Writing Portfolio

19.3.17

Endeavour (the fourth series)

What with the excitement over the new series of Sherlock earlier this year, I criminally managed to overlook the latest series of Endeavour. Both shows had their fourth series on the telly back in January, and for what it’s worth some of the episodes of said series were broadcast on the same nights, and while the BBC’s modern-day reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes is the one that’s been getting all the attention (as well as more viewers) it has to be said that ITV’s depiction of a young Endeavour Morse as a junior police officer in Sixties Oxford is one of the best things on television.

[At this point, a spoiler alert is probably in order; if for some reason you’ve not yet seen the fourth series of Endeavour, please be advised that this blog-post contains information that you might not want to look at just yet. You have been warned.]

As well as making use of the central characters’s first names (even though Morse’s one in particular is hardly ever used, to the point where most of his colleagues probably don’t even know what it is), both shows take a format consisting of short series of long episodes (ninety-minute ones in both cases). In terms of British crime drama, this was a format pioneered, back in the late Eighties, by Inspector Morse and subsequently followed by the likes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Jonathan Creek and many others. Sherlock started back in 2010 and now has thirteen episodes under its belt, while Endeavour began in 2012 with a one-off pilot and is now seventeen episodes old. Sherlock is full of references to the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and subsequent adaptations, while Endeavour’s focus of reference is the enormously popular original series, Inspector Morse, which was based on the novels by Colin Dexter and ran from 1987 to 2000. Both centre around gentleman-detectives, socially awkward but very clever individuals who can infuriate others as well as catch the criminals. Both are very well-acted – in terms of the support cast as well as the leads. Yet, for all that there is to say about Sherlock, I’m finding myself preferring the more understated Endeavour. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this. When I was a teenager I read and greatly enjoyed Conan Doyle before I discovered Colin Dexter, but when I read the latter I found Morse – the beer-drinking opera buff who was allowed to get it wrong and have romantic feelings about the women he encountered on his cases (however unrequited they may have been) to be a much more rounded, human and in his own way likeable individual than the emotionally cold, cocaine-taking Holmes.

A recap of Endeavour is perhaps in order. The third series, which aired last year, skipped over an immediate follow-up to the second series which ended with Morse’s mentor Fred Thursday getting shot and Morse himself getting arrested; it was instead briefly explained that the former survived, the latter spent a month or so in prison before being released without charge and the institutional corruption they’d uncovered got brushed under the carpet. Instead, writer Russell Lewis used the third series to experiment with pastiches of The Great Gatsby (with a disillusioned Morse in the Nick Carraway role) and Jaws (although, what with Oxfordshire being landlocked, the man-eating animal at large was a tiger rather than a shark) which were much more enjoyable than they had any right to be. A minor character in the tiger episode happened to be the father of James Hathaway, the sergeant in that other Inspector Morse spin-off, Lewis. The last episode was dominated by a bank robbery which went wrong; Morse and Thursday’s daughter Joan were among those taken hostage in the bank. On borrowed time in all sorts of ways, Thursday literally coughed up the bullet that had been in his lung (in the plausibility stakes, that’s right up there with a man-eating tiger on the loose in the Thames Valley, but it didn’t seem to matter as much as it should’ve done) before tooling up and storming the building, leading to a tense denouement in which he opted to arrest rather than kill the villain (whose eventual funeral is depicted at the start of the Inspector Morse episode where Morse and Lewis go to Australia). Traumatised by those events, Joan, who’d been making eyes at an oblivious Morse even though she clearly had a thing for bad boys, left Oxford.

In a departure from the previously-established format, the fourth series was set mere weeks after the third rather than the following year, so in the Endeavour universe it’s still 1967. This allowed Endeavour to fully explore the impact of Joan’s disappearance on her family (young women leaving home without telling their parents where they were going was a common enough feature of the time to inspire one of the songs on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album, released in 1967); being of the stoical, buttoned-up generation that came of age in the Second World War, Fred and Win don’t handle things well as their once-happy family falls apart. Morse, who belatedly realised his own feelings for Joan, is badly affected too but he’s also not the type to go in for heart-to-heart discussions about said feelings, and Joan’s eventual return doesn’t really resolve this by any means. We viewers know, though, that for Morse and Joan there won’t be a happy-ever-after, for like many a great literary detective Morse is fated to be unlucky in love (and besides, she doesn’t even know his first name while he can’t bring himself to address her by hers even when he’s proposing to her).

