My wife Hattie and I had two visitors this New Year. One, my brother Simon, was very welcome indeed. The other, his exotic friend, Omicron Variant, was not.
Simon flew in from Los Angeles on the 30th December, eventually arriving via a gruelling six hour transit stop in Dallas that involved, much to his horror, mingling with a massive crowd of hundreds of New Year’s travellers.
Though he, like us, is double vaxxed, boosted and tested negative multiple times both before and after his flight to the UK, by January 4th the almost inevitable had happened. He and I were both positive and effectively under voluntary house arrest.
Happily our symptoms were relatively mild – not much more than a bit of a cough and cold – but it meant that what for Simon was supposed to be a five day flying visit planned between TV lighting jobs in California, became a two week stay durng which we couldn’t go anywhere or see anyone.
It definiteky wasn’t what we had planned. We read, we wrote, we watched TV and caught up on years of conversation. We also gazed longingly at the world beyond our windows while working our way through a couple of boxes of lateral flow tests and waited to be officially declared contagion free.
Simon finally managed to fly back to California with a clean bill of health on January 12th, arriving just in time to supervise the start of the new series of the US version of The Masked Singer for which he is lighting designer.
We later worked out that it was the first time for more than 50 years that Simon and I had spent so long in each other’s company. Ths last time was during the school and college holidays in 1970 when we spent a long and lazy summer with our parents in Hong Kong and Macau.
Where can you find the grave of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and the charred remains of the heart of her husband, the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley? What about the birthplace of the man who wrote the music for the nation’s favourite hymn Jerusalem?
The answer is Bournemouth which may sound surprising but these are just two ‘hidden secrets’ from a town that most people regard as little more than a popular seaside resort. Appearances, and reputations, can be deceptive though. For a place that didn’t even exist until 200 years ago Bournemouth is home to an astonishing number of fascinating historical facts.
To prove the point photographer, social historian and walking guide Hattie Miles (who also happens to be my wife) has teamed up with Hotter Shoes to present a self-guided walk that reveals the town’s often hidden histories. Starting from the Hotter shop in Old Christchurch Road, the walk covers just a small area of the centre of town, takes around an hour but is extraordinarily rich in amazing stories from the recent and distant past.
This week I joined a select group of bloggers to road-test the walk with Hattie reading from the script that normally provides the phone or tablet text for self-guided walkers. It was a real eye-opener shining a light on the history and heritage of this popular tourist destination.
The fact is that Bournemouth probably wouldn’t even have existed had it not been for a romantic gesture by well-to-do army captain Lewis Tregonwell. He built the town’s first housein 1812 because his wife, grieving over the death of their child, loved the location by the sea.
Until then Bournemouth had been an area of largely untamed heathland on the road between the ancient borough’s of Christchurch and Poole. Tregonwell saw its potential and bought 8.5 acres of land in what is now the centre of town. He paid the princely sum of £179.11 shillings. Initially development was slow but the arrival of the railway and Bournemouth’s growing reputation as a health spa soon led to rapid expansion.
Look above the shops to upper storey level and the evidence of past times and passing events from war-time bombings to multiple changes of use are plain to see. We found the smallest shop in town occupied by a man who has effectively run a thriving business from a cupboard under the stairs for the past 40 years. We discovered a stained glass window in the back of a clothes shop and the hidden mansion built as a home for the original Mr W.H.Smith. There was also a poignant moment for me as we took in the full art-deco grandeur of the purpose-built 1930s newspaper headquarters of the Bournemouth Echo. I worked there for more than 20 years and have many happy memories of news stories, features, good friends and great characters. It looks a little careworn these days but is still the paper’s headquarters. In its hey-day the building teemed with people – reporters, photographers, sub-editors, printers, plate-makers, advertising staff. Forty years ago its editorial staff included ITN’s Mark Austin, TV and radio presenter Anne Diamond and a young American sub-editor called Bill Bryson whose breakthrough book Notes From A Small Island would contain quite a lengthy description of life in Bournemouth and his memories of the Echo. Times change and the newspaper office is a lot quieter now but the history remains.
Hattie knows her stuff. For 24 years she also worked on the Echo as a photographer. It’s the kind of job that gives you a front-seat view of historic changes as they happen. She’s put her knowledge to good use and for the past two years has run the town’s popular guided ‘walkingtalks’ tours. The Hotter shoes connection started a long time ago when she began wearing them for her photographic work. Comfortable and practical footwear is an essential part of the photographers kit, particularly when the job often requires you to be on your feet all day. Hattie found that Hotter shoes were not only comfortable, but supported her feet well. No surprise then that she still wears them for her guided walks.
We bloggers were also kitted out with Hotter shoes and, I promise this is not merely PR guff, I really liked mine.To be honest I had never considered wearing Hotter shoes before. I suppose I thought they just did slippers and comfy shoes for old folk with corns and bunions. What did I know? Things have moved on apace in recent years. They now not only do comfort but very stylish designs too. My Hotter walking shoes – named, rather alarmingly I felt, Thor, after the hammer-wielding Norse God of thunder and lightning – are light, strong, very comfortable, waterproofed with Gore-Tex and not only feel great but look good too. I can hardly believe I’m saying this. I sound like an advert but it’s absolutely true.
I am reminded of a sketch that the comedian Jasper Carrot used to do 25 odd years ago based on the observation that, on reaching a certain age, the average British bloke would be walking past a branch of Dunn & Co, the long-gone gentlemen’s outfitter that used to specialise in dull, sensible clothing, and find himself thinking: ‘You know what? That beige car-coat is really rather nice.’
Is my new found love of Hotter just a 2016 version of the Dunn & Co car-coat syndrome? I’ve looked very carefully and have worn my Thor shoes a number of times over the past week and I am certain they really are as good as I think.
Curiously our Bournemouth walk took us past the shop that 25 years ago was the Bournemouth branch of Dunn & Co. It’s now a flagship store for High Street cosmetics giant Lush, a company which was started locally by Mark and Mo Constantine.
They still live in nearby Poole, still own the business and have done rather well for themselves. Indeed they were listed in last year’s Sunday Times Rich List as the 28th richest husband-and-wife team in Britain, worth £205 million. There you go. Another fascinating fact.
It was Mollie Moran’s funeral today. She died just two-and-a-half years short of her 100th birthday. A good innings by anyone’s reckoning but somehow for this former kitchen maid who found literary fame in her nineties it just didn’t seem right. At least she died peacefully in her own bed just a few months after a cancer diagnosis.
I first met Mollie a year ago when I interviewed her about her best-selling upstairs downstairs memoir Aprons and Silver Spoons. Razor sharp and impossibly energetic, she seemed strong and well. She walked her dog daily, entertained visitors at her Dorset cliff top home, hosted weekly scrabble sessions and each month would invite 25 players from across the southern region to take part in a mini-tournament. Single handedly she would cook for them all, producing a selection that included cottage pie, chicken curry and a variety of puddings. I asked how she managed it. She shrugged and told me: “Oh it’s nothing. After all I don’t do the washing up. I get someone to help with that.” She seemed indestructible. Continue reading “Mollie Moran cooking lunch for two dozen and writing a best seller at the age of 96”