dangerous’ throughfare

The much-maligned Prince Regent was widely regarded as a foppish and extravagant character in an era that spanned the American War of Independence and the Battle of Waterloo.

Yet one of the royal’s most significant visits to Warwickshire, when he climbed down from his carriage to walk over Stratford-upon-Avon’s decrepit Clopton Bridge, bowing to the crowds on his way, has long vanished from memory.

A chance find at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust led history writer Martin Kenny to retrace the day the future King showed a more humble side to the royal watchers gathered by the Avon.

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A summer house is curiously stranded on a traffic island to the south of the bridge

As royal visits go, the unplanned visit of the Prince Regent, the Prince of Wales and future King George IV, must rank as the most unique trip of any monarch to Stratford.

The visit more than 200 years has long faded from memory and only a chance visit to the Reading Room at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust revealed the exact circumstances of a rare meeting between the future King and his subjects on the town’s landmark bridge.

In an album of memorabilia collected by town solicitor and nineteenth century Shakespeare historian Robert Bell Wheeler there is a piece of reference material not much larger than a business card which in three, well-scribed paragraphs gives specific detail of the encounter.

By 1811 the medieval Clopton Bridge and its low, rolling arches had fallen into such a state of disrepair it was apparent to statesmen and market traders alike that urgent action was needed to ensure the vital gateway to the town could continue to function.

Mr Wheeler’s small, white-backed card gives details of a meeting at the White Lion Inn the following Saturday to discuss a rather ambitious plan to “take down the present stone bridge and rebuild a more commodious one, for the accommodation of the public”.

The solicitor’s legal prose gives some further, brief details on the reverse of the card. He notes that meeting was thinly attended, though the Marquis of Hertford was one notable presence, and finishes by recording that no resolution was made.

King George IV
King George IV took a bow in Stratford-upon-Avon as he walked over Clopton Bridge

The White Lion at this time was one of the most significant Coaching Inns in the land and occupied a considerable area from the top of Henley Street (19-21) through to Shakespeare’s Birthplace. The venue was an integral part of the Shakespeare Festival of 1769 which was hosted by David Garrick and is recognised to be the first major celebration of the Bard’s work.

Only portions of the original building have been retained, though significantly this includes the current basement of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

The third paragraph of the card surprisingly recalls the visit of the Prince Regent to Stratford and gives the following account: “Upon Wednesday the 4th of Sept 1811 His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (Regent) passed through Stratford on his return from Ragley where he had been with the Marquis of Hertford from Sunday the 25th Aug.

“Our Bridge had been represented and so very dangerous that the Marquis advised him to alight from his Carriage at the Bridge End & walk over it, which he and his attendants, Colonel Bloomfield & others did; & were surrounded with plenty of gaping Stratfordians. His Royal Highness bowed most graciously to them.”

The meeting of the “gaping Stratfordians” with the future King can only be imagined but it must have been a fascinating clash of two worlds and cultures. The Prince spent much time at Ragley Hall and his bedroom is still an exhibit at the house today. It was widely reported that there was an affair between the Prince and the Marquess of Hertford.

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The year 1811 would prove to be a momentous one for the royal’s father, George III, whose health deteriorated to the point where he was declared insane. The Royal Collection Trust’s ‘Georgian Papers’ includes copies of letters sent by doctors advising of the King’s health condition.

The Prince had become ‘regent’ as a result of his father’s condition and he would accede to the throne amid much pageantry in 1820, despite having gained a reputation as a gregarious, flamboyant character with a predilection for women and drink.

The reference to Colonel Bloomfield demonstrates the important role he took as an entrusted attendant. If there were any concerns for the Prince Regent’s security these would have been addressed by the Colonel, who appears to have been a confidant since taking the position in 1808.

When the Prince has concerns about his safety at Carlton House in London after murders on the nearby Ratcliffe Highway in Christmas 1811, he instructs the Colonel not to admit strangers to the property after 8pm.

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Built in the 15th Century, Clopton Bridge is one of Stratford-upon-Avon’s most familiar sights

Despite the Prince’s safety-first crossing, it wasn’t until 1814 that work took place to widen and repair the bridge, which now took on a new profile following the construction of the tollhouse.