Another story arc is the ongoing development of Morse’s simmering resentment against the powers-that-be, be it via his ongoing alienation from the conformist careerist Jim Strange (his future boss) or his anger over his missing sergeant’s exam paper (he, and everyone else, was convinced that he’d aced it, but his paper mysteriously got lost in circumstances that one assumes have a lot to do with his having got on the wrong side of those in high places) which resulted in a will-he-leave-Oxford sub-plot in which he was offered (via Strange, interestingly) a guaranteed promotion and pay-rise in return for transferring to a police unit in London. We viewers know that Morse will stay in Oxford (and not marry Joan Thursday or anyone else); although Shaun Evans could never be accused of merely impersonation John Thaw, it is however important for there to be markers for the viewer to see how this intellectual junior officer becomes the gruff, curmudgeonly DCI we all know and remember from the old show. But, what with that show having run its course some seventeen years ago, there may well be viewers of Endeavour who have no knowledge of what the young Morse will become (although I doubt that; as Inspector Morse gets regularly repeated on ITV3 it wouldn’t be hard for viewers who’ve been drawn to Endeavour with no prior knowledge of the original series to watch the late, great John Thaw as the older Morse).

Did I say the acting was first-rate? Shaun Evans as the young Morse and Roger Allam as Fred Thursday are both superb in their respective roles and deserve all the praise they can get. The support cast does a thoroughly good job too, notably Abigail Thaw as the journalist (who deserves better than to be referred to as John Thaw’s daughter every time her being in Endeavour is mentioned), James Bradshaw as the pathologist (getting the best lines and clearly enjoying himself more than he ever did in The Grimleys) and Dakota Blue Richards as WPC Trewlove. Some minor characters have developed a lot as the show has progressed, not just Joan Thursday (Sara Vickers is brilliant in her scenes with Shaun Evans) but also the straight-laced, old-colonial Chief Superintendent Bright who has become a more rounded character than the usual bewildered police chief trying to keep his detectives in order (which is what he was, more or less, in the first two series). He’s played by Anton Lesser, a solid character actor who’s been in a lot of stuff in recent years – he was also the boss in that sadly short-lived BBC series The Hour, Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall and Fagin in Dickensian, and he’s really good in Endeavour (in which he shot the man-eating tiger, and how many actors can say they’ve played a character who’s done that?).

The fourth series saw an emphasis on aspects of the Sixties which moved more towards the popular perceptions of the decade than has hitherto been the case in Endeavour. The ‘white heat of technology’ was represented by a very big computer (designed by some Oxford boffins to beat a visiting professor from the Soviet Union at chess, although Morse also used it to find someone’s address) and a nuclear power-station (which was the focus of the climax in the last episode), while at the local hospital some Carry On-style goings-on between a doctor and a student nurse soon gave way to something much more sinister. The Cold War put in an appearance, what with the Russian professor and references to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the prospect of nuclear fall-out in the episode with the power-station. Morse, we learned, can speak Russian which I don’t think ever came up in the original series. 

Then, of course, there was the culture clash of the second episode as pop music interrupted the classical music which Morse prefers. A caricature of Mary Whitehouse locked horns with the Wildwood, a rock band which was a fictional composite of various real-life outfits (there were nods to, among others, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and early Pink Floyd). Both were of interest to the Oxford City Police’s finest – the former had been receiving death threats while the latter popped up on the police radar when some dope was found in a dressing-room they’d used, but they were later connected to a dead builder who’d become more involved with them and their groupies than anyone was prepared to admit to. The uptight Morse – seen as an oddity by the band members, what with his being a young man in a suit – was shocked by a gem of a revelation from Thursday about smoking dope during the North African campaign. The Mary Whitehouse character’s daughter – a smoker and a vodka drinker behind her mother’s back – declared her love for Morse (he, being pre-occupied with Joan, didn’t reciprocate) and then fell out with her bigoted, domineering mother. The band’s manager’s alibi fell apart when it was revealed that the Kinks were banned from playing in the USA, so he couldn’t have been on the phone to someone in New York discussing their forthcoming tour (nice try, thinking the police wouldn’t know that; good thing WPC Trewlove’s got her finger on the pulse). Bright and Thursday, their status as men from a bygone age emphasised more than ever in this episode, got to discuss the changing times and the nature of hatred. The music, brilliantly, was all done specially for the show by the people normally responsible for the music in Endeavour. The highlight of that episode, though, had to be the bit when Morse was forced to face his inner demons when he got drugged and started hallucinating (no Sherlock-style mind-palace for him, alas, although in Morse’s case it would probably be more of a mind-pub). 

