The closest high street gets to a rum-soaked reggae party

Review: Turtle Bay, 36-38 Station Road, Solihull, B91 3SB

Rating: ★★★★★

turtle kitchen

Smuggling a unicorn birthday cake with pink iced ears through the doors of Solihull’s house of rum and reggae was not our finest hour in subversion.

My partner and I had hoped to be the advance guard in our party of four but found our guest of honour and her husband already parked in the spotlit bar area.

Exchanging waves, we shuffled the package into the hands of manager James, who discreetly conveyed the fairytale-themed afters to the kitchen

Not the kind of entrance one of the dancehall superstars whose music featured on the restaurant’s playlist during the night would make, but then Caribbean culture is all about improvisation.

Carnival speaker stacks booming from flatbed lorries are one example that springs to mind, given the well-judged party feel at this Turtle Bay.

Shedding winter layers under the slow-rotating ceiling fans and bleached, rum-shack themed furniture and décor, we set sail with a happy hour offering two-for-one on cocktails from 7pm.

No rush, no fuss, as they say in Jamaica.

Deviating from script again proved no problem for the staff after I asked for the alcoholic ginger beer I’ve knocked back at other branches, only to find it was no longer on the drinks menu.

Head barman Cameron, a loanee from the Derby branch, had one made up, and an olde glass bottle with a neck of foam was soon fizzing away at the table. A plumage of cocktails beside it included my partner’s Jamaican Mule, consisting of Sailor Jerry spiced rum, fresh lime, ginger beer and bitters, and an Electric Boogie, born of Amaretto, Cockspur gold rum, blue Curacao, lime and apple juice.

One of our party, a designated driver, chose from the alcohol-free cocktails, starting with the Virgin Kolada, a frozen, refreshing breeze of coconut milk and syrup and pineapple juice.

A square beach bar large enough to swing a deckchair in keeps the house stocked to the gills with rum, Red Stripe, Firewater beach shooters and pretty much anything else you could sip with your toes in the sand at an Ocho Rios all-inclusive.

turtle wall art

Drifting across the floor past a wall display fashioned from old speakers, we were shown to our seats under draped beach rugs and retro posters advertising shows headlined by Jimmy Cliff, Toots & the Maytals and other greats.

An imaginative but uncluttered two-sided menu that has fused the best from Jamaica, Trinidad and their island neighbours invites diners to share, jerk or ‘one pot’ a helping of Caribbean flavours.

It’s perfect for a group happy to mix-and-match, and my fork was soon roving the plates like dancehall star Beenie Man working the crowd at Sunsplash.

My own dish was a West Indian wrap with a filling of coconut callaloo and curried chickpeas, which came sliced in half on a wooden board. Lightly toasted, it was a delicately-textured affair with the bulging veggie innards and a warm afterglow of spice.

Vegan and vegetarian options are neatly denoted on the menu along with new items.

drinks snip

My partner chose an exceptional jerk salmon, the pale pink steak falling away at the fork under the seared skin in a dish that had the ocean-fresh flavour you might expect at a beach shack together with the refined approach of a more formal restaurant kitchen.

Coconut rice and peas, sweet plantain and dressed salad made up her plate.

Completing our island-themed mains was a brown chicken stew with light, crisp dumplings and a spicy jerk belly of pork.

The latter, which also came with coconut rice and peas as well as chilli pineapple salad, was given a clear-headed nine out of 10 by our table’s driver.

One love prevailed as we dipped into each other’s dishes and sides of curried chickpeas, spiced fries and sweet plantain, every grilled, toasted or stewed element having retained the heat and flavours bestowed in the firing open kitchen within our view.

Server Morgan and her  team sprinkled some more sugar and spice on our evening when the unicorn cake re-appeared, this time in full glory with lit candles. After we’d interrupted the Afrobeats to sing happy birthday, the toast of our night blew out the flames on the treat we’d fumbled through the doors on arrival. I demolished a giant slice topped with a chewy unicorn ear and washed down with the rest of my spiced pepper, cloves and lime-infused ginger beer.

We toyed with ordering the Rudegirl and Rudeboy cocktails, both based on Wray & Nephew and Wood’s 100 per cent overproof rums, purely for the names.

While there were no takers, my partner and I could resist the bouncy soundtrack no more, and broke out into a kind of shoulders-upwards dance, continuing once we gathered to our feet towards the end of the evening.

