Posts Tagged ‘Staffordshire’

Feisty Alice

April 14, 2016

The story below comes from Nick Corble’s book on James Brindley which I featured a couple of days ago. This story is about Alice Bowman (née Stubbs) who was James’ grandmother and my wife’s 8 greats grandmother. Alice lived from 1630 to 1690. The events below took place at the church in Leek in Staffordshire and explain why we refer to Alice as ‘Feisty Alice’. It’s a tale of religious intolerance on two sides which resulted in the death of a child.


The Reverend Rhodes turns to his flock, raises the host and makes to speak. The next voice everyone hears is not his, however, but that of a young woman, dressed all in black, who has risen from the floor in the centre of the church. A hat hides her hair and her plain long skirt scrapes the floor. The Reverend Rhodes casts his face up to the beautifully crafted ceiling of the nave in frustration. His eyes briefly take in the magnificence of its ornately carved wooden roses sitting at the intersection of solid oak beams, which in turn rest on plain white corbels.

The woman’s name is Alice Bowman and she is a known troublemaker. Some know her better as a dissenter. Before that moment few had noticed her, she rarely if ever went to church. The fact that she was there at all should have been enough to signal trouble. Sighs fill the air as she stands and points her finger round the congregation.

‘Reject these mere symbols of faith!’ she proclaims, her voice strong and absent of doubt. ‘Reveal thy inner Christ!’

A few frustrated murmurings echo around the main body of the church. The service is long enough without interruptions, there’s much to be done at home, day of rest or not. The Reverend, shaken out of his reverie, begins to recover, but not fast enough. A few of the congregation start to rise. The Reverend pauses.

‘Reject this finery and ceremony’, Alice continues, gaining yet more confidence despite the gathering menace. ‘Ye have no need of priests and robes!’

This last pronouncement is, it seems, the final straw for the party advancing towards her, although in truth Alice’s fate had probably been sealed the moment she’d stood up. A deep cry goes up, one tinged with anger and venom.

‘Grab her!’

Despite the priest’s half-hearted protestations half a dozen of the larger members of his flock descend upon Alice and lift her from the ground, two on each thrashing leg and one on each arm. A cheer goes up, destroying the atmosphere of peace and due reverence that had pervaded the church less than a minute before.

There is a loud wooden thump as the door is pulled open and crashes on its jamb. Alice continues to declaim her beliefs, but her voice has become more distant. She is pushed face downwards into the soft, drying mud outside. It is only when her infant son, left behind in the melee and stranded on a small knitted rug on the floor, starts to cry that people realise that she had not come alone.

The Bowmans were not exempt from punishment for challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. Three years before Alice’s outburst at St Edward’s her husband Henry had spent a year and seven months in jail for refusing to pay tithes. Quakers believed that no man had a prior call on another. Alice’s ejection cost her a spell in the local House of Correction and it cost her infant son Matthew, still suckling his mother, his life – prison being no place for an infant. No price, it would seem, was too high for her principles.

Locking up

March 12, 2016

Back in 1974 a group of us hired a narrow boat for a holiday. It was the first time we did this although some of us had canal experience already.

Canals, of course, are man-made waterways and need to conserve water. So all sections of a canal are dead level; and if hills are encountered, steps are constructed and have to be negotiated. These steps are called locks and they are containers of water with gates at each end to keep the water where it is wanted and sluice gates (often called paddles) to let water in and out. Water is heavy stuff and you can only open gates if the water level on each side actually is the same.

There’s plenty of scope for making a hash of things so it’s best to be careful and thoughtful, particularly when you start. So rather than using the motor to power us into a lock, here we are using human power.


The boat (don’t call it a barge) is a snug fit in the lock but actually they are usually easy to steer and you soon get used to motoring in.

Once in, the bottom gates will be closed (hence a person on each side and then the top paddles will be opened to admit water. Once the boat has floated up to the higher level the top gate can be opened and the paddles closed. The boat can then leave, but the rule on canals is that you leave things shut so somebody has to close the top gate behind the boat. This was quite a shallow lock. The driver’s eye view can look quite intimidating.


The brick sides seem like cliffs and the space seems narrow. In days of yore, of course, all boats were horse drawn and that footbridge across the lock has a gap in the middle for the rope to pass through – so much easier than unhitching the horse! Sam the dog, one of our fellow travellers, has a commanding view!