Tolls were imposed to pay for the improvements and an article from the Oxford Chronicle includes details of how the arrangements were carried out. It is interesting to note that this was the last time the bridge was widened, which is incredible considering the changes in transportation over the last two centuries!

As traffic continues to rumble over the Grade I-listed monument today, the Prince’s crossing has vanished from memory. The Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser of 31 August 1811 makes only a passing reference to the visit of the Prince Regent to Ragley Hall on page three.

The newspaper states: “His Royal Highness the Prince Regent has for these days past, been on a visit to the Marquis of Hertford’s at Ragley in this county.”

A previous visit by the Prince to Stratford in September 1806 is documented by Mr Wheeler, including the presentation of a box made from a mulberry tree in Shakespeare’s New Place.

I am always intrigued when researching old archive material as to whether the details may have been overlooked in the reporting of the history of the town. The visit of the Prince Regent to Stratford in 1806 received significant coverage when the royal visitor was presented with the wooden box made from the rosewood of New Place by Mr Bell Wheeler. It is therefore surprising that the details so carefully scribed in the same handwriting should have remained disregarded.

It makes you wonder what other secrets the archives of the Trust hold among the one million documents.

Explore Stratford with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust 

Chill factor no match for Warwick’s hardy parkrunners

With up to 1,000 people taking part in parkrun across Warwick District every Saturday, Much Ado joined the crowd braving an icy morning

Come rain, shine or morning frost, parkrun is a phenomenon that just keeps on growing.

On a crisp morning, with temperatures a little above freezing, a hardy band of all ages turned out at Warwick Racecourse armed with hats, gloves and multiple layers of nylon.

Warwick Racecourse parkrun received its official launch last week, with sponsors and local councillors in attendance, and it was going to take more than an icy start to put the event off its stride.

The eighth instalment of the free, timed 5k run, which falls just short of completing a circuit of the racecourse before looping back on itself, got underway after an admirable effort by volunteers to place cones round icy patches and position marshals at potentially hazardous spots.

Abi Morton gives the pre-run briefing at Warwick parkrun
Run Director Abi Morton gives the pre-run briefing at Warwick Racecourse

On the morning, things went without a hitch.

Bal Kandola was first home, striding way out in front of a chase group as he rounded the turning point and bounded down the sloping hill. The Leamington Cycling and Athletics Club member set a person best [PB] of 16:37, equalling the course record set the previous week by Ian Allen.

“I wanted to test myself,” Bal said afterwards. “I’ve got my first cross country race of the season next week and I wanted to see what my fitness is like and how fast I could go over 5k. It’s quite fast, quite a good course and you can go for it.”

Bal Kandola clinched a PB and equalled the course record
First home: Bal Kandola clinched a PB and equalled the course record

Also embracing the chilly start was Harry Bailey, 13, who has 129 parkruns to his name, including at Leamington Spa, which has a leg-sapping hill.

Harry, of Kenilworth Runners, said: “I loved it, I got a new PB of 20.38. Compared to Leamington it’s quite flat, there’s a consistent uphill and a downhill section, while Leamington has a steep uphill bit and then at the top you go straight down.”

Father-and-son team - Harry and Colin Bailey
The frosty conditions were no match for father and son Colin and Harry Bailey

Harry also enjoys the community spirit of parkrun, which has taken root in Warwick and has been aided by the golf centre cafe opening its doors with hot brews, flapjack and bacon butties after the outdoor exertions every Saturday morning.

He said: “I just enjoy getting the fresh air and I like the social side, when you chat with people afterwards and everyone says ‘well done’. It’s really fun.”

Harry’s dad Colin, also of Kenilworth Runners, is a great believer in the parkrun philosophy that running, or walking, is for everyone, of any ability.

Colin said: “It’s inclusive, it doesn’t matter if you’re sub-15 or a fifty -minute runner, it’s for everyone. You get a lot of people into running who otherwise wouldn’t run. I’m a member of a running club and we get a lot people into running who do couch to 5k and then go on to do a parkrun. The event is a way for complete newbies to get into running and it doesn’t cost you anything, it’s amazing.”

Joe Parsons (l), Cindy Lewis and Phil Sharp kept the brews flowing at Warwick Golf Centre's cafe
Joe Parsons (l), Cindy Lewis and Phil Sharp had the brews ready at Warwick Golf Centre cafe

Run Director Abi Morton, of Spa Striders running club, was behind the megaphone for the morning briefing having given the go ahead after strategically positioning cones and marshals around potentially slippy patches. “It was number eight today and we had the official opening last week with around 350 or 355 turning up,” the volunteer said.

