Beautiful Britain – Harwich

The town of Harwich, situated on the mouth of the the Rivers Stour and Orwell has been an important port for centuries. The town’s name derives from the Old English here-wic, meaning “military settlement” and received its charter in 1238, although it is likely it was established long before this time.

The Royal Navy established a dockyard here in 1652 for around 60 years, and although there is no longer a navy presence here the port was important during World Wars and has been an important commercial port for “travel to the continent” for decades. There is a large area we used to simply refer to as “The War Department” as a kid which is filled with reinforced concrete bunkers, towers and gun emplacements and was a wonderful place to play as child. I recall stories being told of how the guns there shelled the German battleship Scharnhorst when it passed along the coast, although I cannot verify them.

There is also an older fort, simply called The Redoubt, that was built in 1809-10 to defend against Napoleon, which again emphasises the strategic position of the town over the centuries.

Harwich is also famous for being the birthplace of not only the Captain of Mayflower, Christopher Jones (c. 1570) but also the famous ship itself. The Mayflower, which went on to carry The Pilgrims to the New World, was likely built at Harwich and was certainly registered as being “of Harwich” in the 1609-11 Port Books.

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A walk along the docks and port of Harwich to Harwich Green also reveals an unusual building – the treadwheel crane. Using mechanics that was largely unchanged since the Roman period this is a human-powered lifting device was built in 1657 in the Naval Yard. It was moved to the Green in 1932, and is the only double wheel treadmill crane in Britain. It fascinated me as a child, and seems to stand as a sort of testament to past labour associated with the town.

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Trinity House, the official keeper of lighthouses and deep sea pilotage, has been an important part of the town for a long time with pilot boats guiding vessels into the ports and lightship and buoy maintenance being conducted here.

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Unlike many coastal towns, Harwich never really became a seaside resort, maintaining its position as a “working town” and letting the neighboring town of Dovercourt take the tourists.

Nevertheless, it’s not all work, and there is fun to be had if you look for it…

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~Richard

Beautiful Britain – Clacton-on-Sea

Nestled on the Tendring peninsula on the east coast of England, and providing seaside entertainment for the masses for over 150 years, the town of Clacton may seem like any other  British seaside town. Clacton came to prominence in 1871 when it was founded by Peter Bruff as a seaside resort, largely for Londoners to escape the city. He built the pier, which still stands today, and steamer was the main method of reaching the town until the road and rail system caught up.

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The heyday of the town was really the middle decades of the twentieth century when there was a Butlins Holiday Camp and many hotels and guest houses to entertain the day trippers and summer holiday makers. Then along came cheap flights to more exotic locations and, like so many British resorts, there was a significant downturn in the economy.

Even in the 21st century the town still has a significant number of visitors and people enjoying the sandy beaches, and going on the rides and other amusements on Peter Bruff’s original pier. When we were kids there were dolphins and orcas kept in the swimming pool on the pier, but thankfully that’s gone now.

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The landscape has also changed a bit with the offshore wind farm on Gunfleet Sands but all in all a pretty standard town that has had its ups and downs…  

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… Or is it?  

Well, there are two things that are also uniquely interesting about this town, so let me explain.

Firstly, Clacton was the site of the first civilian casualties in World War II when Frederick and Dorothy Gill were killed by a Heinkel bomber that crashed into their house on May 1st, 1940. Little is made of this fact, although I clearly recall a plaque on a bench on nearby Skelmersdale Road detailing this tragedy when I was a teenager.

Secondly, although Clacton is primarily known as a typical Victorian seaside town, the area slightly inland at Great Clacton was inhabited by the Celts and there is some evidence of Roman involvement too at the coast. The most amazing fact though is that during the paleolithic period, the area was used for flint mining and tool manufacture. And in 1911 there was uncovered the “Clacton Spear” a wooden yew spear which, at 420,000 years old is the oldest known wooden tool created by man.  It is, in fact, even older than Homo sapiens and was carved by our pre-ancestors Homo erectus.  An entire period of human development, Clactonian, was named after the town and describes the fascinating industry of flint working and tool making.

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By Chemical Engineer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I lived in Clacton during my teenage years and was totally unaware of this significant piece of our history. Sometimes it truly amazes me how understated the British people can be. In many other places in the world both these events would have been used to develop another aspect of the town, with museums and themed activities, but not in this corner of Essex.

How Quintessentially British!