The series concluded with an investigation into the disappearance of an academic in a rural village which seemed at first glance to be going the way of The Wicker Man (not a good setting for an earnest and determined copper) although in the event the villagers’ neo-paganism was a red herring; it was actually good old-fashioned jealousy that did for the academic, and in any case the nearby nuclear power-station was where the action really was. It was as a result of the finale in the power-station that Morse finally got his promotion – Hornblower-style, on the basis of action above and beyond the normal call of duty rather than by way of the exam – and he and Thursday both got medals, leading to a fine cine-footage-style shot of Fred and Win smiling outside Buckingham Palace. Does a well-deserved retirement now beckon for the character who’s been played so well by Roger Allam? With Morse having finally made sergeant, maybe it’s time for Inspector McNutt, named as Morse’s old boss in the original TV series, to enter the stage – although maybe not, as it’s been announced that Roger Allam will be in the fifth series which has already been announced. There were a few questions that viewers might raise (the Thursdays’ son not being mentioned at all, the Wildwood’s sleazy manager not being arrested for perverting the course of justice, Bright’s wife not visiting him in hospital, the lack of follow-up regarding the discovery of the Scottish hit-man’s body in the boot of a car, how the GPO was able to replace or repair Morse’s phone so quickly after he threw it against the wall), but all in all I found the fourth series of Endeavour to be thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable viewing (once I finally got round to viewing it) and I am now looking forward to the next series. In the meantime, I might as well work my way through some old Inspector Morse episodes via the ITV Hub.

This year being thirty years since Inspector Morse first aired, there were nods a-plenty to the original show and it was fun trying to spot those while trying to work out who the murderer was. I once again managed to miss Colin Dexter’s background appearances, but then I’ve always had as much success at spotting those as I have had solving cryptic crossword clues (in any case, author-spotting has been much harder this time around as the old boy’s now 86 and doesn’t appear in person any more). What with getting kidnapped by one of Oxford’s many serial killers and sneaking Morse into the power-station, Abigail Thaw’s character had more to do this time (I’d like to think that that was because Russell Lewis realised he was under-using such a good actress), and her father’s second wife Sheila Hancock made a much-publicised appearance as the Tarot-reading old lady in the last episode. There was a reference to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (the first film that John Thaw starred in), while I took the unnamed London unit which offered Morse a job to be a nod to The Sweeney. I took a reference to what someone was ‘last seen wearing’ as evidence that they were attempting to do something silly like crow-barring all of the Morse novel titles into the dialogue in some way, although this turned out not to be the case (Thursday did mention Cain but not any daughters he many have had, and no-one spoke about a jewel that had been theirs or death having recently become their neighbour). When Bright was hospitalised it was with a bleeding stomach ulcer, the same as what Morse had in The Wench Is Dead (both the novel and the TV adaptation). Actors who’d previous been in either Inspector Morse, Lewis or both were in evidence (the obvious one – Roger Allam – aside, there was among others James Laurenson, who’d been in the first-ever episode of Inspector Morse and who now played the wheelchair-bound professor in the computer episode). As with Sherlock, even the most trivial things are deliberately placed, such as lines and sub-plots which refer to minor characters from Inspector Morse (including Susan, the woman who Morse fell in love with as a student), music (always an important aspect of anything Morse-related), the made-up yet very plausible Oxford college names and all sorts of little puzzles; my favourite (now that it has been pointed out to me) is the name of the Abigail Thaw character, Dorothea Frazil – the word ‘frazil’ means ice crystals, so ‘D. Frazil’ means de-ice or, of course, thaw.

The latest series of Sherlock was good, after a mediocre start. But Endeavour is better.

15.3.17

The last, unfinished adventure of Horatio Hornblower

There is, sometimes, something to be said for the unfinished novel. Some, it is true, can be sorry affairs, finished off by someone other than the author (either at the request of said author, or for commercial reasons). Others end at around the half-way point and if they do get published they become are the subject of ongoing fascination among fans – just who did kill Edwin Drood, for example?

The latter was what happened to the last work of C.S. Forester, who is best remembered these days for being the creator of Horatio Hornblower, a naval officer at the time of the Napoleonic Wars who has been portrayed by the likes of Gregory Peck (in a 1951 movie) and Ioan Gruffudd (in the TV series). When Forester died – fifty-one years ago, at the age of 66 – he was working on Hornblower and the Crisis, the eleventh novel to feature that character.

Forester had been an author with over a decade’s-worth of novels under his belt when he introduced Hornblower to the reading public in 1937. The first Hornblower adventure, The Happy Return (published as Beat to Quarters in the USA), was set in the Pacific and drew inspiration from the fact that in the early nineteenth century, it could take several weeks for news of a cessation of hostilities to reach combatants out on the other side of the world (as happened in the War of 1812, when fighting continued in America for two months after the peace treaty had been signed in Europe); Forester was nothing if not a thorough researcher when it came to planning his historical novels, and the level of historical detail in them reflects this.