“There weren’t that many this week but parkrunners are a hardy bunch and come out whatever the weather. It’s the community that brings people out, it’s why I got involved.  You miss it if you don’t take part.”

Run Director Abi Morton and fellow volunteers overcome the ice
Run Director Abi Morton and fellow volunteers overcame an icy start at Warwick Racecourse

On a morning when the town was obscured by a fine white mist when viewed from the racecourse, Warwick Racecourse parkrun still attracted 255 runners and walkers.

Having passed its chilliest test yet, the fledgling event looks set to be a firm part of town life.

For more information about Warwick Parkrun click here

By Yunzy

Tutankhamun casts a boyish gaze through the sands of time

Days out: The Saatchi Gallery, London

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Pharaoh, Saatchi Gallery, London

As he peered into the eerie darkness, Howard Carter could see nothing but the flickering glow of orange from his candle.

Adjusting his eyes, the Egyptologist began to make out the outlines of the treasures packed within the subterranean chamber.

Statues of people and strange creatures punctuated by strips of gold emerged from the gloom, the hot air rushing out of the tomb and creating a mist as Tutankhamun’s near-intact embarkation point for the afterlife was unsealed. Asked by his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, if he could see anything, Carter replied, “yes, wonderful things”. An obscure boy king had been awakened from a 3,200-year slumber, kept alive through a stupefying array of courtly possessions.

Immortality, if not as the pharaoh and his people might have imagined it, was ensured. What’s more, this was only just the beginning.

The antechamber emerging from the murky light was the entrance point to a tomb that would take a team of archaeologists, assembled experts, and their hired hands 10 years to clear. KV62, laterly known as Tutankhamun’s Tomb, was officially opened on November 29, 1922. Carter’s last-gasp excavation in the Valley of the Kings would inscribe the golden pharaoh’s name into history.

Gilded Wooden Figure of Tutankhamun on a Skiff, Throwing Harpoon
Gilded wooden figure of Tutankhamun throwing a harpoon. Image: IMG

 

Ninety-seven years on, the accompaniments of the afterlife have lost none of their place-shifting wonder. Bedazzling visitors to the Saatchi Gallery are 150 artefacts of awe-inducing splendour making a final stop in London before the touring exhibition returns to a permanent home in Egypt.

Tutankhamun, who died at the age of 19, sought immortality and, in material form, here it is.

Strikingly backlit in one gilded figurine incarnation, he is shown on a skiff throwing a harpoon, a symbolic depiction showing his fearless pursuit of the hippopotamus representing his foe, Seth, the god of war and chaos.

Fine detailing by the ancient Egyptian sculptors and painters, lost in modern imaginings of restless mummies and shimmering pyramids, is cast in new light by the intelligent, uncluttered use of lighting and breakout displays.

An ornate gilded wooden fan, for which Tutankhamun is said to have provided the delicate feathers after hunting ostriches, is another example of a wonderous treasure given a hush-inducing re-interpretation. The narrative tapestry woven through the galleries includes the Book of the Dead, which contained almost 200 spells acting as a Rough Guide to the afterlife and its places and characters, and the discovery itself, including the so-called ‘mummy’s curse’ which was said to have struck down Carnarvon.

Hussein Abdel-Rassoul, the waterboy who found the 16 steps in the bedrock that led down to the Aladdin’s Cave, also has a special place in the multi-media exhibition that opens with a cinematic backstory about the discovery. Hussein is pictured wearing a gold inlaid pectoral, which is displayed in all its exquisite finery, more earthy taste than pharoah’s bling.

A pristine alabaster cup, with an inscription wishing Tutankhamun’s soul a life of thousands of years, looks as if it was fashioned yesterday, rather than 3,300 years ago.

Tutankhamun’s “Wishing Cup” in the Form of an Open Lotus and Two Buds (3)
Tutankhamun’s “Wishing Cup” in the form of an open lotus and two buds. image: IMG

Looming above all else is the showpiece guardian statue, centred in its own dedicated gallery, of the golden king. Thought to have been one of a pair that kept watch outside his mortuary temple, one of the first things that Carter saw in the dim light, the giant and majestic quartzile monument is a lumbering, climatic piece for the exhibition.

