Posts Tagged ‘history’

With the sharp freshness of autumn now in the air, the long summer break is all but a hazy memory but I can’t let it fade away completely without sharing the delights of my last holiday outing courtesy of my wonderful National Art Pass.

Driving a round trip of nearly a hundred miles to somewhere in south-east London, most of which is on the M25, surprisingly doesn’t hold much appeal, but I had heard such great things about this place that I set off early one morning and arrived as the gates opened.

Eltham Palace

Approaching Eltham Palace

Eltham Palace, now under the stewardship of English Heritage, is tucked away in a delightful backwater between the triangle that is Bromley, Sidcup and Lewisham. Anyone familiar with this particular part of London will know how incongruous the adjective ‘delightful’ is when used to describe the area but Eltham Palace is more than delightful – it’s a marvel.

This bridge across the moat is 14th century

This bridge across the moat is 14th century

With distant views across to the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, Eltham is one of the few medieval royal palaces to survive with considerable remains intact.  Originally it was a moated manor house acquired in 1305 for the future Edward ll. In the 1470’s a great hall was added which still stands today. The Palace went into decline after other royal Palaces rose to prominence – noteably Hampton Court and Greenwich – and for two hundred years after the civil wars it was used as a farm.

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Portrait of the Courtaulds by Campbell Taylor
© English Heritage Photo Library

Now let’s fast forward to the 1930’s when fabulously wealthy couple, Stephen and Virginia Courtauld (part of the Courtauld Textiles family), were looking for somewhere within easy reach of central London where they could entertain their friends. The couple, although very different in personality – Virginia, a divorcee, was flamboyant, bordering on the eccentric (she had a pet ring-tailed lemur called Mah Jong) and Stephen, a quieter, more reserved man who had served in the First World War and suffered periods of depression as a consequence – were very much a part of the London social scene. They commissioned architects Seely and Paget to build a house for them on the site of the old palace; leading designers and craftsmen were employed to create lavish interiors in the art deco style incorporating the latest modern technology.

The stunning entrance hall showing marquetry panelling and faithful reproductions of the carpet and furniture  © English Heritage

The stunning entrance hall showing marquetry panelling and faithful reproductions of the carpet and furniture
© English Heritage

The dining room. The central part of the ceiling is covered in aluminium leaf. ©English Heritage

The dining room.
The central part of the ceiling is covered in aluminium leaf.
©English Heritage

There were synchronous clocks in most rooms as well as a loudspeaker system so that music could be broadcast everywhere. A centralised vacuum cleaning system in the basement was linked to sockets all over the house and Seimens installed a private internal telephone exchange. To say that Eltham Palace was, in the 1930’s, at the forefront of cutting edge technology would be an understatement.

The Courtaulds lived at Eltham Palace until 1944, briefly moving to Scotland before emigrating  to Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe) in 1951 where they stayed until Stephen’s death in 1967.   The British Army education unit moved in to Eltham in 1945 and stayed until 1992. English Heritage took the Palace on in 1995 and completed a major programme of repairs and restoration by 1999 of both the house and gardens. The result is an amazing display of authentic art deco decoration and a glimpse into the world of an extraordinary couple.

West facing  herbaceous border

South moat wall
herbaceous border

This little tunnel leads out to the south garden - I felt like Alice in Wonderland

This little tunnel leads out to the south garden – I felt like Alice in Wonderland

I visited on a Wednesday, which is when there are guided tours of the house. I would thoroughly recommend this as a way to make the most of a visit – the young man who took us round was so knowledgeable and passionate about his subject that I’m pleased to say he made our tour over-run by almost an hour. There are two cafes on site – one providing home-made hot and cold dishes and the other for takeaway sandwiches where you can sit on the lawn and admire the gardens.

Moat and part of the Japanese garden

Moat and part of the Japanese garden

The moat teems with friendly carp

The moat teems with friendly carp

English Heritage have done a fabulous job in restoring the place to its former glory – for anyone with a penchant for art deco, Eltham Palace is well worth the trip.