Basically, the plot of The Happy Return is that Hornblower’s ship, HMS Lydia, has been sent to the Pacific to assist rebels fighting against Britain’s enemy, Spain. Thanks largely to her captain’s tactical brilliance, the Lydia attacks and captures a bigger Spanish warship which is handed over to the rebels. Alas, Hornblower subsequently finds out that since he set sail with his orders Britain has become allied with Spain, meaning that he has unknowingly weakened his country’s new ally and therefore has no option but to find said ship again and, this time, sink it. Hornblower subsequently returned in A Ship of the Line (where he was attacking the French in the Mediterranean) and the follow-up Flying Colours (dealing with his daring escape from captivity in France after being forced to surrender). Coming out as the world prepared for war once again, they were huge hits, with the likes of Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and P.G. Wodehouse counting themselves as fans.

When he first appeared in print, Hornblower was already a captain. Later adventures focussed on his earlier career, as a midshipman on the Indefatigable under Sir Edward Pellew (a real person, who really was captain of said ship) and later as a lieutenant and a junior commanding officer. Forester was always careful not to have Hornblower take part in the big battles of the era; these, he felt, had already been documented enough without authors messing around by inserting fictional heroes and ships into the narrative. Thus, Hornblower isn’t in the thick of things at the Nile or Trafalgar, and although numerous real people are in the books as supporting characters (none more so than Pellew, although Hornblower also meets with such luminaries as Admiral Jervis, a young Lord Palmerston and even George III), the only time we encounter Lord Nelson is when Hornblower is involved in his funeral procession (which forms the opener to Hornblower and the Atropos).

Many of the authors who were influenced by Forester in the historical fiction genre (and his influence on this was immense) have not been so restrained. The likes of Lord Ramage, Richard Bolitho, Matthew Lawe (the cowardly protagonist of Nicholas Monsarrat’s last work, The Master Mariner) and even the soldier Richard Sharpe would all later find themselves at Trafalgar.

The run-up to Trafalgar, though, is the setting for Hornblower and the Crisis – the unfinished work of the series. Perhaps because it was unfinished, this has never been included in the omnibus editions of the Hornblower novels, with the same going for the five or so separate short stories that Forester wrote for various magazines. I don’t know why this was the case, and it is a shame that the publishers have made the decision they did, although two of the short stories – one featuring Hornblower as a recently-promoted lieutenant, the other as an elderly retired admiral – are included in Hornblower and the Crisis, presumably with a view to padding it out a bit.

The story, such as it is, follows on directly from the ending of Hornblower and the Hotspur, the last complete Hornblower novel that Forester wrote, and it goes thus: Having been relieved of his command of the Hotspur due to his being promoted by Admiral Cornwallis (another real person), Hornblower has to make his way back to the Admiralty in London in order to get his promotion confirmed before he can be put in command of another ship. This is easier said than done, but thanks to an encounter with a French ship on the way home (when Hornblower’s around, it rarely ends well for the French) he is able to bring along some captured dispatches that turn out to contain a new seal being used by Napoleon Bonaparte as well as his new signature (having proclaimed himself as Emperor, he now signs his orders as ‘Napoleon’ rather than ‘Bonaparte’). The Secretaries to the Admiralty (William Marsden and John Barrow, both real people) are pleased. While Hornblower’s in London, the news of Admiral Calder’s indecisive engagement with the French Admiral Villeneuve reaches the Admiralty; as a result, the French fleet, which Bonaparte will need if he’s to stand any chance of invading Britain and which the British therefore wish to destroy, is intact and safe in Ferrol, a Spanish harbour that’s difficult to blockade – as Hornblower knows only too well, having previously been a prisoner there (for this, please refer to Mr Midshipman Hornblower).

Despite thinking that he may be acting rashly, something that this most introspective of fictional heroes is constantly chiding himself for, Hornblower proposes a plan to send fake orders – bearing a facsimile of Boney’s new signature – to Villeneuve to get him to leave port; this is what Nelson, who’s been chasing Villeneuve across the Atlantic, wants. After a meeting between the Admiralty secretaries and a convicted forger who agrees to create the fake orders in exchange for his life, Hornblower is somewhat taken aback to learn that, addition to confirming his promotion, the bureaucrats want him to carry out the mission.

