Here followeth the second round-up of my favourite local history books of 2013, this time from a little further afield than Birmingham and the Black Country.
If we leave to one side the air bases at Cosford and Donnington, Shropshire is not a county one much associates with aircraft; the east of England seems more appropriate flying territory. However, Thomas Thorne, Pancakes and Prangs: Twentieth century Military Aircraft Accidents in Shropshire (Bridge Books) £25, gives us an extraordinary catalogue of mishaps in the Shropshire skies.
Thorne begins his book with a fatal training flight from Tern Hill in March 1917. The pilot concerned had survived Ypres, only to die near Market Drayton instead. And he was not alone; there were 11 more crashes out of Tern Hill in that year alone, one plane coming down in Abbey Foregate, close to the centre of Shrewsbury.
There were once more than 20 airfields in Shropshire, at unexpected places such as Hinstock, High Ercall and Atcham. Thomas Thorne covers the mixed fortunes of them all in exhaustive detail.
It is equally the case that Shropshire is not a county one particularly associates with the English Civil War; the key battlegrounds were also further east. John Barratt, Cavalier Stronghold: Ludlow in the English Civil Wars 1642-1660, (Logaston) £10, begs to differ. Indeed, so rich is Ludlow’s history that it can always be relied upon to make a contribution, whatever the period.
The 1646 siege of Ludlow Castle – a Royalist stronghold throughout the war – was short and sweet, the governor giving it up before any damage was inflicted. The siege of Hopton Castle in 1644, 12 miles to the west, was considerably more ferocious, though it lasted only three weeks.
Yet, freed from having to deliver a blow-by-blow account of battles won and lost, the author is able to provide a richer analysis of the ways the war (and subsequent peace) impacted upon a small market town. Barratt considers the sequestrations, recruitment, taxation and quartering of troops, all of which were an unavoidable by-product of civil strife. War, as we all know, is never confined to the battlefield.
Finally, from this neck of the woods, Wayne Smith mixes creative writing, guiding and history in The Drovers’ Roads of the Middle Marches, Logaston, Herefordshire, £10. Much of this book is an invitation to get out one’s walking boots and retrace the steps of the old drovers, as they took their livestock across Shropshire and Herefordshire to market in the West Midlands. A remarkable number of the roads are still traceable.
But Smith reflects on the lives of the drovers too, from George Borrow’s fascinating encounter with Mr Bos, the pig drover, back in 1858, through to Smith’s own Dylanesque account of Huw the Drover, a name and a story that meant so much to Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Coventry’s extensive and rich history has long merited a general history book, to set alongside David McGrory’s excellent one, published a decade ago. We now have that alternative in the shape of Peter Walters, The Story of Coventry (History Press) £17.99. Walters brings a journalist’s eye for detail to the proceedings in his choice of chapter titles, well-chosen illustrations and entertaining captions, and an incisive writing style.
This is, as the title implies, a narrative sweep through Coventry’s past, and Peter maintains the forward momentum by the use of regular inset sections – on the town walls, mystery plays, civic insignia, the symbolism of peace and so on – all of which provide useful sidelights on the city.
History deserves passion in writing, and Coventry’s post-war history positively demands it. Walters is not afraid to lock horns with developers and city council alike in offering a personal account of the city’s last half-century, a time of more downs than ups.
Another journalist who has been turning his attention to history is Chris Arnot. A former features editor on the Coventry Telegraph, Chris also has an eye for a story, and one for the perfect picture too. Britain’s Lost Mines (Aurum) £25, is a sensitive account of three dozen or so of the UK’s abandoned pits, not all of them coal mines. Once upon a time we dug up salt and tin and copper and iron ore, as well as the black stuff. That approach alone makes Chris’s book unusual.
Inevitably a clutch of these pits are close to home, including those at Highley, Alveley, Hamstead and Keresley. Had Chris waited a little longer to publish, he might have been able to add a chapter on Daw Mill.
This is by no means a catalogue of all the abandoned workings – that would have taken several volumes – but a series of vivid snapshots of places and people, backed up stunning illustrations. And at the heart of the book are Chris’s interviews with miners and ex-miners, telling stories of hardship, resilience and community.
Though I got nostalgic reading it, that is far from Arnot’s intention. This is a celebration of a way of life, as well as a lament for its passing. And it’s a reflection on how, in ways I still cannot understand, we turned out back on this country’s limitless resources, and starting importing them, instead.
* For the first part of Chris Upton’s guide visit www.tinyurl.com/uptonbooks