All we needed was a dancefloor.

We did order a Rum Runner, a frozen blend combining the spirit with Amaretto, blackberry, brandy, banana liqueur and lemon juices, among another round of drinks.

The bill came to £81.55, including the discounts during the two-for-one hour.

With the Afrobeats and reggaeton-heavy soundtrack in full sway, we returned to the board game-themed tables front of house for a Jamaican-style nightcap.

This is the closest the high street gets to a culinary reggae party, and we only took our seats to allow the growing crowd some space around the the cool runnings at the bar.

I chose not to ask for a Kingston Kiss from the barman, passing over the ‘beach shooter’ for a humble Red Stripe shandy I shared with my partner.

We left a restaurant that had conjured up some of the best of the Caribbean, while still finding room for a sing-a-long around a sugary unicorn.

By Yunzy

Love, alwayes: Message of undying bond has defied the ravages of time

alwayes one

A buckled ring has retained its mystery after being plucked from the earth around 500 years since it was cast. At a time of giving, the gold-lined token and its romantic inscription show how a declaration of love can see off war, upheaval and development.

Wrested from the earth after hundreds of years, the slip of jewellery bears witness to a love that endures in chipped metal.

Lined with gold and bearing a mysterious inscription, the token was found in December 2011, probably by a metal detectorist.

Thought to be a post-Medieval engagement ring, it made its way from the ground in Wiltshire to the British Museum.

The identity of the original owner is unknown, but the confirmation of love resounds through the sands of time.

ring pics

The declaration of love can be traced to a 16th Century penchant for condensing romantic sayings into phrases short enough to engrave on jewellery.

Caroline Barton, assistant treasure registrar at the British Museum, said: “The inscription is also known as a posy, hence these types of rings are commonly called posy rings.

“Posies are romantic or moral mottos or poems that were commonplace on rings exchanged between lovers.

“Posy rings were used as a lover’s token, wedding ring or as a means of showing regard.

“The motto on this ring has romantic connotations and could very well have been a lover’s token.”

The declaration of undying love has traces of gold gilding on the inside surface.

On the outside, the intricate metalwork features a quatrefoil pattern within a circle interspersed with two horizontally-arranged crescents, arranged curve against curve, with a pellet at either end.

Squashed into a thin loop, it is 22.2mm in diameter and weighs 1.50g.

Perhaps compressed in the ground, the hoop has a width of 5.5mm.

Far from being a priceless relic, it was given the ‘unique ID’ WILT-8FB813 and valued at £80 by the Treasure Valuation Committee in 2013.

Posy rings are popular at present-day auctions, however.

The ring also attracted an expert eye when the story was covered by detectorist writer and editor John Winter on his blog to mark Valentine’s Day 2015.

Of the two people whose union is symbolised, we know nothing, and it seems no further research will be conducted into the token’s background.

The Old Town Museum and Art Gallery in Swindon, had hoped to acquire the ring, which may have shed further light on its story.

However, British Museum records show it was subsequently returned to the finder as the museum was unable to acquire the piece.

The expression of love remains enigmatic to the last.

By Yunzy

The real Dane-conqueror behind The Last Kingdom’s warrior princess

Regal, loyal and a deadly adversary; but her husband is likely to be turning in his grave. An expert eye on Anglo-Saxon heroine Athelflaed’s depiction in the top-trending Netflix drama.

warrior queen
Battle cry: Athelflaed rallies her troops in The Last Kingdom (Netflix/Carnival Films)

Until her reimagining in searing Netflix drama The Last Kingdom,  Athelflaed’s most enduring depiction was in a humble statue at the foot of Tamworth Castle.

Now, a Google search of the ruler’s name brings up the trending series as an auto-suggestion as she is streamed onto global screens in the rollicking Anglo-Saxon yarn.

Noble, beautiful and a cool Dane-slayer, the stand-out character has been battling the implacable Vikings while staying one step ahead of her odious, scheming husband.

Based on Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Series novels, The Last Kingdom is up to series three, which landed on Netflix in one binge-inducing box set two weeks ago.

It’s a digital reawakening for a heroine who died in Tamworth on June 12, 918.

The young Lady of the Mercians, played by Millie Brady, is abused by her bullying, manipulative husband Aethelred (Toby Regbo), but shows flashes of the tactical nous, courtly manner and leadership that the real figure used to repel the Vikings.