He’d like to refuse, because all he really wants is to be given command of a warship so that he can go and fight the French at sea, but he can’t. Fictional military and naval heroes do not, as a rule, tend to like the business of spying – whatever the era in which their adventures are set. But orders are orders, and if they’re told to do it, they’ll do it. It’s at this point, with our hero coming to terms with the fact that he’s about to become a spy, that the story abruptly ends. Shame, because it was shaping up to be a belter (and it wouldn’t have been the first time Hornblower went out of his comfort zone and had had an adventure mainly on land, either). There follows a very brief summary which tells the reader that, according to Forester’s notes, the plan was for some more introspection followed by the mission in France and Spain, which would result in the French fleet putting to sea, leading to the decisive British victory at Trafalgar.

So there we have it – Horatio Hornblower doesn’t fight at Trafalgar, but he does play a key role in getting the French fleet to put to sea so that the battle can take place. Or rather, he would have done. That was to have been C.S. Forester’s great plot twist, but he never lived to finish it.

13.3.17

Making our own Scotch (quail) eggs

We bought quail eggs for the first time the other day. While browsing in Morrison’s the other day, we noticed that they were on sale for £1:85 per dozen which seemed like a bargain to us. But what to do with them? We thought we had the answer. Why not use them to make some Scotch eggs?

I’ve made Scotch eggs before, although previously I’ve used regular chicken eggs; for the uninitiated, Scotch eggs are hard-boiled eggs which are wrapped in sausage meat, coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. I’m not sure how particularly Scottish they are – they were apparently invented by the posh London department store Fortnum & Mason at some point in the mid-18th century), and these days they are widely available across the UK in supermarkets, motorway service stations, etc. For years they were regarded as little more than a somewhat greasy (and in some cases alarmingly bright orange) picnic item but in recent years the foodie revolution has seen them being made with all sorts of different types of eggs (even pickled ones as well as eggs laid by birds other than chickens), with the meat coating including black pudding, smoked haddock, etc. You can even get ones where the yolk is still runny once the frying process has been completed! For home-made ones, deep-frying is a bit of a no-no so I tend to bake them in the oven instead (25-30 minutes at 190°C usually does the trick).

Quail eggs are much smaller than the ones that are laid by chickens (unsurprising really, given that quails are the smallest European game birds) and have nice-looking brown speckled shells. 


After consulting the Internet to find out about boiling times, I boiled them for three minutes and then, after a shelling process that was more fiddly than I thought it would be, I set to work on the sausage-meat. 


Starting with pork from our pre-Christmas trip to the Smithfield meat auction which had been ground up using my new hand-cranked sausage-maker before being frozen, I added salt, pepper, parsley, dried herbs from the cupboard (oregano, sage) and herbs from the garden (rosemary, thyme). 


 

The meat was then divided up into twelve parts, each of which coated one quail egg. 



The resulting meaty balls were rolled in breadcrumbs and baked in the oven for 20 minutes (as they were smaller than the ones I’d made with chicken eggs before).



The result? Delicious, even if I do say so myself!

12.3.17

Historical English crime: A fatal case of mistaken identity

I was recently down in Rye, a lovely old town on the Sussex coast that has a long history as part of the medieval confederation known as the Cinque Ports, as well as many an old tale concerning smugglers and threats of invasion by the French. It’s full of history – the Mermaid pub has a sign saying that it was re-built in 1420 – which simply cannot be avoided as you walk up those cobbled streets to the churchyard at the top of the hill. 



The church, St Mary’s, has wonderful views of the surrounding area should you climb the tower (I, of course, cannot resist the chance to climb a good tower); you can see across Romney Marsh, down to Camber Castle, even to the power station at Dungeness on a clear day, and across to the cliffs by Pett Level – one of my favourite stretches of beach.


  



For any visitor to Rye, the Ypres Tower (pronounced ‘wipers’, just like the way the British soldiers pronounced the name of said Belgian town during the First World War) is well worth a visit for those wishing to find out more about the history of this fascinating place. One of the exhibits is somewhat macabre – it’s a full-size replica human skeleton encased in a gibbet, which was the metal cage in which the body of a condemned criminal was placed after said criminal had died by hanging, to be displayed at a suitable point such as a crossroads in order to warn people of the consequences of breaking the law.



This refers to one of Rye’s most (in)famous stories, that of a local butcher who murdered an ex-mayor of Rye in 1742. The twist is that he killed the wrong man. Not for nothing is it known as the ‘murder by mistake’.

The butcher in question was John Breads, who was by all accounts the sort of man who was easily angered and who, if he could not settle a dispute by way of a punch-up, was prone to bearing a grudge. In particular, he bore a grudge against the mayor of Rye, James Lamb, who’d fined him for selling meat at short weight. This angered Breads to the point at which he came to the conclusion that the best way of settling this grudge was by killing the mayor. Not being particularly subtle, he sometimes spoke about what butchers do to lambs (in an age before refrigeration, they’d often do the slaughtering as well as the butchering) after he’d had a few drinks in the pub.

