Times Past, Present And Future

It is true that as this Earth turns, every day is new. But certain things occur regularly, often with the seasons. So whilst we have a pretty good idea when some events will happen, a great many others are simply beyond us to forecast them. We do know that rain will fall, but not always when or where we want! We have all the modern forecasting, we also have quite sophisticated equipment that help us to predict earthquakes and the tsunamis which can be created as a result, but that is pretty much all we can do with those, which is to be prepared. Our clocks show us the passage of time, we are born, we live and hopefully we learn, then we pass away. My dear Dad passed away in 1989, shortly before his seventieth birthday. Mum did very well, despite being badly injured during World War II. She passed away in 2016, aged ninety-five! But Dad was a heavy smoker for many years and cancer got him. Dad was a schoolteacher in Whittlesey, he was deputy organist and choirmaster at our local church for many years. So for me, music has always been part of my life and it has been a real inspiration to me for as long as I can remember. I am told that even before I was born, whilst my mother was carrying me she was always singing as she was so happy. I’ve said before about church organ music and there were times, especially when things weren’t going too well for me, I would go into Peterborough cathedral and often find an organist playing, perhaps practicing for a service or concert. I would attend organ concerts, not all were to my taste in music but I enjoyed them. I also sang in a few different choirs, one was the Gildenburgh choir in Peterborough and for a time the choirmaster was Andrew Newberry, who was also the deputy organist at the same cathedral. One particular person I first heard at a concert there was an American named Carlo Curley. He was an organist, not resident at any particular church but would travel around the world, giving concert performances in cathedrals, churches, concert halls, wherever and he had a very ‘outgoing’ personality.

Carlo Curley.

Carlo James Curley (August 24, 1952 – August 11, 2012) was an American classical concert organist who was born into a musical family in Monroe, North Carolina, USA and attended the North Carolina School of the Arts. By the age of 15 he was organist at a large Baptist church in Atlanta, Georgia, subsequently studying with some brilliant organists. His long-time friend and confidant Robert Noehren was another noted influence. At 18, Carlo was Director of Music at Girard College in Philadelphia and he developed his performance style in the manner of Virgil Fox, wanting to make classical organ music popular to a wider audience. He did this by including his arrangements and transcriptions of pieces from other classical genres. He was the resident organist at the Alexandra Palace, London in the 1970s and was the first classical organist to perform a solo organ recital at the White House, Washington for the U.S. President Jimmy Carter. He played before several European heads of state and toured extensively throughout the world, earning the marketing nickname ‘the Pavarotti of the Organ’, he was also one of only a few concert organists worldwide who supported themselves exclusively by giving recitals, concerts and master classes without any supplement from teaching or church position. Carlo toured extensively throughout the world, and had a large and loyal following. The Carlo Curley Concert Circle, based in the UK, was formed and numerous trips were organised with him throughout England and abroad. I was privileged to have been part of that following and went on several special trips for members of this Concert Circle. These were usually weekends away, we would stay in hotels and have private concerts and guided tours around different cathedrals or churches like Peterborough, Southwell Minster, York, Birmingham, Lincoln and Westminster Abbey to name but a few. Carlo also did a concert at the church in Attleborough in Norfolk, which was right next to where my late mother lived. This meant she was actually able to meet him personally and that delighted her, as I had spoken with her about him a few times. Carlo Curley also used a substantial Allen touring organ, especially where the venue lacked an instrument of sufficient scope to support his repertoire. He recorded commercially for various record labels, he participated in several concerts with other organists and his final such concert was in June 2012 at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral with his friend Ian Tracey using a Copeman Hart instrument. He served as patron for numerous music societies as well as for the newly formed British Academy of Music, he was involved in organ design as well as their construction and he served as advisor to numerous clients, including Melbourne City Council in Australia and The Cube, Shiroishi in Japan. His autobiography ‘In The Pipeline’ was published by HarperCollins in 1998. One of his Allen organs is now used in the Cathedral of St Michael and St George in Aldershot in the UK. A life-long bachelor, Carlo Curley died on 11 August 2012 aged 59 in Melton Mowbray, where he lived for a number of years. His ashes are interred in the grounds of Pershore Abbey in Worcestershire. Carlo was actually born in North America, he travelled the world but chose to live in the relative peace and quiet of Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, England. I myself have many memories of that town and I still have friends there. It is a lovely town, good people and a beautiful church with a delightful organ and I have been to quite a few concerts there too. In addition, not far away is a place where they refurbish and rebuild church organs with great skill. It was fascinating to watch, but then I have always been amazed at the skill some people have, whether it be building or repairing items.