Within the next dozen years I probably worked through at least 500 locks. They are all different and should never be rushed. Well, the fact of the matter is you can’t rush them so as locks fill or empty just relax!


Poc Wom

June 15, 2015

Now here’s a silly thing. I have always had a bit of a propensity for saying words backwards and back in the 1980s this was accentuated by a TV programme called the Adventure Game. This rather bizarre programme made use of lots of anagrams of the word dragon and one character spoke backwards. When a competitor did well, he’d say ‘doog yrev’. I liked the programme and caught some of the habits.

But for some reason the habit of mine that lasted longest (still does) was to reverse the letters of a hill on the Staffordshire/Cheshire boundary. The hill is Mow Cop. If I see it I call it Poc Wom.

And perchance I was passing when we (my wife and I) returned south from Cumbria recently. We stopped off and took a look at Little Moreton Hall and whilst picnicking I spotted the ‘castle’ on Poc Wom. It wasn’t close and it wasn’t ideal for a photo, but here it is.


Hmm! The computer has a bit of work to do to make much of that!


Computers are cunning things!

Now this is no castle ruin at all although it looks like it. This is a folly originally built as a summer house for the local landowner. After a rather chequered history it was given to the National Trust in 1937.

So that’s Poc Wom and I say, ‘doog yrev’.


May 2, 2014

Today I take you back to a canal holiday in 1988. I find it scary that this was more than a quarter of a century ago for it feels a bit like yesterday. But back then I was still in my thirties which I’d now call young. Young enough to take the challenges of one of the most quirky bits of the canal system – the Bratch locks.

Bratch is on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal. This canal, opened in 1772 – one of the earliest in the country and it was engineered by James Brindley. He originally built the locks as a three lock staircase. That means the top gate of one lock is the bottom one of the next. Staircases are always slightly bad news on ‘narrow’ canals for once a boat has started in one direction, no boats can pass in the opposite direction until it is through them all.

Bratch was re-engineered, but it didn’t help that problem. Short gaps, a few feet long, were added between locks.

This leads to all sorts of operational difficulties. When one lock is emptied, the little pound below rapidly overfills and overflows. Without care, water can pour over the next lock gate down and if there happens to be a boat in that lock it can flood it and at worst sink it.

It was this that we tackled all those years ago and, I have to say, we had no particular difficulty and could enjoy the delightful architecture at the locks.


Our boat enters a lock by the delightful toll cottage. It looks as though I had the easy job, for I am on the tiller but of course, in such a narrow space there is really no steering to be done.

We swapped jobs frequently and at one point when I was working locks I stepped over a low wall onto a platform like the one next to the bridge which as one of the youngsters on it. For some reason, I stepped off it. I could see I was in no danger for it wasn’t far and I made a good landing and just carried on. But I had suddenly vanished out of sight of friends and family who didn’t know what had become of me. I gather they were concerned.


This is our boat leaving that lock. Our life jacketed children (we had more than one family on the boat) are scrabbling for finds on the tow path.

For canallers, doing Bratch is one of those ‘must do’ sections. It really was an enjoyable challenge.

Entering a Lock

December 21, 2013

Canals are artificial and they go where water may not have gone naturally. Gravity ensures that water finds a level. It’s gravity that makes rivers flow from source, up in the hills, eventually, to the sea. Canals need to provide a depth of water for boats and conserve water, for it often needs expensive pumping to get it to the high point in the canal.

Canals are made in level sections, often called pounds. Where needed, steps are put in – methods of raising or lowering a boat through a height of about ten feet. In the UK the most common form of step is the gated lock.

Back in 1974 a group of friends hired a boat and as part of the journey we were on the Trent and Mersey Canal near Stone in Staffordshire. This is a front passenger view of entering a lock there.


The driver, of course, is at the back of the boat, with one hand on the tiller and the other ready to throw the engine into reverse. Some passengers will have left the boat earlier and walked ahead to open the gates to allow the boat (She was called Empress of Worcester) into the lock. The top gates, at the far end of the lock look a bit leaky.

The boat is passing under a bridge and then straight into the lock. This is a narrow lock – built to a width of around seven feet and the boat fits snugly into it. The bottom gates are large and there are two of them that, when shut, meet in the middle of the canal to keep the water in. The top gate has much less depth and a singleton suffices.