He got his opportunity on the night of 17th March 1742. There was a ship docked in Rye Harbour which included Lamb’s son as one of the officers; as such, the captain had decided to invite Lamb to a banquet on the ship. Rye being a small town, it didn’t take long before everyone knew about this. To get from his house to the harbour and back, Lamb would have to walk through the churchyard, and it was here that Breads reckoned he would have his chance to kill him – preferably on the return journey when it would be darker and Lamb might have had a bit too much to drink (it was also widely known that French brandy – smuggled, presumably – would be served at the banquet). In the moonlight, it should be fairly easy to identify the mayor in his red cloak.

Unbeknown to Breads, though, it wasn’t James Lamb who went to the banquet. He’d not been looking forward to it as he wasn’t feeling well but had felt obliged to go because, well, he’d been invited and he was the mayor so it might cause offence if he didn’t go. However, his brother-in-law, a former mayor of Rye called Alan Grebell, popped by to see him in the afternoon and, on being informed that Lamb wasn’t up to it, offered to go in his place – for surely an ex-mayor would add just as much dignity to the occasion as the actual mayor? Lamb readily agreed, and decided that as Grebell would be going to the banquet on his behalf, it was only fitting that he should wear the red mayoral cloak.

Grebell had a lot to drink at the banquet, and was staggering on his way home which took him up the hill and through the churchyard. Seeing a figure in a red cloak and assuming it was Lamb, Breads (who’d been hiding behind a tombstone) attacked, stabbing his victim before fleeing. Grebell did not appear to realise he’d been stabbed – when he got home, he calmly informed his servant that someone had tried to attack him in the churchyard on his way home, and that he would sit down in front of the fire for a while before going to bed. No need for the servant to wait up any longer. What with Grebell wearing Lamb’s red cloak and the only available sources of light being the fire and maybe a lamp or two, the servant didn’t notice that his master was bleeding.

Lamb, meanwhile, was having a troubled night – he was woken up following a dream in which his late wife (Grebell’s sister) had appeared to him and warned him about her brother’s safety. Early in the morning, therefore, he decided to see if Grebell was all right. The servant answered the door, and on finding that Grebell’s bed hadn’t been slept in he remembered that Grebell had said he’d sit down by the fire in the front room. The checked the front room, and found Grebell. He’d bled to death after falling asleep.

It soon transpired that Breads, who was nothing if not unsubtle, hadn’t fled far from the scene of the crime. He was wandering around the town, drunk, shouting about having killed the mayor. The parish constable found a blood-spattered knife in the churchyard. It had Breads’s name on the handle. The butcher of Rye was quickly arrested and imprisoned in the Ypres Tower.

The subsequent trial took place in May 1743 (actually a couple of months after the murder, as this was when Lady Day, 25th March, marked the start of the new year in England). It was, apparently, unique in English legal history in that it was the only time when a murder trial was presided over by a judge (Lamb) who had been the defendant’s intended victim. The verdict was never in any doubt – the evidence of the knife and Breads’s behaviour on the morning after aside, he said enough at the trial to incriminate himself, shouting at Lamb: “I did not mean to kill Mr Grebell. It was you I meant it for, and I would murder you now if I could!”

Having been found guilty of murder, Breads was sentenced to be hanged and, just over a month after the trial, that is what happened. The hanging took place out on the marsh, and afterwards the body was enclosed in a gibbet and left there – at a place known today as Gibbet Marsh.

Gradually, over the next fifty or so years, the bones disappeared as some of the townspeople stole them – back in the 18th century, ground-up human bones were regarded as a remedy for rheumatism. When only the skull was left, it was taken to Rye Town Hall where it remains to this day; there are apparently plenty of requests to see it, although the occasional suggestion that it be put on public display is invariably rejected by the council on the grounds that displaying actual human remains wouldn’t be appropriate; tourists can make do with the fake skeleton in the Ypres Tower.

That is ‘official’ the version of the story, as laid out in a pamphlet called Murder by Mistake (which used to be available for sale at the Ypres Tower but which has now been out of print for many years) and retold in a book called Murders of Old Sussex of which I happen to own a copy (for what it’s worth, it stands on my bookshelves next to Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Barnet, Finchley and Hendon; make of that what you will).