~Richard

Beautiful Britain – Southwick

It’s been over 7 years since we last visited the UK as a family and I thought our recent visit would be a great opportunity to write something about good old Blighty for a few posts. It will motivate me to process my photographs and also is relevant to promoting the art group I run at Quintessentially British, which now contains over 11,000 images of “Britishness” by more than 700 artists. Ironically, I haven’t posted that many images of my own to the group since I set it up 5 years ago, so this trip was an opportunity to get some more images to post!

So, I’ll start with our first port of call – literally – Southwick, in West Sussex.

Southwick is a small coastal town situated on the River Adur on the south coast of England. There have been settlements here from at least the Roman times and the town is first recorded in the Domesday Book (1085 AD). Like many nearby towns, it was the extension of the railway lines in the 19th century which really caused the town to expand becoming a popular place for tourists to visit and take the sea air.

Although largely eclipsed by Shoreham-by-Sea to the west and Brighton & Hove to the east, Southwick still has a thriving commercial port (called Shoreham Port, even though it’s really in Southwick and Fishersgate), serving both commercial and navy vessels in docks on the River Adur.

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There is a nice village green with traditional pub on the edge, railway station and a couple of new windmills placed adjacent to the pebble beach, almost as an advance guard to the huge wind farm that is being developed off the coast in the distance.

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A bit of something for everyone, perhaps? Certainly a nice place to sit in the sun and enjoy a “99” (soft ice-cream cone with a chocolate flake).

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How Quintessentially British!

~Richard

My tribute to Clarice Cliff ceramics

Nearly a century ago, back in the roaring twenties, there was a little known ceramic artist in England called Clarice Cliff, who worked at the A. J. Wilkinson pottery in Newport. She was soon noted as an accomplished decorator of their traditional wares and she was allowed free reign to also paint some of the defective pieces in her own patterns. Initially she covered the blemishes on the pottery in simple triangles, in a style which she named “Bizarre.” Much to the surprise of the company’s senior salesman, these pieces were very popular and led to Clarice being given more autonomy and to design the actual pieces of pottery for painting.

In the 1930s two factories were built to specifically produce her ceramic wares, always with bold colors and often with unusual shapes that fit the art deco style of the period. Her work was produced until 1964 and remains popular to this day.

When I was a child we were fortunate enough to own two Clarice Cliff vases and a bowl, and their designs always intrigued me. Last year, when I had a little time on my hands in the ceramics studio I created a vase in a similar style, but I left it on the shelf for nearly a year as I was not ready to tackle how to complete the design.

Over the last couple of weeks I finally got round to finishing this piece, loosely based on one of her leaf designs from another work, as my tribute to this quintessentially British designer.

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~Richard

Easter Egg Redux

I have had such a busy last few weeks that I totally forgot to post this blog entry that should have been uploaded on Easter Sunday! Back in the UK it’s a tradition to give chocolate Easter Eggs as gifts on Easter Sunday. Over here in the USA they have been very hard to come by and only recently have I started to see a few more of these for sale. As an aside, I find this odd, as it’s unusual for confectionery manufacturers to miss a new marketing opportunity, but there you go.

Last year I managed to get a mold and make a chocolate egg for my wife, as detailed here. This year I thought I’d do something a little different so I used the same mold but instead made a ceramic two part egg and glazed it in white with blue and yellow highlights, in the style of a faux Faberge Egg. As a finishing touch I filled with some of her favorite chocolates, Wilbur Buds, from Lititz, PA.

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~Richard

Boxing Day

Every year since I have lived in the USA I have been asked the question, “what is Boxing Day?” by at least one person during the Holiday Season.

This year I thought I’d use this blog to explain.

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In Britain, the day after Christmas, also known as St Stephen’s Day, is traditionally the time to extend the excesses of the previous day’s obligatory over consumption of rich food and alcohol, known collectively as “the festivities.”

Being the day after Christmas Day, and living in a society subject to the the law of supply and demand kicking in, it is also the time for the biggest sales of the year as shop keepers try to offload all those items they overstocked for Christmas gift sales that didn’t happen.

The ability to purchase products for 75% or 50% of the price you paid for them only 48 hours previously made hard working people angry and this would often result in a round of fisticuffs in the stores and brawling in the streets, leading to the creation of the term “Boxing Day” as people let of steam. This was often fueled by copious amounts of alcohol that was available at this time of year since 63% of the annual alcohol consumption in Britain occurs over the week between 5pm on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.