The age of streaming content has so far been kind to this formidable but largely forgotten saviour of the Anglo-Saxon world. A loyal daughter of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, she united kingdoms by marrying the Mercian ruler and was instrumental in creating what we now know as England.

History writer Annie Whitehead, who has told the real story in fact-based novel To Be a Queen, has been among the millions ploughing through the latest series.

“I have been watching not trying to think about the real story too much, but just trying to absorb it, because it is fabulous drama, and Bernard Cromwell tells such a brilliant story,” Annie said.

“Millie Brady is very similar in looks to what I had in mind when I wrote my novel about Athelflaed.

“Where it differs from reality is in the chronology. For example, in the first episode of this series there was the battle at Farnham, which is won by a Wessex-Mercian alliance.

“In reality it was fought by Edward, Athelflaed’s younger brother, who was older in real life.

“There’s also Aethelwold’s revolt, which in reality didn’t happen until after Alfred had died. Then you have fictional characters, so there are a lot of strange things in the mix.”

battle cry
Call to arms: Athelflaed before the battle of Farnham in Series 3 (Netflix/Carnival Films)

Despite the dramatized lens and story arc of Cornwell and screenwriter Stephen Butchard, the real Athelflaed would have “loved” her depiction, Annie said.

Her husband, on the other hand, might be turning in his grave at his portrayal as a tousled, back-stabbing ingrate plotting against his faithful wife.

Documents including the Mercian Charters, which related to land ownership, suggest he did not rest idle while she and his allies went off to fight.

“In reality Aethelred was a lot older and there must have been a reason why the Mercians were happy for him to lead them,” Annie said. “I don’t think it was just that he was Alfred’s puppet.

“In my view he must have been quite a successful general , warrior, call him what you will.

“In the series they live in two separate houses but the evidence shows that they ruled together.

“The chronology of the charter evidence shows first of all he ruled alone, then it was the two of them, and then after his death it’s her on her own.

“If they were issuing charters together they were definitely working together.

“The evidence suggests he was far from a callow weasel who sat back and let others do the fighting.

“In fact, I’m absolutely convinced that when Alfred retook London in 886, Aethelred was with him. He was also named as being with Alfred when he came to agreement with Hasteinn, coming to the aid of Edward at a siege after Farnham, and beating the Danes at the battle of Buttington. 

“I have more of a problem with the way Aethelred and the Mercians are portrayed generally than with Athelflaed.”

Warrior kingdom: Exhibits in The Staffordshire Hoard once owned by the Mercians

On screen, Athelflaed is portrayed as a princess whose graceful charms are matched by a steely resolve to oust the thistle of scraggly-haired Danes.

“There is no doubt that she must have been a remarkable woman,” said Annie, who recently gave a talk about Athelflaed in Tamworth.

“Yet we have virtually nothing to tell us about her, with the main source of information being a part of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles called the Mercian Register, which is written mainly in support of her.

“You can type it out on one side of A4 paper.

“I gave a talk in Tamworth entitled The Athelflaed Paradox, because it’s rather bizarre that she’s such a remarkable character and yet the chroniclers didn’t remark on it.

“She was effectively in charge of a kingdom which would include what we now know of as the West Midlands, but they are not making a big deal out of it, and it was only the Irish and the Welsh who called her a queen, maybe because they didn’t know what else to call her.

“Athelflaed was a big deal but in the history books she remains an anomaly, as does her husband.”

Honoured: A plaque in Warwick marks Athelflaed’s role in forming present-day England

In The Last Kingdom, Athelflaed claims her first scalp with one fell sword thrust after being kidnapped by Danes before saddling up to charge waves of foes in the current series.

Rallying the troops before the battle at Farnham, she cries: “We march into Wessex, to the aid of Wessex, but be in no doubt what we fight for is the freedom and the glory of Mercia.”

Brexit and Trump have nothing on Viking-ravaged Warwickshire 

It’s tempting to imagine she would have been in the thick of battles such as the 910 victory over the Vikings in Tettenhall, in what is now Wolverhampton, a slaughter that would have made the melees in The Last Kingdom seem like a nun’s gathering by comparison

In reality, however, it’s unlikely that she ever raised steel in the full cry of war.