All interior photographs – English Heritage; exterior photographs – mine.

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This is Veteran Jim “Pee Wee” Martin.

He is ninety-two years old. 8944021905_2cc4329064[1]

He arrived in England from Ohio, America, last weekend to begin his three-week Trip of Remembrance through Europe, visiting the places he encountered during WW2. He is travelling with his companion, Doug Barber, a history teacher, also from Ohio. Our son (the Sofa Loafer), met them at Heathrow and drove them to Wiltshire, where they revisited places Jim remembers from 1943. He had a reunion with Rosemary, a young girl he met in the village of Ramsbury, where he was billeted prior to the Normandy Invasion.  They have corresponded ever since, know all about each other’s lives and families, but this was their first meeting in almost seventy years.

One of Jim’s ambitions was realised when, on the way back to Surrey to stay over at Chez Pellett, they made a detour to take in Stonehenge. After walking all around the site it was back in the car to a final stop at the Bourne Woods, Farnham. It was here that the HBO miniseries, “Band of Brothers” filmed the Currahee Mountain sequence and Jim had been impressed that the location used was sympathetic to the real Currahee – which he had run up and down many times during training at Camp Toccoa. He amazed everyone when, after almost two hours in the car, he got out and sprinted up the hill. Doug managed to capture it on a short video. You can watch it here.

They arrived at our house in the early evening after a brief stop at a typically English pub. I expected him to be travel weary, jet-lagged, even. I would have been. But Jim is an extraordinary man and we feel very honoured and privileged to have made his acquaintance. We had a light supper and talked till late in the evening, S-L showed us a DVD of Jim taking a tandem sky-dive at the age of eighty-nine – another of his ambitions was to jump out of a plane again. Very early the next morning, they set off for the Portsmouth to Cherbourg ferry. The Sofa Loafer delivered them to mutual friends in Normandy who will look after them while there. After four days they head to Belgium, Holland and Germany.

Tonight there will be fireworks  to celebrate the 69th anniversary of D-Day. There will be parties and lighting of beacons all along the coast. They’ll all be there and I have a feeling that Jim will be the last man to bed. As he said when we were watching the sky-dive video – “Life is not a spectator sport.”

A moment of quiet reflection

A moment of quiet reflection

All Photographs courtesy of Doug Barber.

Below is a brief description of Jim’s war.

Jim’s war began in 1942 when he signed up to the 101st Airborne Division and trained with the 506th PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment), at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, moving to Fort Benning for their jump preparation before being shipped to England in 1943. His G Company was based in and around the beautiful village of Ramsbury where further training was undertaken until the start of Operation Overlord – the Battle for Normandy.

In the early hours of 6th June, 1944, Jim, aged twenty three, was one of over 13 000 American paratroopers who crossed the Channel in a C47 and was dropped by parachute into Normandy. He landed safely near the small village of St Cȏme Du Mont, near Utah Beach. Thousands of his compatriots didn’t: the Germans had flooded the drop zones and many troops drowned, unable to stay upright in deep water, the weight of their chutes and supplies dragging them down. Jim went on to fight in Normandy for thirty three days before returning to England in July.

 By September 1944, Jim had jumped again, this time into Holland where his Company fought to secure “Hell’s Highway” in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden. After seventy days of fighting in the Netherlands, Jim’s unit camped out in France until they were sent to Bastogne in Belgium to take part in the Battle of the Bulge during a bitterly cold December. After Bastogne, Jim took part in the Rhineland Campaign and ended his war at Hitler’s mountain home, “The Eagle’s Nest” in Berchtesgaden in 1945.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that you hadn’t crossed the Channel when you arrive in Arromanches, nestling between cliffs on the north Normandy coast. There is a distinct English atmosphere, underpinned by the permanent flying of union flags alongside the tricolour and it evokes, for me, an amalgam of childhood seaside towns. The place bustles with a constant stream of tourists ready to fill the plethora of bars and cafes, or, if you feel like a treat and want to splash out, the hotel on the seafront serves fantastic plateaux de fruits de mer. There are souvenir shops selling Calvados; crepe stands and ice cream parlours; shops selling all the usual beach paraphernalia – buckets, spades, flip-flops, sun lotion and postcards. In the corner of the small car park is an old-fashioned Carousel, which whirls around all day, tinkling out fairground tunes. Arromanches–les-Bains, to give the town its full title, appears to be a typical seaside town.

