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Past Historic

Image: Graf Zeppelin

Travellers’ Tales: Crossing Siberia by Zeppelin

It’s a well-used phrase describing the reports that travellers bring back from distant places, but it is still one of the best.  And the tales they tell give a strong indication of what they discovered.

Most people who know anything about airships will recall images of the biggest of them all, the Hindenburg, crashing in flames as it came in to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey in May 1937.  Thirty-six people died.  It was not the worst airship disaster – the Akron and the R101 took the lives of seventy-two and forty-eight respectively when they were lost.  But the Hindenburg was being filmed and at the same time described on the radio as it came in to its mooring tower.  The film report showed the fireball reducing it to a charred mass within minutes.  The distraught radio reporter added an immediacy and emotion that brought home the human tragedy.

At one time, airships were thought to be the future of world travel.  The dangerous use of hydrogen as a lifting gas, the susceptibility they had to damage in bad weather and the scale of manpower required by ground crews to handle them stacked up problems.  Their large crew size compared with small passenger capacities produced too little economic return.  And yet they pioneered journeys across continents and oceans in the few decades that they were used.

A previous airship, the Graf Zeppelin – German designed and operated like many of the others – made momentous flights to America, Africa and around the globe.  They could only fly a few thousand metres high and relatively slowly.  The crew sometimes had to climb out onto the top of the vast, cigar-shaped gas container to carry out repairs, or down ladders from the hull into engine pods hung from suspension frames.  The low height and speed meant that windows could be opened and were big enough to offer excellent views of the ground.  When the Graf Zeppelin made a publicity-seeking flight round the world, it flew across Siberia between Moscow and Japan.  Reporters and adventurers on board saw landscapes never before observed by anyone: huge distances across forests crossed by immense rivers with hardly a town or village to be seen.  The few settlements they did find contained startled peasants unused to many visitors and certainly not a lumbering, engine-driven flying craft passing over them.

The sole woman on board, the English woman, Lady Hay, typed her account in the saloon among the rest of the 61 crew and passengers.  She was acting as a reporter for the Hearst Newspapers in the USA who were sponsoring the trip.  “The extraordinary privilege ... to see Russia from one end to the other as no mortal eyes have ever done before”, she wrote.  Another report, Karl von Wiegand, added, “We saw villagers run wildly into forests and houses and gather around churches, gazing to the sky in awe and terror”.  The commander of the airship, Hugo Eckener, thought the landscape “horribly beautiful when we thought we might have to land on this carpet and be trapped helpless and lost amid the swamps and countless little streams”.  In other places, there was nothing but monotonous tundra, marshy and treeless, with streams and lakes and patches of mosses and lichens but without roads or tracks and no human habitation whatsoever.  The reports were radio-ed back to the reporters’ papers via ground stations once they reached cities on the Pacific coast, and they were carried worldwide within hours.  A media window was slowly being opened on one of the biggest, but mainly unknown, countries of the world, thanks to the pioneering travellers about the Graf Zeppelin. Until the Lakehurst inferno ended the era of airship travel for good.

Illustration: Wikipedia Commons

Botting, Douglas (2002) Dr Eckener’s Dream Machine, London, HarperCollinsPublishers

Image: Swansea students in Valencia in 1968

The Terrain in Spain - Still Quite Plain

I was recalling a residential trip to Spain back in 1968, with a friend who also went – though on the ‘other half’ of the interesting package arrangement our university organised.  The old 35mm transparency seen above is showing its age (and evidence of dusty storage: the group had just arrived in Valencia).

There were about ninety students in the final year Geography class at Swansea.  Half of them went with their tutors by coach to Southampton for the ferry to Bilbao.  They then spent nine days crossing the country from the green northern coast, through the dry centre and semi-desert, to Valencia.  We flew out from Cardiff to Valencia, swapped out plane for their coach, and did their journey in reverse.  The ten days cost £50 plus lunches and spending money – a lot of cash then and we had some grumbles with the tutors before the trip about it.  But what good value it turned out to be!  There are so many memories of it even now, more than forty years later.  How much I remember about the Geography of Spain is an interesting point.  Quite a lot about the general character of the places we visited, rather less about the technicalities of economics and climate or the historical setting.  It was an adventure, not least because I hadn’t been to Southern Europe before, only Northern and Eastern.  My friend took to the place so much that after graduation and marrying her fiancé they took a car and made the self-same journey together.