A biography of King Alfred, written by the monk Asser, makes no mention of military training in her upbringing alongside her brother Edward at the Wessex court.

“We’ve got absolutely no evidence that Athelflaed fought or even that she rallied the troops before battle,” Annie said. “I was watching and thinking ‘where did she learn to fight with a sword?’

“We have got no evidence of her being a warrior, and it may just be a 21st Century wish that she was.

“We can’t believe everything Asser writes, but when he talks about the young children being tutored at court, would he not have mentioned that, along with their tradition education there would have been a little bit of sword practice as well?

“I think she would have been more of a lady, very regal and royal and not one to scrap like a warrior in the way she’s portrayed.”

History books record Athelflaed’s role in creating ‘burghs’ across central England

Perhaps the warrior tag is best used in reference to Athelflaed’s role in overcoming crushing odds as a shrewd, wise and talismanic leader, if not an active combatant.

Historical sources show that after King Alfred’s death she joined Edward to continue his programme of pushing back the Danes and building a network of fortified townships, known as ‘ burghs’.

The Lady of the Mercians is credited with laying the defensive foundations across central England, including in Tamweorthin, as it is entitled by Cornwell.

“Athelflaed had guts, character and a personality that men were prepared to follow”

Annie said: “I have a lot more time and respect for Edward than I do for Alfred, because he was much more successful militarily, he didn’t just keep making deals and giving territory away.

“When you map out the geography of where they were working and the burghs they built, it is clear that the brother and sister were acting in partnership.

“They were really on it, and it was a concerted effort to fight back.

“The story is much more interesting once Alfred is out of the picture.”

Athelflaed’s wedding may have been a true union in real life (Netflix/Carnival Films)

With primary sources being so scant, The Last Kingdom is providing a tantalising reimagining of Athelflaed’s life and times. Tamworth, her power base in later life, only stands to benefit with the roaring success of the series leading back to the real-life people and places.

“Anything that gets people talking about history is a good thing,” Annie said.

“Fay Weldon once told me at an awards dinner that it’s all down to the costumes and I think there’s an element of that. There has been an image of the Anglo-Saxons going round wearing sacks while the Tudors have the fine costumes and shiny armour.

“To my mind there’s also a huge line drawn across history in 1066 and anything before that being remote and foreign. If people are talking about the Anglo-Saxons, that’s wonderful.

annie book

“The same goes for a film such as Braveheart, it might be a swear-word for historians but you watch these things and it inspires you to go out and find out the real story.”

In spite of her husband’s character assassination, it’s likely the real Athelflaed would have approved of her latest depiction, which comes 1,100 years on from her death.

While the town marked the anniversary in summer 2018 with civic events and a visit from Millie and her co-stars, scenes such as her courtly marriage and pre-battle rallying cry are now the most arresting and widely-watched images of the Mercian ruler.

“I think she’d love it as her character cannot be far off the mark,” Annie said.

“There must have been some strength of character in her.

“When Athelred died Edward, who was older in real life than in The Last Kingdom, could have taken over Mercia. He didn’t.

“He took London and Oxford, but he left the rest of Mercia alone. He may have been stretched too thinly to take any more but everything suggests it was down to his sister’s qualities as a leader.

“For a woman to rule and guide a kingdom like this is unprecedented.

“The only other mentions of ‘warrior’ queens in Wessex include one who burnt down a stronghold in Taunton and another whose men were not to prepared to go to war under the command of a woman.

“Athelflaed had guts, character and a personality that men were prepared to follow.

“Even if they didn’t literally follow her into battle, they were prepared for her to be their leader.

“I think she would enjoy The Last Kingdom, though she might say, ‘it looks a lot more fun than I remember’.”

*Annie Whitehead’s book, To Be a Queen, can be found via her website and on Amazon She is also the author of Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, published by Amberley Books

Guilty pleasures have fans queuing through the night

Review: Tim Hortons, 112-113 New St, Birmingham B2 4EU

Rating: ★★★

Tim hortons tray

Such is the loyalty commanded by Canada’s purveyors of coffee, doughnuts and Timbits that the first ever customer was prepared to queue from 8.30pm the night before opening day.

No such dedication was needed when we visited on a rainy Tuesday afternoon.

Even so, a red-and-white beehive of activity was in full swing behind the counter and we were breezily called over before we’d had a chance to scan the overhead menus.