That the story raises a few questions is beyond doubt – least of all the question of what possessed Lamb to officiate at Breads’s trial. Judges are supposed to be impartial, and in this case Lamb – as both the intended victim and a relative of the actual victim – most certainly was not (there’s a reason why the trial is unique in English legal history). And why would the mayor – the local magistrate – take charge of a murder trial in any case? Serious crimes were meant to be dealt with at the Assizes, those quarterly court sessions that were held in most county towns until well into the 20th century. Rye being in Sussex, Breads should surely have been sent to Lewes to stand trial at the next Assize session. It would be interesting to know how Lamb managed to justify his unusual actions, presuming that anyone from the government saw fit to ask.


If you ask around in Rye, you’ll find a different take on the town’s most notorious case of mistaken identity. Being an old and somewhat isolated port located on the edge of Romney Marsh, Rye has a long association with smuggling (of which more in a future post) and a local theory is that Lamb was in the pay of a group of smugglers known as the Hawkhurst Gang (who we will return to in said future post). Grebell, so this ‘unofficial’ version goes, found out about the mayor’s corruption and was planning to expose him; Lamb found out about what Grebell knew and planned to have him killed in order to keep him quiet. Breads, a violent man with a known grudge against Lamb, thus became Lamb’s unknowing tool in the elimination of Alan Grebell. Quite how Lamb was able to guarantee that Breads would be waiting with his knife in the churchyard, or even that Grebell would willingly take his place at the banquet, is not clear. But as conspiracy theories go, it’s an interesting one.

21.2.17

The Capital Ring: South Kenton to East Finchley

To South Kenton on a clear Friday morning in February, starting on the last part of my Capital Ring walk by the Windermere, a big pub by the station that looked like it was built in the Thirties – as did every other building in the surrounding area. No time for a drink, though, for Dad and I had some walking to do. Besides, it wasn’t open at that time of morning.

Before long, we’d passed through our first park of the day – Preston Park – and crossed Preston Road, crossing over the Metropolitan Line as we did so. 


One street later and it was under the Jubilee Line and over the Wealdstone Brook, a tributary of the River Brent. The next street led us to a footpath which turned onto an open space called Fryent Country Park; it would be grass paths for the next couple of miles, and very muddy some of them turned out to be. 


We climbed Barn Hill, and before entering the trees turned for a stunning view of suburban north-west London and the ridge of countryside behind it (marking the borderland between Middlesex and Hertfordshire). Of particular note on this vista were the church atop Harrow-on-the-Hill, Bentley Priory, the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital and the Edgwarebury Hotel.


At the top of Barn Hill was a trig point (282 feet up) and a pond adorned with signs advising that fishing and camping are not allowed in the vicinity. 



A dead and hollowed-out tree provided a perching-post for ring-necked parakeets; these pale green and rather loud creatures are relatively new additions to London’s bird scene. Native to India, they’ve been recorded in south-eastern England since the late Sixties and there is a nice story about how they got here, something about the first pair being released by either Mick Jagger or Jimi Hendrix (who for a time lived on Brook Street in Mayfair, coincidentally next-door to where George Frideric Handel had lived over two centuries beforehand), although it’s more likely that the earliest ones escaped from private collections. Either way, they’ve firmly established themselves here now and they seem to do well despite the weather!

Moving downhill, we crossed a track signposted as Eldestrete, an old path which according to Colin Saunders in his book is reckoned to be of pre-Roman vintage and “was used by pilgrims to St Alban’s shrine”. That book, by the way (as I may have mentioned before, it’s published in association with the Ordnance Survey and is simply called The Capital Ring) has proved to be very useful, especially at points where the Capital Ring signage may be damaged or not immediately apparent. Crossing the A4140, we continued through Fryent Country Park which is a place that Dad and I have both driven past many times but never stopped to explore. That, of course, is what something like the Capital Ring enables people to do; it connects places which people may have heard of or passed on a regular basis but haven’t looked at further. There is, of course, always more to London – maybe I should qualify that by saying Greater London – than people think; Samuel Johnson was, of course, right when he pointed out that “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”.


We got another good viewpoint from the top of Gotfords Hill (just over 200 feet; no trig point this time). After walking alongside and through gaps in hedgerows, we hit suburbia again in the form of Kingsbury which has a rather interesting church; St Andrew’s was built in 1847 and was reckoned to be one of London’s finest churches but it was built in the West End (Wells Street to be precise). By the early twentieth century, falling congregation numbers led to the church being closed and it was threatened with demolition. What saved it was suburban development to the north – the growing suburb of Kingsbury was turning out to be too big for its church, so a solution was proposed. Between 1931 and 1933, the church was taken apart stone by stone and rebuilt in Kingsbury. We turned left just after the church, heading along Old Church Lane which afforded views of the ‘old’ St Andrew’s church through the trees (it’s now a Romanian Orthodox church).