It’s as close as one comes to beholding one of the wonders of the world, though the tomb does not strictly qualify as one of the hallowed seven, on home soil, and within minutes of a Tube stop. Another showpiece is the gold inlaid coffinete, used to store the pharoah’s liver.

The interactive age has bestowed a new gaze on the most alluring relics of all, which will eventually be part of the Grand Egyptian Museum due to open in Giza on the outskirts of Cairo. Tutankhamun, however, appears to be gazing through our age and far beyond.

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Pharaoh, presented by Viking Cruises, runs at the Saatchi Gallery in London between November 2, 2019 and May 3, 2020.

For more information and ticket prices click here

The autumn collection: Revitalised Hill Close Gardens in Warwick

Splendid autumnal scenes at rejuvenated hedged gardens, where Victorians once tended cherished plots and stooping apple trees

Yellow holly pitched against the sky and apple fall on a shed roof make fine autumnal scenes in our picture gallery taken at Hill Close Gardens.

Unassumingly pitched on a gentle slope looking out to Warwick Racecourse, the former Victorian pleasure gardens are a carefully-tended palette of rusty colours and pruned greenery.

Little bigger than a couple of football pitches, the clutch of ‘detached’ plots, which date back almost 200 years, came so close to being demolished that at one point a bulldozer was on site devouring the soil.

Reopened in 2007, an exceptional level of detail can be found in plots still walled, fenced or hedged in around their original square borders. The conservation and restoration drive is currently using a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for a project to upgrade and enhance the visitor experience.

Read more: An outbreak of wassailing and a very proud pork pie maker

On a crisp November day, with Perry’s Peach and Fred’s Yellow chrysanthemums defying autumn’s brush, Hill Close is a place of quietitude while also bearing witness to the fast-changing nature of the seasons. Much Ado joined Community Engagement Worker Caroline Noel for a tour of the site, stopping to fill up bags at crates of apples before warming up with coffee in the new visitors’ room, which will eventually use a variety of media to tell the story of the gardens and their owners.

Rejuvenation was the unifying theme, both through nature’s hand and the drive to preserve a community asset for future generations.

For more information about the gardens click here

Flowers hedge good

Topiary good

flower close white

door handle

Bright flowers

Chairs

Flowers

Yello holy

Apples great

Sign

roof apples

Side topiary

tree over path

Oil

Leaves

Lawn

Apples

Shimmering seas, black sands and banana plantations in land Colombus left behind

Lapping tranquility and winding treks into a rare eco-system await on the isle of La Gomera

Travel: La Gomera

Gazing out to a shimmering blue Atlantic from the top of a vast ravine, I felt myself falling under the enchanting spell of heavenly La Gomera.

I had paused during a trek to the National Park in the heart of the Canarian outpost, the scorched, rugged earth having given way to native palm trees, wild roses and grass.

Hiking up rocky paths, I passed just two people during the day-long walk, which culminated at Roque de Agando, a huge grey rock shaped like an upended loaf of bread.

Clouds and mist blew over the hilltops while pairs of white butterflies flapped in the breeze, as if it were nature’s way of adding an extra layer of gloss to the scene.

A rare laurel rain forest, untouched by the ravages of the ages, covers most of the Garajonay National Park – designated a UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 1986.

The plateau, 1,487 metres above sea level at its highest point, is a world away from the touristic excesses of Tenerife, despite being just a 40-minute ferry ride across the strait.

The lapping tranquillity and seemingly endless plant life has been bottled by Fred Olsen, better known as a shipping company, at the Hotel Jardin Tecina in Playa de Santiago. The adventure began in 1907 when a small sailing boat landed on a beach near where the four-star hotel would later be built.

Ole Thoreson, who would become company chairman Fred Olsen’s business partner, wanted to find somewhere in the south of the island from where fresh water could support a banana plantation. His party was welcomed by a female cave-dweller who treated them to a chicken dinner before they bedded down in a stone circle with a bed of palm leaves to protect them from the dew. They found their spring at the top of a valley – clearing the way for the Olsen group’s hotel venture.