It was the first time I ate octopus rings and frittata.  It was the first time that I had seen somewhere as yellow-dry as the country around Zaragoza.  The dead dog on the beach in Valencia looked a bit old and well established as a feature.  Going into a small village shop to buy something for lunch, we were served ahead of others waiting, which made us feel special, but perhaps the locals were going to spend time gossiping.  And maybe they charged us a bit more.  We were in the bar of a hotel during the Eurovision Song Contest: a very, very noisy evening that I would often recall when with my own students and colleagues on residentials years later we had our last-might socials. 

Orange groves were new to me, as were olive trees, cacti and sage bushes.  In a tiny village, somewhere near Burgos we could see how poor it was compared with their big cities and our own villages back home.  Yet in the little church, the gold-leaf covered statues must have taken much of their income to obtain.  When we reached Bilbao, there were the celebrations for Easter.  At night there was a long procession of men in costumes looking like Ku-Klux Klan figures accompanying their saints’ statues.  To us, it looked mysterious, dark and alien.  We made the ferry journey overnight across a choppy Bay of Biscay.  From Southampton our coach journey after the wide sweeping landscape of Spain seemed like a trip through toy land by comparison.

I recognise Peter Quick in the photo, but no-one else.  Kath Fewster and Sue Miller, where are you now?


Image: Map of a Nation

Book Review

Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey

Rachel Hewitt

Publisher: Granta


RRP: £9.99 but available new or used for much less

This book first appeared in paperback in June 2011 and received good media reviews and earned the author the Jerwood prize for non-fiction.  Reader reviews on Amazon were more mixed.  The more critical ones read as though they were from a band of specialists who thought they were the only ones who should write about the OS.

After the first chapter, which seemed a bit of unnecessary personality stuff, I got into the book and found it delightful and informative.  Those negative Amazonian reviewers seem to think that only an academic, technical and comprehensive work should ever be written.  This is actually an excellent, readable account of the OS in its historical context. It relates very well to its audience, who will not all be techno-geeks.

I read this alongside a more technical history and still understood by doing so far more of how the OS came about and was shaped by personalities and politics.  The way in which the Survey made maps for the army to use but from the start sold them to the public came over well. Lots of thought-provoking material about the background to tourism and educational travel.

It would have been good to see the story brought up to date, and it might have been good to have more comparisons with, for example, the French and American surveys.  But Rachel Hewitt's chosen remit was perfectly valid. Like the Ordnance Survey in its early days, she mapped out her work according to chosen priorities and delivered a very worthwhile result.

Image: Much Wenlock - home of the modern Olympics

Making History and Saluting It

The London Olympic Torch Relay Reaches the Home of Modern Olympic Games

A doctor in Shropshire was one of the leading proponents of modern Olympic Games.  Dr William Penny Brookes practised in Much Wenlock in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Travelling around Shropshire on horseback, he saw the reality of farming life – often a matter of poverty and ill health.  He also had a concern for education.  In 1841, the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society was established with books on farming and, later, natural history and geology.  But as a believer in the ‘healthy mind in a healthy body’ principle of the Greek philosopher Thales, Brookes wanted to improve the physical wellbeing of his community.

 In 1850, he started an Olympian Class to encourage outdoor recreation.  Later that year he initiated the Wenlock Olympian Games.  On 22 October, a band led a procession with flags flying to the first of two days’ games with cricket, football, races.  Long and high jumping and quoits.  Over the years, the annual event grew more and more.  Some elements of carnival were added to the procession.  Brookes hoped to have a National Olympian Games, though this did not happen.  He also wanted to see an international event.  In 1889, the 80-year old doctor made contact with a twenty-six year old Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who was also promoting sporting events as good for health and social and moral well-being.  De Coubertin visited Much Wenlock in October the following year, meeting Games organisers for dinner at the Raven Hotel.  A mini-Olympian Games was held in his honour to show what the town did, with the opening processional event designed to impress, speeches made and champagne drunk. 