Our next goal was the Welsh Harp, alias Brent Reservoir, a place where I’ve gone birdwatching several times. It was here that we crossed a local authority boundary for the last time on the walk, leaving the London Borough of Brent and entering the London Borough of Barnet. The reservoir – which gets the ‘Welsh Harp’ name from a pub that used to stand nearby, dates back to the early nineteenth century when the River Brent was dammed to supply water for the Regent’s Canal; as well as a popular wildlife-watching venue, it’s also well-known as a sailing centre. We stopped for lunch there, looking out onto the reservoir with the sound of the North Circular making itself known in the background (more of that to come). Bird-wise, we saw black-headed gulls (lots of those), coots, moorhens, tufted ducks (lots of those, too), a lone lesser-black-backed gull, pochards, gadwalls, mallards, geese of the Canada and greylag varieties and mute swans.




After the Welsh Harp we crossed the A5 – part of Watling Street, the old Roman road which I’d previously encountered in its south-of-the-river guise as the A2 on an earlier Capital Ring section. Then it was over the M1 and into Hendon, skirting the back-streets just to the north of Brent Cross Shopping Centre which celebrated its fortieth birthday last year (it’s never been the same since they got rid of the fountain). We were still walking in bright sunshine but parts of the sky looked ominously grey. A subway took us under the A41 and not long afterwards a footbridge took us over the Northern Line (Edgware branch) – and from the footbridge you can see Brent Cross station, supremely ill-suited for access to the shopping centre of the same name but it should be noted that the station pre-dates the centre by over fifty years.



 The footbridge led into Hendon Park, and it was here that Dad’s Capital Ring odyssey came to an end, he having started the walk after me but from a point further back. 



I would therefore be doing the final few miles back to East Finchley on my own. For part of this I would be doing so within earshot of the North Circular, a ring road that dates back to the Twenties and which “has the dubious distinction of being the noisiest road in Britain” (according to Colin Saunders); it has never ceased to amaze me that people will voluntarily (I presume they do so voluntarily) pay good money for and live in the houses that line it. Thankfully, the Capital Ring goes through parks for the most part of this stretch.

First up was Brent Park, a narrow park running alongside the River Brent which was deliberately left undeveloped when this part of North London was built up, just in case the river flooded. There’s a pond called The Decoy (so called because it used to be used to lure ducks for the purpose of capturing them) and I’m pleased to report that the flowers were out at this time of year. 


At the end of the park is the point at which the Brent is formed from the merger of Dollis Brook (which rises in Moat Mount Open Space) and Mutton Brook (which starts out as an underground stream in Cherry Tree Wood in East Finchley). These are followed by the ten-mile Dollis Valley Greenwalk which could be a future walk, should I fancy something a little shorter next time.


Following Mutton Brook and the afore-mentioned Dollis Valley Greenwalk, I passed under the North Circ and through a small patch of open space sandwiched between the former and Hampstead Garden Suburb, a settlement established in the early twentieth century by Dame Henrietta Barnett, a philanthropist who wanted to set up a community which included people from all social backgrounds (but no pub), a social experiment which lasted for a couple of decades before economic reality took over and the Garden Suburb became one of the most affluent parts of North London. 



I skirted along its northern edge, briefly touching on Addison Way before passing through Northway Gardens and Lyttleton Playing Fields, the latter of which afforded a view of the Garden Suburb’s skyline, with the spire of St Jude’s and the dome of the Free Church bookending the girls’ grammar school named after Dame Henrietta; that, by the way, is where I did part of my teacher training, thirteen years ago.



From the playing-fields I emerged onto Norrice Lea, a stretch of road with a primary school at the end. This was familiar to me, for last year I did my bit for democracy by being the man in charge of a modest-looking portacabin close by the gate that served as the local area’s polling station in the EU referendum. After crossing the A1, it was time for the final stretch – up through a couple of streets of very nice (and very expensive) houses that count as being in the Garden Suburb even though they have the N2 postcode which denotes East Finchley. This took me to Edmund’s Walk, a close which has at the end a narrow path which leads to The Causeway, the footpath leading to the back entrance to East Finchley station which was where I started on my Capital Ring walk almost two years ago.




I stood there briefly as some people walked past, going to or from the station oblivious to the modest green Capital Ring signs that had caught my attention and sent me off on a 78-mile walk, a circle which I had now closed. What, I wondered, would I do next as a walking project? The London Loop, perhaps, or maybe the Thames Path? Or perhaps a series of shorter walks? First things first, though; I’d walked nine miles that day, and I needed to sit and put my feet up while having a cup of tea that didn’t have the metallic taste that comes with drinking it out of a flask. So I went home.