So, there you have it – the true meaning of Boxing Day!

In the spirit of fairness I must point out that one conflicting theory still persists that “Boxing Day” refers to parental treatment of ungrateful children who were unhappy with not receiving worthy gifts being subject to a “cuff round the head,” or a “clip round the ear,” or having their “ears boxed,” which are all jovial references to a little seasonal parental abuse, but I don’t ascribe to this analysis.

Happy Holiday!

~Richard

Quintessentially British July 4th Celebration

Yes, as a naturalized American I am well aware that today is the day we celebrate Independence and the shedding of the shackles of tyranny from our historical overlords, however, there are already millions of web pages covering this theme today. So, instead I am going to use this post to celebrate something that happened yesterday.

Depending on the day, I have the privilege/honor/burden to curate the art group Quintessentially British on the art website pixels.com. I set up this group almost 4 years ago, on July 9th 2012, to showcase art that represents Britishness in some way and it how hosts images from over 670 members. Yesterday, I accepted the 10,000th image to the collection, which I share here.

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In between hot dogs and fireworks why not take a look at some of the images from the land of the old Imperial Overlords?

Happy July 4th!

~Richard

Thoughts on Brexit

The Brits have spoken. In a closely run race, fueled by a combination of vitriolic rhetoric, hate-speech, fear-mongering and lies by both sides it appears that the population voted with their gut feelings, as that was all they could trust. Just over half the country will be rejoicing and just under half despairing. It would have been the same whatever the outcome.

This is democracy in action.

The stock markets, who thrive on uncertainty and fear, have plummeted as a knee jerk reaction, even though nothing actually changed overnight. Many people will have lost money and a small, but significant, few will have made a fortune in just a few minutes.

This is capitalism in action.

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All of us always have someone to blame …

Britain, Europe and many other countries now face a period of navel-gazing, hand-wringing and reassessing their world view. What will be the final impact of this move? To be fair, the only thing for sure is we don’t know. This is uncharted territory as no-one has left an integrated community in this way.

The EU is (still) much more than a simple trading bloc; it is a mechanism of maintaining some sort of cohesion across a continent that has been war-torn for centuries. What will be the knock-on effect of Brexit – who can tell? Will others use the example of Brexit to foment grassroots anger and leave also? If nothing else the Eurocrats should, at the very least, take a moment to look at the way the EU machinery works – the unelected officials, bureaucracy and corruption. It’s time to ‘fess up guys and girls, realize you’ve been caught and do some house cleaning. Even a remain vote should have prompted this.

The idea of a united Europe is a noble one, but where did it all go wrong? Self-serving, greedy, narcissistic behavior from within – that’s where.

How sweetly ironic that similar characteristics were exhibited on Thursday by millions of voters on that small island off the west of the European mainland.
~Richard

Easter Eggs

As British ex-pats living in the US one of the quirky things we miss from our immigrant tradition at this time of year is the chocolate easter egg. The supermarket shelves are fully stocked with colorful, but ghastly, marshmallow peeps in a variety of shapes and sizes, there may be myriad easter-themed other chocolates, and mounds of chocolate bunnies, but alas, no hollow eggs. I do see mini-eggs and creme eggs, but where are those large hollow confections we used to love as a kid in the UK?

When easter came round we would usually get a couple of these from family. Displayed in their quirky half-boxes so that you could see the bright foil that encased the chocolate, they were a welcome treat for all children. In fact in the UK there are still around 80 million sold each year, which has to be about 3 per child!

In the “good ol’ days” the eggs would also contain a surprize of some sort. Usually in the form of more chocolate goodies, or other candies, but sometimes a small toy or a keepsake. Over the years, this seems to have changed, with these “extras” now being included in the box rather than the egg itself. I don’t know if that’s because of production costs or some kind of “health and safety” directive, but either way it’s a shame in my opinion. It spoils the fun of cracking open the egg.

So, what’s a man to do? Well, only one thing for it – get some molds from eBay and make my own, and what’s more this has the added benefit of me being able to choose the chocolate too! (I won’t bore you with my rant about the concept of American ‘chocolate’ here…).

A quick trip to purchase the last 3 bars of the increasingly elusive Scharffen Berger Milk Chocolate (the best American chocolate there is) at Wegman’s and a few hours later, my handmade gift is ready for my wife:

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Happy Easter (egg) to all!

 

~Richard

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