“Stories of sweet visions, as I rove”
…mused the poet John Clare, who loved Northamptonshire. You’ll love it too says PETER FROST.
To my mind John Clare is simply the best poet of the English countryside. Perhaps my admiration isn’t really surprising, long before I started to tour Britain in a motor caravan, and make a living writing about it. Poet Clare roamed the country in a horse drawn caravan very much as we do today.
John Care joined a band of gypsies with their horse drawn caravans for a different view of the countryside he loved from its twisty lanes and dusty highways stopping just where and when he wanted to.
A few of his best lines still describe the pleasure Ann and I get from camping in our motorhome today.
“Untroubling and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below,
above the vaulted sky.”
Despite that, his was a troubled life. Mental illness confined him to The Northampton General Lunatic Asylum for the last years of his life. He died in the town in May of 1864.
Who knows what Clare would have thought of the starting point of our current tour. The new city of Milton Keynes has transformed. a vast area of the English countryside John Clare would have tramped. Rural idyll has been buried under Britain’s most modern city
We were here to visit Bletchley Park; home of the amazing allied code-breakers of WW2. It was also the birthplace of the modern computer.
Today the museum is a collection of decaying old army huts that housed the code-breakers in the war. Recently money has been spent to improve the museum.
Priorities were very different in 1939. At the start of the Second World War the British Government knew it had to break the German codes if we were to win the war.
Bletchley Park was to be the site of efforts to break the secret of the Enigma coding machines the Nazi codes relied on.
The intelligence produced at Bletchley was code-named ‘Ultra’. It contributed greatly to the Allied success in defeating the U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic.
From 1943 at Bletchley, Turing built one of the first ever computers in order to help break the German codes. The computer was vast and called Colossus.
Today Colossus has been rebuilt and is working again at Bletchley Park. Built before electronic chips Colossus has over two and a half thousand radio valves.
Nearly 10,000 people worked at war time Bletchley Park code-breakers were chosen for various intellectual achievements. Some were chess champions, crossword experts, language experts or great mathematicians.
In one instance, the ability to solve The Daily Telegraph crossword in under 12 minutes was used as a recruitment test. The newspaper was asked to organise a crossword competition.
Winners were secretly contacted and asked if they would be prepared to undertake “a particular type of work as a contribution to the war effort”.
From Bletchly we headed into Northamptonshire and to the centre of British motorsport. Silverstone is the circuit and all around it you’ll find an industry that builds the racing cars for the world.
The cars that win races might have German, Italian or Japanese badges but the chances are they were built in spitting distance of Silverstone.
Most weekend’s there is racing at Silverstone. If you can’t get tickets for the British Grand Prix then club racing can be just as exciting and much more accessible and friendly.
From the speed and noise of Silverstone we went in search of some peace and quiet; but still on the move.
The museum at Stoke Bruerne in its pretty little Northamptonshire canal side village was our next stop. Outside the old warehouse that houses the museum boats end their climb to Stoke Bruerne through a flight of locks and you can watch the crews locking through.
Many crews stop for a pint at the Boat pub. The Woodward family, who own it have been providing canal boaters with refreshments since 1877.
Pop inside and have a look at the canal paintings on the wall done by a passing boatman to pay for an evening’s drinking many years ago.
North bound boats leave the village through the 3,076 yard long (2,813 metres) Blisworth Tunnel. It’s the third longest canal tunnel in Britain and it’s in the top ten of longest world canal tunnels too.
For a close look at the tunnel take the little cruise boat from outside the museum. It will actually take you into the tunnel mouth. In 1980 a couple of boaters coming through at night spotted that the tunnel walls were imploding.
The tunnel was closed for repairs. But how do you repair a two hundred year old tunnel? Well British Waterways decided not to use bricks with which the original tunnel was lined. Instead they developed a new technique using pre-cast concrete sections.
The new method was so successful that it was adopted for another tunnelling project – the Channel tunnel. There is an unused concrete ring section on display just outside the tunnel mouth.
All over the countryside of England, particularly Eastern England you will find small roadside memorials, memorials that commemorate disused and often vanished WW2 airfields. It’s easy just to drive by but sometimes if you stop you will find they tell an amazing story.
One such is just off the A14 at junction three. It stands in a scruffy lay-bye in front of a huge field. When I visited the oilseed rape was just coming into bloom but it was still just possible to see the remains of what seemed like cracked concrete runways among the colourful crop.
As well as the usual prosaic markings ‘801/492 USAAF squadron’ this memorial carries a romantic message. “Harrington Airfield” it tells you “was home to the Carpetbaggers”. So who were these strangely named bands of heroes? Fortunately a tiny but packed museum just down the lane tells the full and fascinating story.
The Carpetbaggers were the American flyers that secretly supplied the French Resistance with all they needed for their heroic war work of spying and sabotage. Every moonlit night a couple of dozen black painted and unmarked B 24 bombers would take off for France.
Rather than carrying bombs the bays would be full of parachute canisters, boxes and baskets of weapons and ammunition, civilian clothes, counterfeit Nazi uniforms, radio sets, even bicycles. The one hundred and one things the French Resistance needed to carry on their essential but dangerous work.
The BBC would broadcast to France coded messages identifying the drop zones. The Carpetbaggers would fly low over occupied France avoiding anti-aircraft fire to drop their parachutes.
And as if this wasn’t heroic enough some nights the cargo was even more precious, even more secret. It was from Harrington that the brave men and women agents were flown into France under the noses of the enemy.
You may have seen the film ‘Carve her name with pride’ it tells the story of one of these brave female French agent far better than I could. Their average live expectancy was just three months.
Many of these heroes, sadly were never to return. But we owe them all an enormous debt of gratitude just as we do to the Carpetbaggers who delivered them.
A Few more local attractions.
Northampton town is famous for its shoe industry. The town made the boots for Cromwell’s New Model Army. This boot was made for the Elephants in the film ‘Hannibal’. You’ll find it the town’s museum.
The famous Scottish architect didn’t just work in Glasgow. Some say his greatest house is at 78 Derngate in Northampton. Now fully restored it will still make you gasp.
Sywell Aerodrome is like a flying club of the 1920’s. They relay the control tower squark box into the bar so you can hear them talking to the Tiger Moth pilots coming in to land.
Memories of Diana
Princess Diana is still a National icon. She is buried on a small island on the Althorp Estate which has become a place of pilgrimage for her many admirers from all over the world.
Where Eagles fly
Black Eagles and other birds of prey fly free at Holdenby House. Beautiful gardens form the background to the Gloriious house built by Sir Christopher Hatton to entertain Queen Elizabeth 1.
750 acres of water with walking and cycle paths, a nature reserve and a sailing club. The reservoir is now the centrepiece of the Brixworth Country Park.
This is a proper little Northamptonshire Railway with real steam trains, powerful diesels and line side buildings from the time before Dr Beeching when you could get anywhere in England by branch line.
Ruston Triangular Lodge is a glorious English folly. Sir Thomas Tresham based his lodge on the Holy Trinity. The building has three sides, three floors, triangular windows, gables and roofs.