Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Tales of the Unexpected

One of the characteristics of a journalist, or at least of this one, is an eye for the odd or unusual. In terms of the North, this is also a good way of getting stories from the region into the national media, so I have built up a major sub-section of my Northern book-collection on the Unexpected. Take for example The Sailing Ships and Mariners of Knottingley by Ron Gosney and Rosemary Bowyer (Ron Gosney & Sons undated but 1990s ISBN 0 9534696 0 3) which I recall reading with astonishment when the author gave me a copy. Fifty miles from the North Sea, the little town near Wakefield built and launched ships on the Aire and Calder Navigation which sailed as far as South America. The book is a model of its kind, with maps of where Knottingley ships were wrecked and extracts from masters' logs such as 'It was my painful duty to secure Charles Sayes by putting him in irons'. In terms of my wider arguments about the North, the book illustrates how major industries can come and go, with an emphasis again on the unexpected. When times are bad, we need to remember how the next invention and source of employment often takes us all completely by surprise.

By contrast, a long-standing success story is William Santus & Co of The Toffee Works, Wigan, who make the legendary Uncle Jo's Mint Balls. For a precis of how a good product, well-made and marketed, stands the test of time, get A Sweet Story by Fiona Lydon (William Santus & Co 2005). It's a very slim booklet but has excellent material on how it paid to be a Methodist if you wanted a job at Uncle Joe's in the early days, and the words and music of Mike Harding's memorable anthem They Keep You All Aglow.

Cemeteries next. What a wonderland they are for the historian - and for imaginative primary school teachers, like our boys' John Coates at Rawdon CofE who had his classes roaming St Peter's graveyard and listing the many strange (and ordinary) names and fates to be found engraved there. A paragon in this world is Undercliffe in Bradford. My vicar uncle in the city, Rev Chris Hollis, excited my interest early on by telling me there was an entire row of memorials on the cemetery's fine hill, with its excellent views over the city, to steam laundry proprietors. The cemetery is very well-recorded in Undercliffe - Bradford's Historic Cemetery by David James and the outstanding Northern photographer Ian Beesley (Ryburn Publishing 1991).

The Lake District has been meticulously charted, nay trampled, by historians and writers, but it too can still come up with little-known or overlooked treasures. One of the best, and duly becoming better-known as a result, is Blackwell, the wonderful Arts and Crafts house outside Windermere built for the brewer, Lord Mayor of Manchester and philanthropist Edward Holt. He rings all the bells in my chime about such Victorian magnates often having a very strong social conscience. Among the many good things he did was provide holidays at Blackwell for underprivileged children from Manchester. All this and much more is described well in Blackwell - the Arts & Crafts House by assorted and modestly un-named members of the Lakeland Arts Trust which published the book in 2005. I very strongly recommend a visit - see

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