 Out of the vision shared by the two men came the first international Olympic Games of Athens in 1896.  Pierre de Coubertin paid honour to the town later when he wrote in a New York journal, "It is safe to say that the Wenlock people alone have preserved and followed the true Olympian traditions".  He presented a commemorative medal to the town in 1891.  The mascot for the London 2012 Olympics was officially named as Wenlock in a visit to the town by Jonathan Edwards as a representative of the organising committee.  Edwards accepted the position of Honorary President of the Much Wenlock Olympian Games.

In 1995, an Olympian Trail was opened round the town.  It marked the hundredth anniversary of Dr Brookes’s death, sadly just four months before the first international Olympic Games.  The trail includes many places associated with the Much Wenlock events, such as the Raven Hotel and the Linden field where the town’s Games are held each year.  In the true spirit of the William Penny Brookes, walking the trail tells a historical story while giving healthy exercise through a walk around the town.


Image: Chatham Historic Dockyard

Chatham Historic Dockyard

HMS Victory was built at Chatham Dockyard and launched in 1765. The slipway used was replaced by a dry dock years ago and now is the permanent home of HMS Cavalier, a C-class destroyer of Second World War vintage. Nearby in another dry dock is HM Submarine Ocelot, the last warship to be built for the Royal Navy at Chatham. Then there is HMS Gannet, a Victorian sloop, now more than 130 years old.

The Historic Dockyard was handed over by the Royal Navy to become a major museum in 1984. It occupies a vast area and yet not all of what was once operated by the Navy – parts of the dock became a commercial dockyard. And even more of this important port had military connections through defensive forts and facilities stretching around it.

Since 1984, considerable work by the Charitable Trust running the Historic Dockyard has turned it into one of the best centres for education about the Royal Navy and its history. At first glance, it might look like boys’ toys and imperial pride, but that would be a very superficial view. Visitors go in with existing knowledge from education and the media, and I suspect that with age they move away from war-is-fun games towards an appreciation of the pain and horror that killing machines really mean. The fact that people can be willing to die for a cause does need to be both acknowledged and celebrated. It’s the cause that must be judged as right or wrong.

Boarding the beautiful sloop, HMS Gannet, might make it look romantic. Only a fool would choose to forget the seasickness, the shattering noise of battle and its aftermath. HM Submarine Ocelot may look sleek, sneaky and powerful on the outside. Get inside and see the reality – claustrophobic spaces that were the only world of the matelots who operated it: no view of an outside world and little knowledge of what it held, for days on end.

Whether you like the use of the technology or not, it remains a fact, that it was developed using ingenuity and skill. It’s sadly true that pursuing wars had beneficial effects for peaceful technology. Without military motivations driving change, a lot of what we enjoy today would never have happened, from manufacturing abilities to computer communications. One of the vast Dockyard sheds protects lifeboats of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The quality of the boats and the dedication of the men who risk their lives sailing them owe much to the traditions and technical know-how of the military.


Image: Hawes attractions

Industrial Tourism in Hawes, North Yorkshire 

Following on from an ‘Along the Way’ posting recently, it was interesting to make another visit this week to two examples of industrial tourism in Yorkshire. 

In May of 1992, the Dairy Crest Creamery in Wensleydale was closed. 59 jobs were lost. Production of the local cheese was moved to Lancashire from the town of Hawes. Within a few months, a team of managers from the plant along with a local businessperson bought the former creamery from Dairycrest. By Christmas, Wensleydale cheese was being made there again. 

Over the ensuing two decades, inspired marketing has turned the business into one of Britain’s outstanding cheese-making operations with a wide range of basic and specialist products. These are sold directly to the public in an on-site shop as well as through supermarkets and small stores round the country. Part of the success is owed to turning the dairy into a tourist attraction. Visitors can see cheese being made, sample the products and buy them in the shop, and eat in either the cafe or the restaurant in the complex. A souvenir shop sells gifts of the usual kind. The marketing effort added the making of a link to the Wallace and Gromit movies – Wallace’s favourite cheese is that from Wensleydale – priceless high-quality publicity for the produce. Another creamery has been acquired near Ripon and 200 people are now employed. 

Almost forty years ago, the rope-making firm of W R Outhwaite, also in Hawes, changed hands. Tom Outhwaite was the last of the family to run the business there. It had its origins in the very early eighteenth century. The Outhwaites had taken it on in 1905. As Tom retired a young couple from Nottingham, Peter and Ruth Annison, moved to Hawes. Both had been college lecturers. They bought the business. As with the Creamery, they turned partly to tourism to make it successful on a larger scale. Visitors could see ropes made for a variety of uses from animal leads to church bell-ropes, candle-wicks to colourful crowd barriers. 