Sunset over the Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches

Sunset over the Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches

But look out to sea, over swathes of flat golden sand rippled by Channel tides and you cannot fail to notice the huge concrete monoliths, strewn in the shallows like a pod of beached whales; lasting souvenirs prompting a visual reminder that this modest little seaside town has an extraordinary history. These benign marine sculptures are remnants of the Mulberry Harbour, built by British engineers, creating a port to facilitate the supply of weapons and ammunition to troops during the battle for Normandy, code name: Operation Overlord.

Nick-named Port Winston, the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches was one of two artificial harbours towed across the English Channel in pieces and put together off the Normandy coast, after 6 June, 1944 – D-Day. (The other was further west, off Omaha Beach). Port Winston, off Gold Beach, was fully operational by 18 June and was capable of moving 7000 tonnes of equipment each day via six miles of flexible steel roadways floating on steel or concrete pontoons.

The construction of the Mulberry Harbour has been heralded as one of the greatest feats of engineering during WW2 and can be studied in detail at Le Musée du Débarquement* in Arromanches, right on the sea front, opposite the Carousel. With plenty of information and artifacts, it is well worth a visit.

With your appetite for historical knowledge well and truly whetted, it is but a brisk walk up the easterly cliff road to Arromanches’ 360 Cinema. Perched high on the cliff top this is a cinema like no other: it shows a film called The Price of Liberty, screening real war-time footage interspersed with how the battlefields look today. Viewers stand in the middle of nine massive screens as the film unfolds all around them. The film runs on a loop lasting thirty minutes and, I would say, should be compulsory viewing for all.

So, Arromanches is a seaside town with an incredible recent history.  Its people are welcoming and willing to talk about their town with pride. The celebrations that go on here to mark the D-Day anniversary are echoed right along the coast, with firework displays that go on after midnight.

21 years ago, on Gold Beach at Arromanches, the Mulberry Harbour in the distance. Who would've thought?

21 years ago, on Gold Beach at Arromanches, the Mulberry Harbour in the distance. Who would’ve thought?

This year marks the 69th anniversary of the day that changed history. Our son will be there, somewhere, watching those fireworks. The first time he stepped on to Gold Beach at Arromanches, he was fourteen months old.

Now, is that destiny?

 

 

 

*For anyone considering a trip to Normandy, I’d recommend purchasing the Normandie Pass which allows visitors discounts on Museum entry fees. It only costs 1€ and can be purchased at the first place you visit. It lists all the participating partners and any seasonal promotions being offered.

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Don’t get me wrong – the tapestry is fabulous – all 230 feet of it and well worth a visit. (Especially if it’s raining, which, believe me, it will. Normandy wouldn’t be Normandy without the rain – it’s what makes it so beautiful and green). Displayed under glass in the Grand old Seminary in the heart of Bayeux, the tapestry depicts, in scenes woven on linen, the Norman invasion of Britain and has survived almost intact for nine centuries. The French do museums and exhibitions with typical style: there is a good audio guide to accompany the tour which explains events scene by scene.

Bayeux Cathedral from the British cemetery

Bayeux Cathedral from the British cemetery

However, if you cross over the river Aure, towards the cathedral (also worth a look), and head south you will come to the British Military cemetery: a complete juxtaposition of historical events within a ten minute walk.

Bayeux was the first town liberated by the allies on June 7, 1944. Over 4 500 commonwealth soldiers are buried in the cemetery; a further 1800 are commemorated on a memorial opposite the regimented rows of white gravestones. Along the frieze of this memorial is an inscription in Latin which translates as

“We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.”

The grounds are kept in immaculate order by the war graves commission; all the white crosses have floral tributes. It is a sobering experience to walk along the rows, read the ages of the dead and contrast that with our own offspring, who at around the same age, are enjoying their gap years.

Opposite the cemetery is the Musée Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie. This is probably one of the best places for a comprehensive overview of the Normandy invasion. Easy to understand, with an archive film in both French and English, there are displays of military vehicles, maps and strategies, uniforms, and lastly, a room dedicated to the work of the photo-journalist.

Outside, next to the museum, is a small, peaceful garden, dedicated to foreign correspondents all over the world, killed in the course of duty since 1944. Called the Reporter’s Memorial, it contains over 2000 names, chiselled by decade onto large white remembrance slabs. New names are added every year and, since 1994, the town has hosted the Bayeux-Calvados prize for war-correspondents.

The Reporter's Memorial Garden, Bayeux

The Reporter’s Memorial Garden, Bayeux

Wander along the winding path between the upright steles and some names may be familiar: Robert Capa, famous for bringing images of the allies arriving on Omaha beach and who died, aged 40, in Vietnam; Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident who worked for the BBC and who was mysteriously and fatally stabbed in the thigh near Waterloo Bridge in 1978; the Irish cameraman, Simon  Cumbers, shot in Riyadh in 2004 – the same attack that left the BBC reporter, Frank Gardner, in a wheelchair.  Journalists are often regarded with the same disdain afforded to estate agents or tax collectors: those that go out to report global combat should be set apart; they are not given military training, they put themselves in mortal danger to send the rest of us news and pictures that we are at liberty to switch off in the comfort of our living rooms. The Reporter’s Memorial in Bayeux is a fitting tribute.

Robert Capa's image, capturing the allied advance on Omaha Beach

Robert Capa’s image, capturing the allied advance on Omaha Beach

As Robert Capa said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

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Unusually for a household which includes family under the age of twenty-five, we have no game consoles.  My son had a play station when he was younger but preferred the great outdoors and often played by himself while his friends were attached to a handset.  I feel the affectionate use of the term Sofa Loafer when alluding to him may well have given some people the impression that all he does is lounge around watching Top Gear repeats on television. While he does do a fair bit of this, once he comes in from work, he is also multi-tasking. His laptop is constantly open so he’s either writing, researching, communicating or networking.  Or eating, come to think of it, sometimes all at once: impressive, eh?

Well, as I’ve been allowed to see some of the results of his research, I have to say that I think it probably is fairly impressive and it’s why I’m giving him a bit of free publicity.

With a passionate interest in WW2 history, his ultimate goal is to become a battlefield tour guide, but for now he has been working towards producing a book, containing anecdotes, historical facts and old photographs related to the American 101st Airborne division’s time in England, when they were billeted in Wiltshire before the D Day jump into Normandy on 6th June, 1944. His manuscript is almost ready for editing and he has sourced a publisher.  He has created a Facebook page where you can keep up to date with his progress, but his personal D Day is for it to be ready in 2014, in time for the 70th anniversary.

This year he’ll be escorting a very important person to Normandy for the celebrations – an American veteran who he met during his trip to America two years ago and who is now retracing his steps in Europe during a two and a half week stay on this side of the pond.  He and his travelling companion will be staying with us and revisiting his billet site (as well as Stonehenge, at his request), before the ferry journey across to France, from where he will travel on to Belgium and Holland, meeting up with other friends there.

While I am delighted at the prospect of this visit, my main concern at the moment is locating some Anglo-American bunting. This is most definitely an occasion for putting out the flags.

I’ll leave you with a few pictures from Normandy, a place now of tranquillity and historical interest, but whose inhabitants and the landscape saw some of the fiercest fighting of World War Two.

Utah Beach, late afternoon, now a peaceful place for a stroll

Utah Beach, late afternoon, now a peaceful place for a stroll

The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer where over 9,000 graves face west, towards home

The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer where over 9,000 graves face west, towards home

Stained glass window at a delightful little church in Angoville au Plain commemorating the Airborne

Stained glass window at a delightful little church in Angoville au Plain commemorating the Airborne

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