Greeted by the kind of cheerful server who wouldn’t be out of place in a coffee chain’s promotional animation, we made a scattergun choice of tea, dark roast blend coffee and a Canadian maple doughnut that was taken from an uncluttered display cabinet. The prep area behind her was teeming with staff, but there was a buzz with it.

If the British high street is overpopulated with coffee shops, there was no sign of it here.

Standing to one side with our order number, 239, our tray was delivered in under a minute. Tim Hortons ticks on an efficient, McDonald’s-esque service system combined with Starbucks-lite menu offerings that focus on its caffeinated and sugary cornerstones.

Upstairs, virtually all the seats were taken in a spacious floor and mezzanine where the brakes had been taken off Christmas, evidenced by a fir tree in the corner. We had to fight to hear each other above festive songs and George Ezra vocals.

Tim hortons

The hot brews came in cardboard cups with plastic lids, a bit of a surprise given the environmentally-friendly turns being trumpeted elsewhere on the high street. The doughnut too came in packaging that seemed unnecessary.

The dark roast blend – I asked a member of staff for a separate cup of milk which was rapidly delivered – was a strong, frothless pick-me-up with the taste of freshly-ground arabica beans. The doughnut was a soft, gooey affair with a seductive filling of maple cream.  It had been lightly baked and sparingly glazed, again hallmarks of a café chain that stakes its reputation on what it has done best for more than 50 years.

Timbits, or mini-doughnuts, are also on offer at the new Birmingham outpost, one of more than 4,600 worldwide. We postponed the indulgence as the music won out and we upped sticks.

Our tray-load came to £5.27, with the coffee weighing in at £1.89. It was a guilty pleasure worth fighting above the noise for, though we won’t be queuing through the night to make a return.

By Yunzy

Creatures great and small are in safe hands at this world-class retreat

Travel: Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, Clanwilliam, South Africa

Bushmans Kloof has environmental principles at heart (picture: Red Carnation Hotels)

Spotting a bug from behind the wheel of a safari jeep, our guide slows the four-wheel drive to a halt and jumps out to pick up the creature. Cradling the moving, jet black exhibit in his hands, he introduces it to my tour group before passing it back for us to inspect. The bug explores my cupped palms for a few seconds before I release it back to the wild a few metres from the entrance to Bushmans Kloof.

Wonders of the outdoor and indoor variety abound at this enchanting, star-lit, nature-embracing wilderness retreat, where zebra roam the surrounding plains in the day and stars pierce the clear sky at night. Bush art sites dating back 10,000 years are evidence of the life-giving qualities of the open plains.

The boulder-strewn wilderness can be explored through safari drives in a nature reserve under the craggy Cederberg Mountains. Before our nature guide demonstrated such laser-like vision, we had been for an early morning ‘bush breakfast’ near a large watering hole and the day before had spotted zebra, springboks and been obstructed by a family of road-hogging ostriches.

The multi-award winning retreat, which also has a spa and wellness centre, allows guests to experience nature while enjoying the unassuming country style and supreme comfort of the lodge-style accommodation.

Cooing birdsong is pretty much all you’ll hear at night.

Bushmans Kloof combines comfort and natural wonder (picture: Red Carnation Hotels)

Thoughtfully designed and in harmony with its gloriously rugged surroundings, Bushmans Kloof is barely visible from the track that serves as the only route in and out. Rooms are nevertheless high spec, though without any of the fumbles you find in some high-end hotels. I walked back to my time-suspending quarters, named River Reeds 2, from a kingly evening meal to find a lit candle flickering in the bathroom and an African campfire story on my pillow. Goodnight, Anansi.

My group only stayed one night, so this review covers but a fraction of what Bushmans Kloof has to offer. As it was, we departed on a floating cloud of wild animals, star-gazing and Amarula nightcaps. We also left assured that the creatures of the Cederbergs are in safe hands, no matter how great or small.

Bushmans Kloof:  An ecological oasis and magical wilderness experience

By Yunzy

Remembered: The footballer whose final foray was for King and Country

Whether in sport or war, George Brooks was never far from the action. As Stratford Town FC host South Shields in the FA Trophy, history writer Martin Kenny retraces the life of a Tommy who once played for the opponents. Trading boots for rifle and helmet during the First World War, Brooks joined a final push against the Germans.