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The enchanting isle of La Gomera has heavenly views and winding valleys. (Pic: AIDA-Artificer)

Today the Tecina’s smooth white stone, spacious, apartment-style rooms and tasteful Mediterranean and north African influenced design grace the cliffs above the landing site.

More than 300 species of plants and trees coming to bloom in different seasons add an everchanging roster of colour to the grounds, which double as a botanical garden.

An entertaining walk takes place under the strapline of “around the world in three hours without leaving the hotel”, and demonstrates what can be done with an average year-round temperature of 23C (73.4F), a computer-controlled water supply and a sprinkling of TLC.

Highlights including a female tropical common screwpine, which, in a rare success for a hotel garden, is yielding up a banana-like fruit, and the various palm trees, of which there are more in La Gomera than anywhere in the Canaries.

The award-winning Tecina picks up the pace, slightly, on a sloping 18-hole golf course spread across more than 6,340 metres overlooking the sea. Squash and paddle courts, a five-a-side pitch, health spa and two outdoor swimming areas are among the other neatly-ordered diversions.

A lift which wouldn’t be out of place in a tropical setting from a Bond film takes guests from a backlit viewing area above the cliffs to the beach below. Set back from the sea is the hotel’s serene Club Laurel, where you can laze by the pool, play volleyball or dine a la
carte under the stars.

A gentle stroll away is the sedate fishing village of Playa de Santiago, where a smattering of tourists and locals can be found unwinding on the black sand and shingle beaches.

Spared from the charge of mass tourism, the Spanish territory is said to be a land of magic and secrets. At the very least it has relatively uncovered interest points – such as the cave burials carried out by the Guanche aboriginal people, with one site being in a giant rock overlooking the village’s promenade.

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La Gomera’s unspoilt natural world makes for breathtaking trekking. (Pic: AIDA-Artificer)

Several miles along the coast to the south are a series of bays, including one only accessible by steep footpaths where German hippies have camped out in caves.

I snorkelled off the rocks at this secluded beach, but organised diving trips allow an even closer look at the abundant marine life. The island’s natural beauty is at its most impressive in La Garajonay, with trails leading across fresh water streams and skirting around waterfalls while exotic birds dart overhead in the thin mist.

I had set out from the hotel on a winding path cut into the side of a deep ravine, which passes crumbling stone farm buildings in the Casas de Contrera region and heads through looming hills before reaching the church of Las Nievas, almost 1,000 metres above sea level.

I eventually reached Roque de Agando, and while coach loads of tourists looked down from a viewing platform some 200ft above, I felt quite smug as I sat on a dusty boulder on the barranco. A scrunching, downhill slog later and I was back at the Tecina’s Gara Restaurant, refuelling on grilled grouper with pineapple gratin and aioli, followed by a grapefruit sorbet. The hotel’s other dining options include the Restaurant Principal, a princely buffet which does a fine line in Canarian cuisine and crops from an in-house vegetable, herb and fruit garden. My aching muscles were further soothed by a rum, blue Curacao, banana cream and pineapple juice ‘Ferry Gomera’ cocktail as I joined a multi-lingual game of bridge in the library.

Downstairs, a demonstration of the ancient native whistling language, ‘El Silbo’, was holding sway. One of two exponents whistled to his friend outside the room, telling him to bring a rose and kiss a guest’s wife on her right hand. He happily carried out the task without a spoken word being exchanged.

The Olsen family has residencies within the resort and the hotel has maintained a reputation for friendly service and links to Gomeran culture since the first guests turned up in five taxis 25 years ago. Retreating to my room, I slid open the balcony doors to the kind of ocean views you would normally only expect on a cruise ship and woke the following morning to the sight of a Barbary falcon gliding in the air above the cliffs.

La gom wind
San Sebastian has narrow streets and pastel-coloured houses. (Pic: AIDA-Artificer)

A 45-minute bus journey later and I was in the capital San Sebastian with a couple of hours to wander among the narrow streets and pastel-coloured houses before the ferry to Tenerife and the flight home. The town was used by Christopher Columbus as a final staging post before his journey to the New World in 1492, and I had just enough time to follow a tourist trail bearing witness to his visit.

To my mind the real treasure was right where he had started.

Words: Yunzy

Pictures: AIDA-Artificer 

Unearthing a century of history at Leamington’s biggest allotment patch

Twenty Acres and a River, by Nigel Briggs, Lesley Campbell and Jim Layton, charts glorious beginnings, war years and changing times at idyllic St Mary’s Allotments.

More than a hundred years of history at Leamington Spa’s biggest allotment patch has been given a lively retelling.

The colourful story of St Mary’s Allotments is being released to mark Heritage Open Days, when visitors will be able to tour this cherished community asset.

The allotments have weathered two world wars, development pressures, floods, power struggles and a plague of rats to become a flourishing and diverse retreat.

They have been tended by prominent people and businesses, including the Sabin baking company and the trophy-harvesting Hughes family.

Bill and Charlie Hughes with father Fred in centre. Multiple gardening award winners.
Bill and Charlie Hughes with father Fred in centre. Multiple gardening award winners.

Plot-holders have mucked in for the wartime ‘dig for victory’ effort, laid claim to the Leamington Sweet Pea and rebuilt after being all but washed away in the flood of 1998. They have also helped local people with disabilities, held art lessons, helped Leamington to receive Britain in Bloom gold awards and created a wildlife haven.

Formally established in 1909, the allotments occupy a swathe of South Leamington bordering the River Leam, the Radford Road and the reservoir.

Civic pride marked out the early years as the first tenants raked in trophies for their finely-cultivated fruit, veg and pigs.

Guided walks around St Mary’s Allotments for Heritage Open Days

This stake in community life was also evident by the provision of seeds for the unemployed from 1935, in line with the early vision of the plots being a way for the ‘working man’ to escape the evils of idleness and drink.

Racing pigs were kept on site while less welcome creatures included an “abnormal” number of rats, according to AGM records unearthed by the authors.

A proposal to build a school on the allotments came to nothing as producing food took a higher priority during the Second World War, with women and children becoming more active on the site as they rallied behind the ‘dig for victory’ effort.

James Ward, one of the original plot-holders
James Ward, one of the original plot-holders

A host of dedicated, much-loved and sometimes eccentric characters are given rich form in the book through first-hand interviews and archival research.

They include secretary Bill Ward, who won a military medal in the First World War but preferred a life among his prized carnations, dahlias and chrysanthemums.

After taking over in 1951, the stickler for neatly-kept plots and paths presided over a resplendent and orderly site for nearly two decades.

Gardeners kept punts at coveted wooden chalets on the banks of the River Leam, enjoying “the quietitude”, as one plot-holder termed it.

In the 1960s, the highly-scented Leamington Sweet Pea joined the shallots, onions and potatoes that were among the most popular crops on the site.

The pea, which remains in catalogues to this day, is believed to have been created by St Mary’s member Norman Slater.

The 70s brought harder times, with the growth of ready meals, supermarkets, foreign travel and home computers.

A new wave of migration, mainly from India, Italy and the West Indies, brought the fresh impetus that the allotments needed but this was hampered by hostile attitudes among the committee of the time.

The authors chart the power struggles in the 80s and 90s to create a more welcoming place for women and people of different nationalities.

Perhaps the biggest blow in the history of the allotments came with the Leamington floods of 1998 that washed away plots, huts and left one greenhouse in a tree.

But the tenants prevailed, creating a meeting place for people of different backgrounds who harvest crops from the traditional potatoes, carrots, parsnips and beans through to artichokes, fennel, methi, coriander, chillies and callaloo.

Certificates awarded to the alotments
Certificates awarded to allotmenteers who regularly won trophies

Outdoor theatre, a memorable cameo on Channel 4’s Shed of the Year and the presence of mental health charity MIND have all helped the site blossom in the 21st Century.

But the allotments have deep roots.

Audrey McCallum, the granddaughter of original member James Ward, whose name appears in the 1912 allotment records, now tends his former plot.

The full story of the people, places and shifting times along the way are now traced for the first time in Twenty Acres and a River.

*Twenty Acres and a River is priced £8.95 and will be available from the launch date of September 21 at selected local bookshops. The launch takes place at 11am on the site, where copies will be available. 

**Visit the allotments for Heritage Open Days on the weekend of September 14 and 15 and the following weekend of September 21 and 22. The allotments are located on the Radford Road, Leamington Spa, CV31 1LQ. The site entrance is opposite Sydenham Drive at the traffic lights junction on Radford Road.