The old rope-works shed was replaced, though the new structure was kept carefully matching the footprint of the original. Over time, two extensions were built, the second a large stone factory unit along the edge of the former Hawes railway station car park. Next to the actual track stands the Dales Museum with a large Tourist Information Centre. Although not in the town centre the combination of car parking, TIC, museum and rope-works makes a great deal of sense. New staff has been taken on as the business has expanded. The Annisons have also been involved in efforts to extend the diesel-hauled heritage railway that runs from Leeming Bar to Redmire. The dream is to take it as far as Hawes along the former British Rail track bed. Could it even go further – running up the Dale to meet the busy line of the Settle and Carlisle line? If it did, there could be a link between two important mainline services operating alongside the Pennines. 

These two manufacturing businesses in Hawes illustrate again the long-established usefulness of tourism in supporting industrial growth. They also show just how commercial marketing works hand-in-glove with community redevelopment. Seeing tourism marketing as a purely commercial concern misses the point. Commercial- and community-led tourism have been in a symbiotic relationship for over two hundred years. 


Image: Colonial Williamsburg composite

Book Review

Creating Colonial Williamsburg
Anders Greenspan
2002: Washington DC, Smithsonian Institution Press
ISBN 1 58834 001 5 (pbk)

It's easy to think of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia as just another theme park. This presentation of eighteenth century American colonial life has to compete with numerous other Disneyesque tourist attractions. There is the usual danger of step-back-in-time-ism (an offence that should lead to a long jail sentence) based on what looks like a costume pageant set in some kind of trans-Atlantic Ruritania. It’s clean, polished, smiling and tranquil. The first time I visited, in the early 70s, I had no idea that it was anything other than an open air museum for which a rather pricey ticket bought a film show followed by a day looking at a series of exhibits. Spending a couple of days there in the summer of 2005, I realised that I could walk from my motel along a street of Williamsburg houses, past some shops, turn left, and along the main street of the historic area – for free. My ticket this time bought me what it did last time: the introductory 1957 film, “The Story of a Patriot”, a short shuttle bus ride, and access to inside many of the buildings which make up the project’s attractiveness. What it encompasses is a part of the straight-forward city of Williamsburg, but one which has been conserved, costumed and largely created to tell the story of America on the eve of independence. Nearby are the Jamestown historic centres, recalling the days and events depicted in Terrence Malik’s 2005 film “The New World”, and Yorktown, which was the site of the British army surrender to the colonists under George Washington.

Colonial Williamsburg is different. It is just part of the city, even if a very differently managed and presented one. This is not what we in Europe might call a city: it feels more like an attractive town of low-rise, low density construction. Open spaces and parkway roads define the landscape as much as do town buildings. The movement to conserve some of the remarkable buildings scattered amongst the main street shops and filling stations of 1920s Williamsburg took time to create what we see today. Anders Greenspan’s book, published under the imprint of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution, tells the story, and how the emphasis changed gradually from rather cosy Americana towards something which looked at, and presented, some of the less comfortable components of Virginian life – the basis in slavery, the hard life of less privileged people and the role of women in the community. It has been a story which needed to tread a careful path between what visitors, often from the north, expected to see, and what residents of the state, born in the values of the south, would allow to be shown. Pride in American independence in the inter-war years was one thing, pride in being a bastion of democracy in the second world war another, but both were easy things to celebrate. Introducing black faces and recalling domestic hardships were much more difficult if visitors didn’t want to be reminded about them. And the Williamsburg project was bound to be expensive, so success depended on those visitors being happy to spend money on tickets, food in the inns of the town, and goods in the shops.

Greenspan’s book – prominently available in Colonial Williamsburg’s excellent bookshop – is often critical, but always fair and detailed. The demands of the physical conservation programme, the visitor interpretation and the background developments which made it possible are thoroughly examined. As a history of a history project it rightly avoids the kind of misleading theorising that sometimes obscures the understanding of complex and changing interpretive schemes. His book brings out the educational basis of the town. Just as school-based education has changed and evolved, so this kind of tourist attraction as grown with the changing values of the community at large. This is a book which must be read by anyone wanting to know better how that has happened.

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