Brooks popp
Honoured: Footballer George Brooks fought in the First World War

In recent weeks, the country has remembered the service of many in the First World War, culminating with commemorations marking the Armistice a century ago.

For George Brooks, who swapped a trophy-winning football career to join the British advance across northern France, the end of hostilities came just days too late.

The former South Shields and Manchester City player had taken a new number, Private 204239, one of 200 professional soldiers who had enlisted by spring 1915.

In some cases, entire teams headed to the front together.

One hundred years on: Stratford Town VS South Shields in the FA Trophy 4th round

South shields crop AFC
South Shields AFC 1913-14. George Brooks is pictured bottom row, far right

Born George Harold Brooks in Radcliffe, a suburb of Manchester, in 1887, he would go on to play professional football as a half back and occasional forward.

On February 18, 1911, Brooks made his league debut for Manchester City at their former Hyde Ground in front of a crowd of 35,000. However he struggled to get a first team place and played his final first team game just a year later on May 9, 1912 against Preston North End. In an attempt to play more regular football, Brooks linked up with Bury, a club near his hometown, but again failed to settle and after just a couple of games was signed by South Shields to play in the North Eastern League. It has not been possible to find out how many times he represented the club but he appears in team photographs for the 1912-13 and 1913-14 seasons.

Shields’ former ground Horsley Hill was frequently packed with crowds of over 10,000 for the higher profile games and the 1912-13 season was notable for the club finishing as champions in the North Eastern League despite using 34 players.

South Shields’ former Horsley Hill stadium

The acquisition of centre forward and player-manager Arthur Bridgett proved a pivotal signing for the club and he appears alongside Brooks in team photographs.

Brooks would move to Derby County by the following season in 1914-15 and this would prove to be the most productive of his career as he was a regular in their Second Division Championship-winning team, playing 33 games and scoring his only goal for the club in an FA Cup match.

By now the outbreak of the First World War was putting considerable pressure on players to serve their country.

According to, Brooks enlisted with the York and Lancaster Regiment in Derby, serving in the 2nd/4th (Hallamshire) Battalion and in January 1917 was posted to the Nord region of Northern France.

By now a Lance Corporal, he took part in the Regiment’s final advances the following November. War diaries at the ancestry site give an indication of the Battalion’s manoeuvres as it was posted just a few miles south of Mons.

On November 8 the diary records: “At 06:30 hours the attack commenced and the final objective being the village of NEUF MESNIL and the roads North and South in P10 [the map coordinates].”

War diary crop
The regimental war diary records the final advance in November 1918

It is likely that Brooks, who was in his early 30s, was wounded in this advance.

The soldier is reported by as having received treatment for a serious wound. Tragically, he did not recover from this injury and died at the 5th Casualty Clearing Station in Bihecourt, Picardy, in France. This station would have been positioned just behind the front lines to give casualties the best chance of receiving lifesaving treatment. The next page of the diary gives us an idea of the human cost to British forces, identifying 13 men killed, 49 wounded with seven missing.

Armstice 1918-2018 – a nation’s thankyou

As is usual practice with regimental diaries, only the names of senior officers that were injured or killed are supplied. Poignantly, the next diary entry contains the word “Armistice” and the granting of a day’s holiday.

In the cruellest of circumstances it is likely that because communication from the front was slow that Brook’s family would not have heard of his death until the Armistice when everyone would have been celebrating the end of the war.

final resting place
Final resting place: Maubeuge Cemetery at Sous-le-Sous

George Harold Brooks is buried at Maubeuge Cemetery at Sous-le-Sous, the very town his Battalion liberated. There is further documentation on the ancestry site including the calculation of his effects of £20, 4 shillings and 6 pence which is a stark reminder of the difference in lifestyle between a professional footballer in this era and now in the modern age.

In recognition of the centenary of the First World War, Manchester City have planted a tree in his honour along with the other players at the club who made the ultimate sacrifice. It feels more important than ever as the Centenary anniversary drifts away from sight that we continue to remember those that gave everything.

For more about George Brooks visit Football and the First World War 

Roll up! Roll up! When three rounds with a pro was all the fun of the fair

With the Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick mops about to roll back into town, history writer Martin Kenny looks at an age when some of the noble art’s finest exponents took on all-comers.

