05 October 2010

From Monkey Hangers to Mancunians

The day after our jaunt through London was a Saturday, and a beautiful Saturday at that. After breakfast with Ann and Geoff, Nija and I packed up our kit and we all went out to wander through Hertford's lovely Saturday markets. Cheeses, olives, bread and other goodies abound, and Geoff even got himself a nice, furry new pair of house slippers at a bargain price.

Once I pack up for a trip, I get very antsy to go. But I was glad that I managed to keep my impatience in check, as when we sat down for a coffee in town Tim and Kate (Ann and Geoff's youngest and his wife) popped up. They were out for the Saturday shopping and we were happy to catch them before we left town. While their girls Kitty and Ruby sacked the local Claire's, we shared coffees, shortbread, and laughs (at the girls' expense, especially).

But the time came eventually, and we said our misty-eyed goodbyes to Ann and Geoff and Hertford. A warmer home exists nowhere else in England, and I'm glad to know that Nija's a short train ride away whenever she feels like she's been wandering alone in the dark North too long.

We followed the road north out of Hertford and away from London. THE NORTH, the roadsigns read, as though it was a country of its own. Having recently read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I couldn't help but call up its image of the North: a shadowy and boggy place, seeping Old Magic, the realm of the Raven King! (Good lord, I'm a grown-ass man! What an embarrassment.) We cut our swath along the highway, through Sherwood Forest (or what remains of it, anyway) and intermittent showers. A double-rainbow was spotted (all the way across the sky) but despite my love of rainbow-spotting, I didn't make a big deal about it because that's SO three months ago.

Along the way, a serendipitous case of drowsiness and a full bladder induced me to pull off at the town of Grantham, Lincolnshire. Driving into the town, we discovered that Grantham is the birthplace of that Isaac Newton of modern conservatism, Margaret Thatcher. It so happens that it's also the schooling site of that Isaac Newton of physics, Sir Isaac Newton. Here I pose in direct sunlight with the crotchety old salt himself.

I imagine that had it been Newton in the flesh, he would've said, "You knowe, yon blinding sunlighte appeareth whyte, but verilie is composed of all God's colours."

"Shut yer face, Newton, you insufferable berk!" I'd have said. "Quit muckin' about an' gimme some sunnies." 'Cause that's how I roll!

Nija noted that she thought it might look like Newton was making a nasty face, but I disagreed. Turns out she might have been right, and that it could have been the sculptor's attempt at realism. Newton was no friendly character and showed a ruthless drive for prestige. As Stephen Hawking puts it in his biographical snippet on Newton at the end of A Brief History of Time, "Newton was not a pleasant man," and was, to say the least, guilty of abusing his personal and professional relationships in his battles with John Flamsteed and Gottfried Leibniz. Hawking even points out that as the Warden of the National Mint–charged with rooting out counterfeiters–Newton sent several men to their deaths at the gallows. Of course, he was Isaac Effin' Newton, so you have to give him some credit. Or, to put words on Hawking's screen–as it were–"Newton was a tool, but without tools there'd be no mechanics."

Please note that you just read the funniest joke for nerds ever written (the runners-up can be read here) and if you don't get it you should thank your lucky stars.

Beyond us lay Hartlepool, but not before we happened to skirt the Ferrybridge Power Station in West Yorkshire.

This plant (Ferrybridge C, officially) went online in 1966 with a generating capacity of 2GW, the highest of any coal-fired plant in England and the first 2GW plant in all of Europe. The Wikipedia also tells me that it's specified to fire 800 tonnes (800,000 kg) of coal per hour at full blast. And look at those cooling towers! The largest of their kind in Europe. Are you excited? It's a behemoth of an artifact of our coal-dependent past, and hopefully not a glimpse of our future.

Speaking of which, Hartlepool (pronounced "HART-lee-pool") in County Durham in England's northeast was born around when Muhammad led his followers into Medina and for years was a monastery, market and port town, but its current incarnation is all down to the stuff that still washes onto its beaches:

Coal, coal, coal! The railways brought the stuff from South Durham to Hartlepool to be shipped all over England starting in the 1830s, and this allowed it to become a regional centre of industry, especially shipbuilding. It was important enough for the Germans to shell in the First World War One. It's also the home of Andy Capp!

Nowadays the industry has faded and Hartlepool is more of a quiet seaside town, and it's the home of some of Nija's family friends, radiologists at the local hospital whom I'd met when they were in Atlanta years ago. Nija had just seen them over the summer and was excited about dropping in. They invited us up for a night and treated us to wonderful hospitality and a tour of the town the following day. We saw the aforementioned beach (tremendous tide):

and got a hint of the town's shipbuilding past:

This ship, the HMS Trincomalee, was actually built in Bombay in 1817 and is moored at the dock of the Hartlepool Museum, a charming little free museum that even had an "exhibition" on tea when we visited. This consisted of some construction-paper cut-outs of teapots, some photos of celebrities with pithy tea-related quotes (Tom Selleck with "A man without a mustache is like a cup of tea without sugar") and some history of the British love affair with tea. They also had a few really old bones dug up from the ancient abbey. Score!

But none of this can compare to Hartlepool's true claim to fame: during the Napoleonic Wars, the story goes that a French ship sunk off the Hartlepool coast. The only survivor was a monkey dressed in a French naval uniform. The ignorant Hartlepudlians supposedly mistook him for a French officer and executed him at the noose, thereby bestowing upon their progeny the sobriquet of "Monkey Hangers" for all time.

Now, whether this actually occurred is a topic of an inevitable serious academic debate, but the H-pudlians have taken what amounted to an insult on as a point of pride. They've even got a statue in the monkey's memory:

In a bizarre twist, the man who dresses up as the Hartlepool FC mascot "H'Angus the Monkey", Stuart Drummond, was elected Mayor in 2002 campaigning as the monkey and on a platform of free bananas to schoolkids. He was then re-elected in 2005, making him the first mayor in England elected to a third term and therefore the most popular mayor in English history. How do you like them bananas?

Alas, we had to leave Hartlepool after a very short visit. It was on to Manchester, to Nija's new home, and to another adventure.

1 comment:

  1. Everything about this post is awesome. I like the bit with what would have been said by and to Newton.