***For more information visit the allotment website at http://www.stmarysallotments.org.uk/

Butlins tale is to allotment crowd’s sheer delight

Britain’s most prolific theatre company hits home with Redcoats – a giddy musical comedy diving into the history of a seaside institution

He might not have recognised the selfie stick, but it’s tempting to think that Billy Butlin would have been tickled pink by this rapid-fire excursion through the history of his red-blazered world.

On a portable stage amid the runner beans and apple trees and with a newly-built communal hut serving Thai food, this was high-quality entertainment for everyone’s delight, to paraphrase the entrepreneur.

Knobbly knees, glamorous grannies, singalongs, Skegness and a swimsuit competition with livewire Joshua Considine (below, centre) playing every part – it all tumbled out at St Mary’s Allotments in Leamington Spa.

Mikron’s awesome foursome flitted between characters – Joshua also played a sheep –  as they strode through the history of a national institution from its first resort in Skeggy, through war, the (not so) swinging 60s, Billy Butlin’s funeral and beyond.

Interweaving songs, narration, many a joke and some moments of levity, they skipped through the chronology but made it all about the people, the plot revolving around a swansong retirement show for Aunty Lyn, played by Rachel Benson.

Laurel
Stan & Ollie make a cameo as Mikron skip through Butlins’ history (pic: Martin Blows)

Laurel and Hardy made a hat-shedding appearance, as did Marlene Dietrich and Gracie Fields, the cast barely pausing for seaside rock as they traced the Butlins dream. The cast, completed by Christopher Arkeston and Elizabeth Robin (both above), have clearly gelled on their mammoth UK tour, with whirlwind costume and character changes.

Writer and lyricist Nick Ahad drew on his own childhood memories to create Redcoats, and it was an affectionate take that nevertheless considered the holiday chain’s relevance in the digital age.

The selfie stick’s appearance came about as a result of the central tension in the plot, where Butlins has to consider how to tell its own story in the age of Instagram, Facebook and Vevo.

Not quite what Billy, or Lyn, envisaged.

Three speaking
The Redcoat era meets the world of the selfie stick in Mikron’s imagining (pic: Martin Blows)

On a warm evening, with rain clouds at bay, Mikron played this old-meets-new theme with a quick-draw, charming and touching jaunt that sparkled in every aspect.

It marked an eighth visit to the allotments by Mikron, on the annual national tour, and they arrived in time for the first public use of a communal hut, which served Thai food, cake and refreshments. Around 120 people attended the performance on Thursday evening, also made possible by a National Lottery-funded car park refurbishment.

The resort’s slogan, Our True Intent Is All For Your Delight, was originally a line by Shakespeare, but here it was a travelling theatre company that lived up to it.

By Yunzy

*To catch Mikron on tour click here and for more about St Mary’s Allotments visit here 

Adjusting goggles on the Tube and glacial on the bike – but triathlon is pure gold

After a few years away, Much Ado’s writer dusted off his wetsuit for the London Triathlon – the sport’s biggest mass-participation event

Gathering my senses on an early-morning Tube populated by a smattering of commuters nursing coffees and thumbing through screens, I wrest a pair of swimming goggles from their packaging and adjust them over my eyes.

My start time in the London Triathlon meant I had to be in Royal Victoria Dock, in the Docklands on the other side of the city, for 8.10am.

Throw in a last-minute kit malfunction, caused by chucking my previous goggles into the washing machine, and I was sat with Sunday retail workers on the Central Line carriage peering out of a pair of discounted Slazengers.

Reprising my involvement in the world’s biggest triathlon after three years, I was pleased to find that the organisers have fine-tuned many aspects of this terrific event, which is anchored at the mammoth ExCel Centre.

For example, there’s a small marquee inside the hangar-like venue where we received our final pithy, screen-aided instructions, hugged a fellow competitor and received words of encouragement from the briefer before making our way down to the pontoon.

In previous times, this happened in the same spot but without the amplification or cover and it added some intensity before the watery start.

Live to tri
Medalists have plenty of photo opps at the ExCel Centre, where the event starts and finishes

Even though I’m no stranger to the event, I had a sense of trepidation at this point – which I feel always comes with a sporting challenge worth the reward.

Or maybe it was because I had done no specific training whatsoever other than my usual routine of being generally up for a run, bike or swim whenever I can fit it in. That includes a vague ‘run-commute’  or cycle to the office.

Pink swim caps and goggles in place, my ‘wave’ – in my case the Olympic Westminster men – were in the hands of an announcer on a walkway above us before she gave over to a heartbeat sound and then the klaxon.

I took the advice given to people who don’t want to race or emulate Richard Varga and stayed to the side of the pack.

You can just about see your hand in the murky water (it meets EU standards and I’ve never had any ill-effects but it’s best to avoid a mouthful, apparently) and at first I struggled to get my more streamlined crawl technique going as the field began to settle into place.

There’s something thrilling about heading past the Tower of London while the city rises for a leisurely Sunday.

Larger triathlon goggles do give better vision but I doubt there’s any kit that would stop that opening sensation of churning water with the occasional leg or foot flashing by.

As I was leaving the ExCel afterwards, I overheard another triathlete raise a laugh by saying “at one point I was doing front crawl arms and breast stroke legs”.

Working on my own, with no slipstream in front of me, I tightened up my front crawl and pulled level with a swimmer on my right, using him as a marker for a few hundred metres before my natural momentum carried me by.

The Olympic-distance swim is a 1,500-metre, oblong shaped circuit of the dock with large inflatable buoys as markers and lifeguards on kayaks keeping an eye on things.

Clambering back onto the pontoon, I hauled my unyielding wetsuit off with the help of a steward and jogged back to the long metal bike racks that form the transition zone.

The cycle, a 40km ride to Westminster that forms the main loop before another, shorter loop on the same circuit, has always been my weakest discipline.

But there’s something truly thrilling about heading out on closed roads, past the Tower of London and the embankment, while the city rises for a leisurely Sunday.

Diving into the warm Limehouse Tunnel had a hairdryer effect that blew away the droplets and seeing the Houses of Parliament up ahead at the Westminster turning point was triathlon routing at its finest.

Technically, the course is about as flat, smooth and PB-worthy as they come, with only the well-marshalled turning points to worry about. The human blurs zipping past on aerodynamic time trial bikes with the forward-facing bars were making the most of it.

Nevetheless, I was the morning’s slowcoach as I trundled along on a respectable but ageing Bianchi C2C Via Nirone 7 and with a lack of road miles in my legs.

The first tandem bike team I have seen at any of the triathlons zipped past at a phenomenal rate on a hill near Billingsgate, the turning point for the shorter loop.

Working hard wasn’t going to make much of a dent, and I treated the cycle as easing back into my favourite sport after a few years of being distracted by life in general.

“Choose one moment that’s going to be hard and think about what you’re going to tell yourself,” was the well-selected advice at the briefing.

This was mine.

The swim
Starter’s orders: The swim in Royal Victoria Dock (stock image/The London Triathlon)

Crowds lining the route and peering down from an overpass provided a welcome lift around the ExCel, where I returned to transition and pulled on my running shoes.

A triathlete in front of me seemed to have only just started the event as he bolted out onto the dockside that forms the start of four run laps equalling the final 10k in the Olympic distance.

I used him as a marker, even though I felt my legs didn’t have the juice.

The laps on a flat and fairly narrow route have cheering crowds, water and gel points and a sound system pumping out club classics that Danny Howard would approve of.

Swim, bike, run, repeat: Why I keep going back to world’s biggest triathlon

It was a pleasant surprise when I reeled my designated paceman in about halfway into the first lap and overhauled him on a stretch that heads back into the building with a tantalising glimpse of the spotlit red carpet and LCD clock on the finish line.

I’d been monstered by pretty much the entire field in the cycle, after all. Raising my effort level on the final lap, I gave it my all on the red carpet and crossed the line to receive a finisher’s medal that felt like pure gold.

It was my London Triathlon four-peat and slowest time to date, but it felt like rediscovering an old friend and above all, I’ve got the bug for the sport again.

A detailed breakdown of each participant’s times is posted online after they finish.

Mine shows I went 2:52:02, consisting of a 30:37 swim, 1:28 cycle and 43:48 run with a few too many minutes in the transition zone, especially after the swim. Overall, I was 1063 out of 1844 entrants.

It’s tempting to think how I would fair with some more focused training and I’m eagerly casting an eye round upcoming triathlons, looking to break out the Slazengers once more.

To register interest in The London Triathlon 2020 click here

By Yunzy