Booth call out
Call out: Images from the British Pathé News film Boxing Fever (1909)

In an era of Vegas fight nights, stringent health and safety laws and padded headgear, it seems unbelievable that chancers were once able to fall out of a pub in Stratford-upon-Avon after a few pints of Flower’s bitter and face a past or future champion in a boxing booth.

Yet up until the 1960s, a nominal charge would secure a bruising encounter with a professional at the town’s mop fair. Typically fought over three rounds in a bull-baiting atmosphere, the long-running tradition gave all-comers the chance of a large purse if they could prevail.

Stratford mop returns this month, and while pugilistic encounters with Anthony Joshua or the Klitschko brothers remain of the pay-tv variety, the travelling boxing booths are as much a part of the fair’s history as candy floss and bumper cars. Fronted much like an excitable fairground house of fun, they housed a ring where bouts took place in a colourful and febrile atmosphere.

Punters clash
A contender tries his luck in the British Pathé News imagining of a boxing booth

The first mention of the mobile arenas at the town’s mop, in a review by the Stratford Herald published on October 15, 1875, casts an indecorous light on these feasts of fighting.

“A new feature this year was the Grand Sparring Saloon, the front of which was decked with flaring illustrations of famous pugilistic battles and greasy looking boxing gloves,” it read.

“The proprietors moved about in a semi-nude condition and invited the bystanders in language savouring of Billingsgate to watch inside. The orthodox penny charge was abandoned at this establishment, and two pence substituted, on the ground, perhaps that the public’s natural love for the noble art of self defence would overlook all scruples in this respect. This view of matters appeared to be correct, judging from the crowds of person that attended each exhibition.”

It appears that the boxing booth provided an alternative form of entertainment to the shooting galleries that were common at the mop at this time. By the mop of 1903 Stratford Police had begun to take an interest in the booths when they received a tip off about the arrival of Harry Mansfield, a well-known boxer who was on the run from Bristol for the theft of seven £10 notes.

In fact, Mansfield is the only opponent to have beaten the legendary Jim Driscoll, the British Featherweight Champion.

They offered a pound to anybody that could do five rounds with their bloke

The Herald details his arrest in the town:

“The Stratford Police had been furnished with a description of the wanted and P.S. Street, together with P.C.Piuk and P.C. Print, were strolling the mop between nine and ten a.m. when the Sergeant noticed a man of the boxing booth type who seemed to answer the description.

“In a sharp and friendly manner he called him by his Christian name, and the man hearing it seemed surprised.

“He was more so when the officers marched him to the lock-up, and it was not before long before Harry Mansfield was handed over to the Bristol police”.

The ferret rustler who remained defiant to the last 

It is clear that the booth professional could never underestimate an opponent.

Stratford author George Hewins, in his book The Dillen, recalls witnessing the success of a local man in the ring and gives an indication of the atmosphere in the booths.

“Then we went to the boxing booth. They offered a pound to anybody that could do five rounds with their bloke. Harry Bayliss, the missus’ brother – he’d been discharged from the army and he worked for the brickyard now – he went on.

“He was a big chap, her brother, very tall, five foot ten or eleven! His palls were there egging him on. The missus stood with clenched fists.

“Well Harry did well, but he never did get the pound. But they came unstuck!  They copped a boxer! The next chap up, he was from Stratford – an ordinary labouring chap – and he knocked their bloke out in one! We cheered and cheered!”

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Randolph Turpin’s statue in Warwick. The Middleweight World Champion was a booth fighter

By the late 1940s the Stratford Mop was attracting the country’s top boxing names, including the Turpin brothers who made the short journey from Leamington to appear at the booth.

Randolph Turpin became Middleweight Champion of the World having defeated Sugar Ray Robinson on July 10, 1951 but in previous years was a booth fighter at Stratford Mop.

A statue in Warwick immortalises Randolph Adolphus Turpin, with a plaque on the plinth reading: “In Palace, Pub and Parlour, the Whole of Britain held its breath.”

By the 1960s the booth’s days were numbered, though fighter Ron Taylor continued the tradition until his retirement.

In recent years a few of the old booths have appeared on eBay, often struggling to find buyers. Perhaps the booths deserve a re-appearance in some shape or form, though the days of punters taking their chances against the likes of the Klitschko brothers are long past.

This article has been produced using the archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust