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Huntingdon: Cromwell, a bankrupt maltster and a Sopwith Camel

On Friday 23rd March the LUKTT Team accompanied by Monica Weller (co-author of ‘Ruth Ellis, my Sister’s Secret Life with Muriel Jakubait) went on a visit to Huntingdon primarily to see Huntingdon Drama Club’s sold out production of Amanda Whittington’s The Thrill of Love about the tragic story of Ruth Ellis. Members of the drama club had taken our Ruth Ellis Taxi Tour earlier in the year so we were eager to see the play performed.

I arrived a little ahead of Ray and Monica and was able to take a short walk around this historic town, birthplace of Oliver Cromwell.

My first stop was the Cromwell Museum housed in a building which itself has a fascinating history. The one-room museum was from 1565 until the late 1930s Huntingdon Grammar School. During Cromwell’s time it was split into two floors with around 25 pupils studying on the ground floor and the schoolmaster living in the now-removed floor above. Oliver Cromwell attended this school as did Samuel Pepys a few years after him.

The Cromwell Museum

The Cromwell Museum

The school was restored in 1878 partly being paid for by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault in memory of his son who died in a terrible rail crash in Abbots Ripton just north of Huntingdon in 1876. A report in The Sketch in April 1899 suggests that Boucicault didn’t fully pay his share.

The Sketch – Wednesday 26th April 1899 Image © The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved via the British Newspaper Archive

The Sketch – Wednesday 26th April 1899 Image © The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved via the British Newspaper Archive

The history of the building goes back much further than this though as it is all that remains of a hospital of St John the Baptist founded in the 12th century.

The museum is small but there is a wealth of things to look at and the curator was generous with his time filling in the gaps in my knowledge. I didn’t take enough photos of the interior so you will just have to visit yourself. More details about the museum can be found on their website.

Oliver Cromwell's hat

Model showing the size of the hospital

On exiting the museum the next thing I spotted was the magnificent town hall sitting on the market square. In commemoration of the centenary of the Royal Air Force coming up on 1st April 2018 there is a model of a Sopwith Camel sitting on its roof!  On the far left in the first picture.

Huntingdon Town Hall

Model Sopwith Camel made by Huntingdon Council's Estates Services Team #RAF100

Model Sopwith Camel made by Huntingdon Council’s Estates Services Team #RAF100

Although quite a small town I didn’t really have enough time to do Huntingdon justice and would like to return to look in more detail at some of the old buildings up and down the high street that feature in this local guide

One thing that did jump out at me though was this tablet on the side of All Saint’s Church. I love inscriptions like this which prompt me to find out the back history.

The Honest Bankrupt

The Honest Bankrupt

Thomas Jetherell who died in June 1774 was a bankrupt maltster. Unusually he decided to leave all his money to his creditors, leaving his family with nothing. I do wonder how he managed to end up bankrupt though as at one point Huntingdon had 27 pubs so would imagine brewing was generally lucrative. I may need to dig a little deeper.

Northampton Mercury – 4th July 1774. Image © The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved via the British Newspaper Archive

Northampton Mercury – 4th July 1774. Image © The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved via the British Newspaper Archive

Next time I visit Huntingdon I intend to stay for at least one night in order to do the town justice. Maybe I will return in the summer for the annual Shakespeare at the George event  or for Huntingdon Drama Club’s next production.

Finally I should of course mention that we all thoroughly enjoyed the Thrill of Love and thought Huntingdon Drama Club’s production was excellent. We will definitely return.

By Joanna Moncrieff, Walking Tour Guide and part of the London and UK Taxi Tours Team.

Once Upon a Time They Lived Happily Ever After Part 2

Episode 2 Lost and Found

If you have read Episode 1 of this story you will know that I recently found myself in the happy position of being able to re-unite a bag containing a lot of cash and important ID along with bank cards etc with its frantic owner; however the tale had a bit of a postscript.

It has often been the case, that a passenger hands over an item that has been left by a previous rider, often something small. The thought that a passenger finding items and keeping them for themselves has also crossed my mind, but I like to think that most people are honest and wouldn’t do such a thing.

In most cases the items end up with the rightful owner, but to be honest my heart always sinks when I find stuff because I know I’m in for a laborious task of finding the owner, plus either having to pack stuff up and post it at my expense, (no-one has ever offered to refund the postage) or take it to meet someone. In the latter case a distraught businessman that I met to return his phone insisted I took a suitable cash reward, but rewards can range from nothing to a packet of biscuits. I feel the fare from where you found it to where they want it is not unreasonable, although in my case I can’t expect a fare from the south coast to North London, so a token of gratitude is acceptable.

Occasionally we hear tales of heroic deeds and acts of kindness carried out by licensed taxi drivers. These are often highlighted against a backdrop of misdeeds including acts of violence and criminality perpetrated by some members of the private hire industry. Obviously, there are those in both camps that are happy to seize upon an opportunity, taking advantage of a mistake by an unfortunate traveller that has left an item of property in the back of a cab. This though is much less likely in the case of London’s taxi drivers who have spent years suffering the torture that is the “Knowledge of London” to gain the coveted green badge. Who would risk anything by an act of stealing by finding with so much at stake? Mobile phones are the most common thing to be left behind, but sometimes bags or items of shopping get forgotten and left behind. In the majority of cases items get returned to their rightful owners, but in some cases this can’t happen for various reasons. Phones that are on silent and locked, maybe they have fallen down between the seat cushions and don’t get discovered for a while.

In the recent case of the bag of cash and valuables the odd thing was that it was during the third ride after the bag had been left that it was discovered by a young guy who was taking me back to East Dulwich.

So I had been from Terminal 5 to Stratton Street, Mayfair. From there to East Dulwich and then from Oval to a few minutes into the journey back to East Dulwich before the bag was found.

Now Mrs Rose Panuzzo the lady I had taken into Mayfair had asked me to pick her up again in the morning to take her back to Terminal 5. She was so delighted about her misfortune of having a forced layover in London. She had never before been here so she was extolling the virtues of the splendid Mayfair Hotel and the kindness and attention she had received at the hands of BA staff at Heathrow.

We swung round via Buckingham Palace so she could take some pics before we made our way out, chatting happily. Then I told her the story of the lost bag that she had sat beside all the way on the previous day’s trip. She was astonished and remarked how lucky the people were and that they had been so fortunate to get the stuff back. I told her the baby must have been grateful too because all its toiletries and creams were in the bag. She couldn’t understand how she had missed it, but didn’t feel so bad when I told her that she wasn’t the only one.

Rose also had her own happy story to tell. As a young girl of 19 in Palermo she met a young guy who had become smitten by her while he was visiting the land of his birth. His parents had taken him as a two year old to start a new life in the USA and he was having a rare visit home. He had only spent a few happy days with his new found love, but they stayed in constant touch by letter. They had spent a total of only 10 days together before he proposed to Rose. Rose accepted without hesitation, but had the difficult task of selling the deal to her father. With her mother’s help, her father gave in and so Rose and her husband have been together ever since in over 40 years of happy marriage.

Mrs Rose Panuzzo from California travelling to Palermo.

Mrs Rose Panuzzo from California travelling to Palermo.

Rose was so pleased with her experience of London and the missing bag story, that she was happy for me to write about it and take her picture. She has also added herself to my growing list of people that now call direct for a cab from the airport.

Once Upon a Time They Lived Happily Ever After

Once Upon a Time They Lived Happily Ever After

Sometimes the honest deeds of humble taxi drivers make the headlines. Occasionally, we read of an erstwhile unlucky passenger being re-united with an item or items that had got left behind. Often passengers are tired and sleepy in the back of a cab after a long journey or a hard day at the office and that lost phone or bag or wallet sits on the back seat until somebody else discovers it. It has been the subject of movies where an unsuspecting cab driver finds a brown paper bag stuffed with banknotes, only to find that his stroke of good fortune is short lived when he discovers he is being hunted down by angry gang members seeking repatriation with their drug money. I don’t know how many times I have arrived home to find something sticking out of the side of a seat cushion, usually a phone, but I’ve even found a bra! Don’t ask, I don’t know!

Many times the items are reunited with their grateful owners, however sometimes, they just languish waiting for someone to try and contact the cab owner. Obviously, if there is any material value in an item they are deposited at a police station, if you can find one. With the increased use of payment cards there is a resulting increase of traceability as long as the customer takes the receipt.

One astonishing act of honesty purely as a result of serendipity happened to us whilst travelling in Japan. We arrived at Hakata Station on the Island of Kyushu at around 1pm and asked a taxi to take us to the Fukuoka Tower, a journey of around 20-30 minutes. The journey was interesting for me because I was able to have a taxi driver related chat in half English and half Japanese with a cabbie that was trying to learn English. I in turn was trying to learn Japanese, so between us we had a grand old chat in this oddly mixed language. My how we laughed.

Several hours later we had returned to Hakata by bus and after a meal in a local restaurant we were walking back to our hotel. Suddenly we were surprised by being intercepted by none other than our cab driver from several hours before. He told me that we had left something in his cab and had spotted us by chance walking along the station concourse. Rather puzzled by his assertions none of our party of four seemed to be missing anything. “Chotto Matte”, (just a minute) he said and ran to his nearby cab and produced a bundle of travel brochures and a Daily Mail that my wife Liz had inadvertently left behind. She said “I had no idea” anyway we were eternally grateful to be re-united with our litter (I must try that one). The driver had no idea that it was of any value to us or not, the astonishing thing was that purely by chance he spotted us and was able to give it back.

And so to Friday’s story. In the afternoon I picked up a young couple from Terminal 5 at London Heathrow. They were memorable because the young lady was oriental and the man was western and carrying a small child. They were going a reasonably short distance to a local hotel and staying one night on a layover to continue their journey the following day.

Next thing I returned to Terminal 5 and collected a lady that was going to the Mayfair Hotel, a prestigious hotel in Central London. This journey was remarkable only because she had no idea how far away the hotel was. British Airways was allocating hotels to passengers stranded in London owing to the bad weather and all the hotels at Heathrow were full. So my lady passenger had been allocated one of the best hotels in London. I dropped her off and was immediately re-hired by a guy wanting to go to East Dulwich, a journey to South East London of around half an hour. I dropped him to his home and then turned back to the centre. On reaching Kennington Oval, about 10 minutes south of the centre I was hailed by another young man co-incidentally also wanting to get to East Dulwich. About 3 minutes after turning around and heading back the guy tells me he’s found a bag on the back seat beside him. My immediate thought was that it must have been the previous guy’s bag, fortunate indeed as I could immediately try to return it.

I asked my new traveller if the bag was open? It was so would he mind having a peep inside to see if there was anything to identify its owner. He saw a couple of mobile phones and told me the bag was full of nappies (diapers) but the phones had Chinese script. That’s odd I thought but no matter I will check it myself after I drop this young man.

After the drop I looked inside the bag myself. Apart from the aforementioned there was a purse and another small zip pouched bag. Ah clues! Then wow! Inside the zipped pouch there was a large wad of cash!

Inside the lady’s purse there were ID Cards, credit cards and more cash. One of the cards was clearly marked with the logo of The People’s Republic of China. Well that kind of confirmed it. It must belong to the oriental lady whose husband was carrying the baby. Luckily I remembered the address I had dropped at which was a small B&B in Harlington. After a quick search I found a phone number and rang it. “Hi, I’m a taxi driver and……”

“Oh my God you’ve found the bag!” was the interruption. “They’re gonna be so pleased!”

“Well yes so what do I do? Can you wait until I come back out there later? I’m in East Dulwich”.

“Wait I’ll phone them”.

He called back a minute later. “They will pay whatever it costs just bring it straight back please.”


Two very happy customers on their way to Switzerland

So about an hour later a relieved but beaming Chinese lady was waiting for me on the doorstep. Profuse thanks followed by “how much can I pay”?

“Well just please settle the meter from East Dulwich, If you could have waited I would have brought it back before the morning for free.”

“No it’s Ok and I will pay you more but I only have Euros.”

“Well you have now” I replied.

Back in possession of her belongings she looked so happy as she handed me some of the cash in her bag and asked me to pick them up in the morning.

I agreed and a few hours later the grateful couple were again so full of thanks as we swapped a few selfies and details. I know I’ll hear from them again.

To Be Continued. Episode 2 coming soon!

The American Diver: Philadelphia man dies performing a daredevil feat in London

On the 11th January 1841 a shocked crowd were horrified at the death of an American daredevil on Waterloo Bridge. Samuel Gilbert Scott, (known as Sam Scott and to the best of my knowledge not a direct relation of the Gilbert Scott dynasty of British architects) had become well known for his hair-raising feats of diving from the masts of tall ships.

Young Sam was born probably in 1813 in Philadelphia. He joined the United States Navy and became known for his bravery in jumping or diving from the high masts of sailing ships. On leaving the Navy he set himself up as a stuntman where his acts of bravery were rounded off with a passing of the hat for contributions.

Aged about 24 he had left the Navy and sought a self-made career in showbiz and by 1837 had arrived in the UK at the North-West port of Liverpool. Here he was to publicise his next show of derring-do by printing hand-bills that were spread around the good folk of Liverpool. This also attracted the local press of whom at least one correspondent was left seriously underwhelmed by the experience of seeing Scott’s exploits. On the 1st December 1837 the Liverpool Echo wrote; “ Foolhardy and totally useless display”, then went on to predict his early demise.

Undaunted by such criticism Scott continued to entertain the crowds all over England. He leapt off Telford’s Menai suspension bridge in North Wales. As well as high dives in Manchester, and Brighton, he is said to have jumped from the top mast of the captured Spanish warship HMS San Josef, a 114 gun First Rate ship of the line, at Devonport.


HMS San Josef

Somewhere in Cornwall, it is claimed that Scott had leapt off a 240 foot high cliff into shallow water, which if true would comfortably dwarf the current world record for such a jump.

Scott had by 1840 set up home in the old maritime town of Deptford on the River Thames and it was there that he almost killed himself while preparing to jump from the upper top gallant of a visiting American ship. He would warm the crowd up by swinging from a rope before his jumps first by his feet and then by his neck. Tragedy had almost struck at Deptford as the rope accidentally tightened and began to strangle him, saved only by a quick-thinking sailor who grabbed his feet, taking his weight and allowing Scott to free himself. Then Scott announced to his shocked onlookers “The hemp that is to hang me is not grown yet!”

Then in January 1841 his final act of bravery, some might call it folly, came before the enormous crowd that had gathered around Waterloo Bridge. The figure being put at up to 10,000, which does seem to be rather fanciful amount. However, the following report tells the tale of the day’s tragic turn of events.

The Times of Tuesday January 12th 1841 published this account.

“Yesterday afternoon, shortly after 2 o’clock, great excitement pervaded the western portion of the metropolis by a rumour that Scott, “the American diver,” who had of late become so notorious by his extraordinary feats, had met with his death during the performance of his customary evolutions prior to taking his dive from the summit of Waterloo-bridge into the Thames. It appears that in the morning a placard, of which the following is a copy, had been posted throughout the metropolis:-

‘Challenge to the world for 100 guineas! Monday next, Jan.11th, 1841, and during the week, Samuel Scott, the American Diver, will run from Godfrey’s, White Lion, Drury-lane, to Waterloo-bridge, and leap into the water, 40 feet high from the bridge, and return back within the hour every day during the week, between 1 and 2 o’clock. S. Scott will be in attendance every day at the above house, open to any wager.’

This notice drew, long before the time appointed, thousands of persons to Waterloo-bridge, and at five minutes past 2 o’clock Scott, accompanied by several persons, arrived on the bridge. He was merely attired in a blue striped shirt and white canvass trowsers, and had on neither shoes nor stockings. On his arrival there could not have been less than from 8,000 to 10,000 persons assembled upon the bridge and along the banks of the river to witness his extraordinary performance. Immediately over the second arch on the Middlesex side and nearest to Somerset-house, was erected a species of scaffolding, composed for two upright poles, and three others crossing them at intervals of about four or five feet, the entire height of which above the balustrades being about 10 feet. Scott appeared as usual, firm and undaunted, and made several jocular remarks to those around him. Having ascended the scaffolding, he attached the rope he carried with him, which was about 10 feet long, to the uppermost cross pole, and after placing some tin boxes round the necks of several of his friends who were to collect money for him, proceeded to commence his performance, observing, ‘Why you all appear to be cranky.’   

He first put his head into a noose of the rope, and suspended himself for a minute or two; after which he placed his feet in a similar position, and swung with his head downwards. He again mounted the top beam of the scaffold, and, taking a handkerchief off his head, placed it on the top of one of the perpendicular poles. He then seized the rope, and placing it round his neck, exclaimed at the top of his voice, ‘Now I’ll show you once more how to dance upon air before I dive.’

The unfortunate man again let himself down to the extremity of the rope with his head in the noose, but had scarcely hung more than three or four minutes when a person named Brown observed that he much feared the man had hung himself in reality, as animation appeared suspended. To this one of Scott’s friends replied, ‘Oh, he has not hung half his time yet.’  In two or three minutes after, however, shouts were heard in all directions of  ‘Cut him down.’ Mr. Brown immediately ascended and raised the poor fellow’s arm, which on being let go fell heavily back to its original position by his side. This gave convincing proof of the suspension of animation, and renewed cries were raised from all quarters of  ‘Cut him down, cut him down.’ Some time elapsed before a knife could be procured, and then two persons ascended the ladder, and with the aid of some of the F division of police, succeeded in cutting the man down.

Mr. Havers, surgeon of the York-road, and another medical gentleman who happened to be upon the spot, immediately stepped forward and opened the jugular vein, and also a vein in the arm, but only a few drops of blood followed; and to all appearances Scott was lifeless. A cart was then procured, in which he was conveyed with all possible speed, followed by hundreds of persons, to Charing-cross Hospital. On his admission, it was ascertained by Dr. Golding, the senior physician of the institution, that life was not quite extinct. Under that gentleman’s direction, the unfortunate man was, in the first place, subject to the galvanic process; secondly, cupped between the shoulders; and then, lastly, placed into a warm bath, in which he had been but a few seconds when it was ascertained that the vital spark had fled.

 Scott was a remarkably fine young man, about 30 years of age, and, although he called himself an American, was supposed to be a native of Deptford, where, he, together with his wife, was residing. She was not, as was her usual custom, with him on the present occasion; but information, however, of the melancholy affair was immediately despatched to her on its result becoming known.

The cause of the occurrence is not to be attributed, as it was generally rumoured, to the unfortunate man having indulged in drinking prior to his undertaking his perilous exhibition, but to the mere accidental circumstances of the knot in the noose having slipped from under his chin in such a manner as to produce suffocation. It will be remembered, that a similar accident occurred to the celebrated Blackmore, and which almost terminated fatally, a few years since, whilst performing his evolutions at Vauxhall-gardens.

The body awaits a coroner’s inquest.”

An engraving of the scaffold erected by Scott on Waterloo Bridge

An engraving of the scaffold erected by Scott on Waterloo Bridge

The author of this post, Ray Coggin, is both a Taxi Tour Guide and a City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights and themed) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here.

10 remarkable 27th Januaries

Well good morning world and welcome to another 27th January in the Gregorian Calendar. The 27th January rather remarkably holds some rather significant anniversaries for humanity. I can hear you wondering, “ What anniversaries?”  Well how about a list of some of the more notable ones, although I am sure there are a lot more.

27th January 1606 

The trial of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators opened. Accused of attempting to assassinate King James 1st of England by blowing up Parliament.

27th January 1880

American inventor Thomas Edison registers a patent for an incandescent light bulb, despite Britain’s Sir J.W. Swan demonstrating one in Dec 1878. Swan didn’t receive his patent until November 27th 1880.


27th January 1924

Having died on January 21st, Russian and Soviet founding father Vladimir Illyich Illyanov, known to the world as Lenin was interred in his mausoleum in Red Square.


The funeral of Lenin

27th January 1945

The Soviet army liberated the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland.

27th January 1948

The first commercial tape recorder went on sale in the U.S.A.

27th January 1967

US Astronauts “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee were killed in a flash fire on board Apollo 1 during a test.


Burned out capsule of Apollo 1

The 3 astronauts that perished

The 3 astronauts that perished

27th January 1973

The Vietnam peace accords were signed in Paris.

27th January 1973

This author met Elizabeth Macdonald for the first time in The Fox public house, West Green Road, London. What’s for dinner tonight dear?

27th January 1995

Manchester United’s Eric Cantona received a £20,000 fine and was banned for the rest of the season after drop kicking a Crystal Palace fan in the crowd at Selhurst Park. The incident wiped £3million off the Man Utd share price.

27th January 2010

Steve Jobs unveils the Apple iPad.

Ray Coggin is both a Taxi Tour Guide and a City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights and themed) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here.

If you ever go across the sea to Ireland

If you ever go across the sea to Ireland

Then maybe at the closing of your day

You arrive in Holyhead to find the Princess

Turn around then come back another day.

TSS Princess Maud

Built at Dumbarton on the Clyde and launched in December 1933 for the London Midland and Scottish Railway, she was completed in 1934. She spent her heyday on the Stranraer to Larne Route, but towards the latter part of her service with British Railways she would spend the summer months as a relief ship on the busy Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire route. Never popular amongst passengers at 2886 tons she was almost half the size of the Cambria and the Hibernia, the two regular performers which dated from 1949. It was regularly standing room only. These crossings were always extremely busy in the 1950s. Apart from her small size probably the main reason for the Princess’s unpopularity was that unlike the larger boats she had no stabilisers and would pitch and roll like a fairground rollercoaster. The Irish Sea with its relatively shallow depth can pitch up fairly interesting seas in blustery weather and life on board Princess Maud was none too pleasant. Passengers crammed in had to put up with their neighbours vomiting in all parts of the ship. I hated the smell of being on board, it just stank of sick. I remember being on board either the Cambria or Hibernia, I don’t remember which, but my uncle Jim pointed out the Princess Maud as we overtook her en route for Dun Laoghaire on a flat calm morning.

Princess Maud wasn’t all that primitive though. She was built with a steam turbine engine that gave her a speed of 21 knots, faster than her bigger diesel engined rivals. Turbines had mainly replaced the older triple expansion steam engines, which were much less efficient. Princess Maud was the first British Merchant ship ever to be fitted with a sprinkler fire extinguisher system.

During WW2 Princess Maud served with distinction alongside many other ships and was part of the DD landing force in June 1944. Attached to the American forces for the invasion, she served as an LSI (Landing Ship Infantry) transporting hundreds of troops to Omaha beach. She anchored off shore transferring troops into landing craft.

Following the war she underwent a refit before resuming passenger duties from Holyhead and worked until 1965. During 1951 she returned to France briefly whilst employed on the Southampton to St. Malo route.

She was sold to a Greek company in 1965, renamed Venus and worked cruises from Cyprus, such a luxurious demise!

Eventually she was sold for scrap in 1973 and was cut up in a yard in Bilbao, Spain.

Cambria and Hibernia at Holyhead

The two mainstays of the route RMS Cambria and RMS Hibernia, built in 1949 for The British Transport Commission.

M.V. Hibernia is thought to have been sold to Greek owners in 1973 and became the Express Apollen (further investigation needed*). She was broken up at Darukhana, India in 1980.

M.V. Cambria, was sold to Middle Eastern owners and is thought to have sunk at anchor in 1980. (unconfirmed*)

*Anybody having further information on any of the ships mentioned  in this post please comment below.

Built by William Denny & Brothers Dumbarton,

Yard No 1265

Engines by Denny & Co.


Last Name: NYBO (1969)

Previous Names: VENUS (1965)

Propulsion: 2 screws. Two stage single reduction geared turbine. 750 nhp

Launched: Tuesday, 19/12/1933

Built: 1934

Ship Type: Passenger cargo

Ship’s Role: Stranraer – Larne service

Tonnage: 2886 grt

Owner History:

London Midland & Scottish Railway Ltd.

1965: Lefkosia Compaia Naviera SA.

Cyprus Sea Cruises (Limassol) Ltd.

Status: Scrapped – 1973



O.N. 134673.

February 1934: Completed.

1939: Troopship until Dunkirk evacuation.

1944: Deployed as LSI at invasion of Normandy.

1946: Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire service.

1973: Broken up at Bilbao.

The author of this post, Ray Coggin, is both a Taxi Tour Guide and a City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights and themed) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here.


Churchill’s cancelled appointment changes world history

Today, the 25th November 2015 is the centenary of a remarkable event involving none other than Sir Winston S Churchill. This happened a few days after he resigned from the Government following the debacle of the Dardanelles Campaign and Gallipoli. Churchill under immense pressure following his handling of Britain’s disastrous campaign on the Turkish coast, decided to take himself off to the Western Front whilst remaining a Member of Parliament. It was on this day that this seemingly innocuous situation transpired that could have changed world history not only having an effect on the outcome of World War One but more importantly also on World War Two but for a chance of fate.

You can read more about this on our World War One diary blog post which will be published on 7th January 2016 on this link.

William Orpen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Churchill 1916. William Orpen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In The Land of The Green a Bolt From The Blue

In a farmhouse in rural Ireland in the early 1960’s the importance of fuel could not be underestimated. The fuel itself was something of an enigma, a left over from another age, peat! Dug from a piece of allocated bogland that people would cut for themselves. It still remains in some very small way but these days modern Ireland prefers to buy processed turf in clean compressed brickettes from the local shop than spend months working it on the bog.

To a farm smallholding it was needed all the year round. A large stack of turf built beside the house would keep the permanently burning open fire or range glowing. Everything from a cup of tea to the spuds for the pigs and the hens were cooked over the eternal peat fire.

I had spent the day alone, wheeling out turf on the bog. It was a day in late summer in the bog by the foothills of the Ox Mountains in Co. Sligo. That warm summer’s day in 1964 was cooled by the almost permanent breeze that wafted gently over the open landscape. Midges had kept me company most of the day and each time a dry sod of turf was moved they rose to attack yet again. The wheelbarrow I had been given to use was unfeasibly heavy. Made of wood, green with algae and made heavy by the damp conditions, being left out in the open all year. The wheel was an old spoked car wheel off something like a Morris 8 of pre-war vintage. Without a load the wheelbarrow was heavy enough to tax all but the most determined. With a load of wet sods of turf it was something of a challenge. It was a challenge as a fit young lad I was happy to rise to.

The day of toil was broken up by lighting a fire with dry turf and cooking a bit of bacon and egg for lunch, whilst boiling a pan of bog water for tea. It wasn’t until about 6 o’clock in the evening that my uncle Edward appeared in his grey Ford 100e Anglia to collect me.

Photo by Lwkoester via Creative Commons

Photo by LWKoester via Creative Commons

We drove slowly along the bumpy rough metalled track and the early evening late summer sun was still high in the cloudless blue sky. As we bumped along chatting about the day’s achievements, I was quick to spot something that I had never seen before.

I shouted, “look”!

A great burning ball of fire came out of the blue sky, hurtling towards us in a low trajectory. Coming at us at great speed and in what must have been no more than three or four seconds it shot past us to our left before crashing into a wet bog.

We paused in the kind of pregnant silence that awaited our astonished response.

“What was that”? said my 14 year old voice.

There was another pause after which Edward said, “I think it was one of them thunderbolts. I’ve heard about some kind of ball lightning like fork lightning only in a ball, but I’ve never seen it before”.

We were both as amazed as each other, Edward was in his early twenties and I thought of him as a man that knew most things, but clearly he was struggling for an explanation. For a long time afterwards I sort of accepted his offer of ball lightning, but the experience never left me and today, over fifty years later, I can still see that ball of fire hurtling from the sky.

These days I believe that what we saw was probably a very small meteorite that was of significant enough size not to burn up completely on entering Earth’s atmosphere and by the time it hit the ground would have been the size of a pebble.

Why do these things happen on a remote bog in Ireland and not in Trafalgar Square causing mayhem, injury and panic, I ask myself? Remote places like the Antarctic are where you find small meteorites lying on the ice, or large flat surfaces like a salt lake or even a desert.

Meteorites are part of some distant asteroid or possibly even a comet that has broken away after a celestial collision some place out in the universe. They could be part of a distant planet that has been hit in a larger collision possibly thousands of years ago, where the debris has flown off into space. Whatever their origin, most of this interstellar gravel burns up and disintegrates as it enters our atmosphere, but some contain enough matter to survive the entry and make it all the way to the surface of Earth. They make the nightly spectacular that we call shooting stars. Easily visible in the unlit skies of the country, but hidden by the light polluted sky in our cities. The smaller bits burn to nothing in the upper atmosphere.

Photo by jsjgeology via Creative Commons

There have been something like 40,000 finds of these things since someone started counting, but since that unforgettable event a second sighting has eluded me.

Peat is no longer cut in Ireland on a significant basis, although some people still have their own piece of bog to work. Maybe another ball of fire has been seen out in the loneliness of the bog?

No known collisions with a London bus have yet been reported, but who knows? Someday, somewhere, there may be one out in space with your name on it.

Meteorites can be seen in the London Geological Museum, now part of the Natural History Museum which at London and UK Taxi Tours we can recommend as one of London’s great free attractions.

Ray Coggin is both a Taxi Tour Guide and a City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights and themed) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here.

All aboard the Huanchaco

This coming December we will publish the serialised diary of the movements of Dr. D.C.M. Page M.C following his exploits as a Medical Officer during most of the First World War.  Dr Page was my wife’s grandfather. Whilst serving he kept a detailed diary which contains many fascinating facts previously unknown to military historians.

You will be able to retrace the steps of this remarkable man as he is summoned by telegram to report immediately for duty and travels from his home in Edinburgh to the south coast and is assigned a regiment. Only a few hours after the telegram and the long train journey south he is aboard the S.S. Huanchaco bound for France.

Each day will be the centenary of the event and we follow him through the cold winter rain, snow and ice as he tells us of not only the horrors, but also the more revealing lighthearted moments of the terrible war.

Part of the research around this has revealed a truly astonishing event that could have altered the history of the world involving none other than Winston S. Churchill.

Beginning on this blog  on the 2nd December, don’t miss it!

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Ray Coggin is both a Taxi Tour Guide and a City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights and themed) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here.

A B&B like no other

The following account is one that I never expected to write, it was never planned, but not much I ever do is. It is an account of one of the most astonishing but equally enjoyable discoveries I have made in my life so far. I hope it excites the reader as much as it did me.

Finding ourselves with a day to kill on our return journey (see previous post) through Brittany and Basse-Normandie, I had to find a camp for the night. We could have stayed in Cherbourg, but I thought why not stay within striking distance thus giving ourselves an easy journey to the port and another chance to explore a bit more of this previously unvisited part of France.

Out of the blue I found Chateau de Pont-Rilly, reasonably priced, looked nice, but I thought well the pics are going to look nice anyway, but I expect we will get a converted stable or such. Who cares it’s just for the night.

What we actually got was jaw droppingly fantastic! We found our way to where we thought it might be as the chateau wasn’t marked on our Michelin road map and the sat nav thought it was somewhere entirely different. We’d sacked the useless English fool the day before anyway for his terrible pronunciation of French. I mean come on, at least try. It’s Fougeres not four gears for God’s sake!

Luckily the owners had installed small direction signs on all the approaches so we just followed them until we came to a very modest looking gate with a small sign declaring Chateau de Pont-Rilly.

We entered the small, unmade drive and stopped to be amazed. There in the distance almost a kilometre away along this dead straight narrow track was the Chateau in all its splendour. We approached at the speed of a horse drawn carriage taking in the beautiful vista.

Chateau de Pont-Rilly

Chateau de Pont-Rilly

Nearing the building the road changes to large cobblestones flanked by decorative canals and faced with a grander but still modest iron gateway.

As we came even nearer I could see a man painting a window frame in the house and from around the side a woman walked towards us. The lady turned out to be one of the owners, a couple Madame and Monsieur Roucheray, and they directed us to the rear of the building and asked us to park anywhere, before greeting us with an offer of drinks.  Introductions were completed over pots of tea and coffee, as I sat amazed at the scene before us.

M Roucheray

M Roucheray

Madame Annick generously told us that we were allowed to roam as we wished and practically nowhere was out of bounds, before offering a tour of her magnificent palace for the next morning after breakfast, which we hurriedly accepted.

In 1982 Annick and Jean-Jacques had discovered the place in virtual ruin whilst looking for somewhere in the region to live.  They were living and working in Paris and wanted to move away from the madness of city living. Successful in the field of furniture design and interior decoration their skills were to be put to good use in the restoration of Chateau de Pont-Rilly.

Having seen photos of the Chateau when they found it, I thought “what a huge task”. Only a fool or someone with a bottomless pit of money would take that on. Clearly neither of this pleasant French couple are fools and I don’t know how much money they have left now, but the job is done and they are still smiling!

chateau ruin

The chateau during renovation

The story of the restoration of the Chateau is as remarkable as the Roucherays themselves. A large manor house existed here from at least the middle of the 16th century but it was in the 18th century that the Marquis d’Ourville was to have the place transformed into the grand house that exists today.

When Annick and Jean-Jacques stumbled on this crumbling wreck of a building a dream was born. Could they possibly have had any clue as to the enormity of the task they had set themselves? Anyone that has seen the current glut of restoration projects on TV recently would be left in no doubt as to the enormity of the task. The walls were crumbling, plaster had fallen off, leaking pipes caused water to run through the floors and generally the whole place looked like the set of a Hollywood horror movie. I can imagine standing looking at the huge grey edifice with only the wind and the cawing of crows disturbing the silence. The ghosts of ancient nobles and their servants of long ago and the noisy chatter of American troops as they sat around the grounds, smoking and playing cards as they waited for action during the second World War. Undaunted, the Roucherays took the challenge on, bought the property and set about the biggest job of their lives.

Now I like a challenge , but the enormity of this task cannot adequately be described. Not only is there the size of the project, but the time involved in historic research, sourcing authentic materials, rebuilding the roof, the floors, the windows, the plasterwork, the electrics, the plumbing and the myriad small details that had to be right. Imagine all of that and you might begin to get an idea.

Not only did they have to contend with all of this but also the wishes of their close neighbours one of whom wanted to construct a large dairy facility very close to their land.  If that person had had their way the beautiful valley and decorative canals would have been filled in to create the dairy complex.

Luckily for Pont-Rilly the Roucherays found an ally in officialdom. Regional Protection Services librarian Hervé Pelvillain took an interest and set to work constructing the case to convince the Minister of Culture to make the Chateau a classified Historical Monument, which secured its future.

First the job of stopping the commercial development had to be undertaken. Ancient trees had been felled and the building of the dairy complex was already underway, but thanks to the efforts of Monsieur Pelvillain the building permit was reversed and work stopped. Now, over 30 years later the growing vegetation has disguised much of the un-demolished building work and has left no lasting damage.

Chateau de Pont-Rilly


Chateau de Pont-Rilly

Work could now resume on the Chateau and the work of restoration could go ahead apace. Jean-Jacques found traces of the original paint on the panelling and would match the colours to recreate the past. His talents would be put to much greater use as the work progressed.

I am certainly no expert, but Jean-Jacques’ talents as an artist must surely rate up there with the best. His work is now on display everywhere you look in this great house. From the authentic colours matched, to the murals painted onto those panels, his skills beam out their talent to the world.  The faux marble fireplaces and columns painted to look like real marble are reminiscent of Wren’s Hampton Court Palace and Barry’s Reform Club, having the desired effect without the undesirable cost. The period furniture blended with the genuine article and magnificent drapery pay testimony to the skills of Annick. The curtains are hand sewn. She proudly showed a complete 12 place cutlery set contemporary of Napoleon Bonaparte along with period French bracket clocks and paintings of characters that seemed to belong there.

On one wall hangs a great naval scene of Cherbourg in August 1858 with Britain’s Queen Victoria’s Royal yacht “Victoria and Albert” centre stage flanked by great French ships like the then new Bretagne, herself a curiosity. She was laid down as a sailing ship and fitted with a steam engine as she was being built.

Napoleon III welcomes Victoria & Albert by Langlois

Napoleon III welcomes Victoria & Albert by Langlois

The scene commemorates Napoleon III receiving Victoria and Albert to show off his impressive navy. It is the work of an artist, himself a native of Normandy, Colonel Jean-Charles Langlois. Langlois was born in Beaumont-en-Auge in 1789 at the outbreak of the French Revolution. He must have been a good school student because he was sent to the Ecole Polytechnique near Paris. It was and remains one of the four Grandes Ecoles set up by the revolution as an elite college for exceptional students. After leaving college he embarked on a military career and fought with Napoleon at the battles of Wagram and Genoa in 1809 and in 1815 took part in the Battle of Waterloo. He fought with such bravery and ferocity that he was made a colonel at the age of 26.

Retiring on half pay from the army due to the injuries he received, he then took up art as a career. For the most part he would paint battle scenes on enormous canvasses to be used in dioramas, a kind of forerunner to the cinema. These would consist of a large two-sided theatre in which these large paintings along with mirrors and magic lanterns would recreate famous scenes and transport amazed audiences to the centre of battle or on a trip to the pyramids of Egypt or any fantastic place that most people could never see. Unfortunately most of these large works were destroyed by fire.

Napoleon III’s PR exercise rebounded on him. Victoria returned home fuming and summoned the Prime Minister Lord Derby to rebuke him at the state of her navy. Within a year Derby had been replaced.

Since Waterloo in 1815 peace had broken out and it’s not an exaggeration to say that Britain had lapsed into a false sense of security. British politics, it could be said was suffering a period of turmoil and indecision during the 1850s and 60s. The office of Prime Minister changed hands no less than six times in the period 1852 to 1868, not a time for stable decisions. Budgets for war had been reigned in and the navy was a casualty. It was also a time when new technologies, not armies were marching forward. The last great wooden battleship, ironically the biggest, was launched in 1844 although it would never be used in battle. Wood had given way to iron cladding leading to all iron vessels and sail was giving way to steam.

Napoleon’s new navy took the wind from Victoria’s sails and put it straight up her government. His new steamships looked impressive but Her Majesty was not amused. In 1859 the Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom was formed and by 1860 under the stewardship of Lord Palmerston a series of forts were begun around Portsmouth at first and added to around the south coast. They were criticised as “Palmerston’s Follies” as they appeared to be built facing the wrong way round. In fact they were built to defend Portsmouth from a land based attack rather than from the sea, but in truth before they were finished their guns were outdated and they only ever served as a curiosity, which remains the case today.

Every part of this great house displays something of great interest, a work of art or an intriguing antique. The furnishings and finished decor are exquisite. Relics of the 18th century bearing the marks of Louis XVI hang as reminders of the house’s heritage.

Mme Annick at the window with its original glass

Mme Annick at the window with its original glass

A drawing room

A drawing room

Outside the house, the stables look ready to house a new generation of horses should they arrive at any time. The chapel is ready to welcome a small congregation or a happy wedding party. The old mill house with its chiming clock has an elaborate wooden staircase that would look more at home in the grand house. The beautifully restored greenhouse is a tranquil and evocative repose for Jean-Jacques to listen to his favourite French composers in the company of its lush vegetation. At the opposite end of the gardens which are stocked with beautiful herbaceous borders with their wild flowers blending with the manicured lawns and flanked with decorative canals is a modern pergola built to complement the  greenhouse. Peacocks roam with the wildfowl to complete the stunning scene.

Chateau de Pont-Rilly is a gem that thanks to this lovely couple is available to be enjoyed by the rest of the world or at least those lucky enough to spend a short but tranquil time here. It’s not a place to be spoiled by families with young children, you won’t even find a TV here, but in truth you wouldn’t want to waste a minute of your time here other than just enjoying it.

Chateau de Pont-Rilly

If you would like more details about this amazing chateau contact us or view their website here.

Ray Coggin is both a Taxi Tour Guide and a City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights and themed) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here or sign up to be kept informed of upcoming events, tours and special offers here.