A handy foot bridge has been provided to allow workers to cross the lock. One of our workers, Sam the Springer Spaniel, is standing on that bridge. The bridge is in two halves – both cantilevered out from the lock wall. The gap in the middle was crucial in times past, when horse power was used to haul boats. It provided a gap for the rope to pass through.

Once the boat is in the lock, the bottom gates are shut and the sluices at the top are opened to allow water to fill the lock. These sluices are called paddles. There is nothing you can do to hurry the process and no way can you open the gate until the water is level on both sides of it.

So sit down on a balance beam and relax. Once open, the boat can continue, but workers must shut all gates and paddles so they’ll still be walking and trying to catch up with the craft.

By the way, Sam can be counted as a worker. On a couple of occasions he rescued floating items which we had dropped in the canal!

Acton Moat Bridge

November 21, 2013

Back in 1974 I was by no means a canal ‘virgin’. My wife and I crewed a trip boat on our local Kennet and Avon Canal and we knew parts of that quite well. But the K and A was derelict at the time. The locks were out of use so I really only had theoretical knowledge of how to manage them as we set off for our first canal holiday. Five of us had hired a 47 foot long boat from Penkridge in Staffordshire. There was a lock nearby so we were helped through that and then we were on our own. I don’t think we experienced any particular problems as we made our way northwards (roughly) up the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. I was straight away taken by the way the bridges on this canal had names as well as numbers, and within a couple of miles I had a photo of the bridge name plate at Acton Moat.


The photo was taken with my little Canon Demi camera using Agfachrome film.

Back in 1974 people didn’t paint these signs but there it was in all its glory, just above the arch and on the rather battered brickwork of the parapet.

The bridge is what I call an accommodation bridge. It takes a track or footpath over the canal. It leads from the village of Acton Trussell, over the canal, then over the River Penk and under the M6 motorway before dumping walkers on the A449 road.

You can find pictures of the bridge by searching on the web. They show a scene which looks very rural – but with a neatly painted black and white bridge sign.

It was a great week – still fondly remembered.

Pendennis Castle

February 20, 2013

Pendennis castle is a fine Tudor fortress near Falmouth in Cornwall. King Henry VIII had it built. Being down near the south west corner of the country it was seen as crucial to the defence of the land. It is undeniably in a spectacular location. And this blog entry has little to do with it. Only the name remains the same for this blog.

Guess what? This is about a railway locomotive.

The Great Western Railway opened in the 1830s completing the main line from London to Bristol in 1841. There was already a route leading further west and before long the company had reached distant Cornwall, including Falmouth.

Many would say that the GWR started building the best locos in the land in the early years of the 20th century with George Churchward as the chief engineer. After the First World War train weights and speeds continued to increase and in 1923, Charles Collett who took over the engineer’s job brought out a loco called Caerphilly Castle. The loco was very successful and a big class – the Castle class followed. In fact they were so good that they were still being built in 1950. Nearly all were named after castles served by the Great Western Railway.

Pendennis Castle was one of the early ones – completed in March 1924.

She was still running when I was a train spotter in the early 1960s but I never saw her. That’s surprising really for she was based in the Bath/Bristol area so surely ran into Paddington in London which was one of my train spotting haunts.

She was bought for preservation when she was taken out of main line service in 1964. Pendennis Castle always was a celebrity engine for in 1925 there had been loco exchanges between various companies and Pendennis Castle had trounced the more famous Flying Scotsman by being quicker and burning less coal. But preservation never went smoothly. She was transferred from one place to another several times.

Just where she was based in 1975, I couldn’t tell you, but on that 1975 canal trip, we saw a steam loco on a line, with a couple of coaches.


I think this was somewhere near Rugely. But travelling by canal takes you into a different world. Unless you keep a careful check on proper maps you don’t always know where you are. Canal charts don’t give the same information. Anyway, the loco got nearer and proved to be Pendennis Castle.



I think I could say that in a few short moments Pendennis Castle steamed into my life and then steamed away. Fairly soon after she was shipped to Australia. She’s back in England now and may be back in working order soon.

Who knows, maybe I’ll have another chance encounter with Pendennis Castle at some place and time in the future.