Here in the UK we have recently had the Commonwealth Games and as with almost all sports there is the need, the urge to win, whether as part of a team or as individuals. I think these Games showed this up very well. Whether it is in sports or in life generally, some simply want to be the best and if done in a positive way that is no bad thing as it can motivate others to try harder. But sadly, some do so in a very negative way, selfishly putting others down, perhaps to prove something to themselves. In some cases they can also mar or even destroy the lives of others in their attempt to do this. I have noticed how many spend their lives following the same routines, doing the same thing day-in day-out, even going to the same places for refreshment or relaxation, never wanting to ever try something new. Such people also often find it difficult to cope with a change that is outside their control, but in this ever-changing world it is better if we can adapt to change. Some years ago I learned that the man who had been the headmaster at my old school had passed away. He had been quite active in the town all his life, but when he reached sixty-five he had to retire and sadly less than two years later his life ended. So it is perhaps a gentle reminder that, at the end of the day, we all go the same way. Also, as life passes by we cannot remain as we once were, but happily many then find other outlets for their skills, perhaps by teaching others so that their skills are passed on. I was told a delightful saying recently which was “Shrouds have no Pockets”, meaning that worldly wealth cannot be kept and used after death. It comes, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, from the mid-19th century.

I have said before about parents and grandparents saying how “It wasn’t like that in our day” and nor is it. What amuses me is that as I reach that same age, I begin to echo those same words! But that is perhaps how it ought to be, as we strive to better ourselves. I have written about different technologies, like cameras, computers, all things that the younger generation nowadays take for granted but when I was younger I was just the same. Many good things can and do come from these changes in technology, in our knowledge, in fact through so many things, but we can all too easily forget the basics. Sometimes the simplest of things are in fact the best! I am reminded of the time some years ago when I was walking past a colleague’s desk at work and they said, in an exasperated tone of voice, “Stupid computer, I can’t find anything I need!” So I stopped and politely enquired what the problem was. I learned that they were looking for a particular telephone number, so I said “That’s no problem”, at which point they said in the same exasperated tone, “If you’re so clever, you find it!”. So I ignored the computer and reached out for an old-style, printed telephone directory on my colleague’s desk. I quickly found the telephone number required and was grudgingly thanked, but to me it was no problem. I had been taught a similar lesson some years before, in that sometimes the ‘old’ ways are the simplest, as they can be the best. Once upon a time we humans all lived in caves, men hunted for food whilst their women bore children, they fed and cared for all the family. The idea of husband and wife, children, all living and working together became an integral part of human life for so many. I know that there have been wedding ceremonies for years, although it seems they are not universal to marriage and not necessary in most legal jurisdictions. They are not even universal within the Christian marriage, as Eastern Christians do not have marriage vows in their traditional wedding ceremonies. I am most used to hearing the marriage vows which are promises each partner in a couple make in turn to the other during a wedding ceremony which is based upon Western Christian traditions. That is because I have sung in a few different church choirs and so have heard the following words a great many times. But over time, these words have been altered a little. When I was a lad, the words that the bride and groom said either to other were:

“I, (forenames), take thee, (forenames), to be my lawfully wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish and to obey, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I plight/give thee my troth”.

Here the groom makes a promise (plight thee my troth) to his bride and in reply the bride accepts the promise and returns it (give thee my troth). But in time it was amended, a few words modernised and in later versions the word ‘obey’ was dropped, whilst ‘holy ordinance’ was replaced by ‘holy law’. As I have said on a few occasions now, things change and will continue to do so. A long time ago we used to kill with rocks, then swords, then guns and other weapons were invented. We saw birds flying and wanted to do the same, so now we have aircraft and much more. At one time it was more usual for human males to go hunting for food whilst the females cared for the children. But not all species live that way and as we know, things change. Men and women have worked to design, build and maintain a great many things together, although this has not always been recognised immediately. But even now, there are still those people who continue to ask “Why should I be the one to change?”. They want to carry on in their own ways, they expect those around them to adapt to them, but that isn’t always the best way to survive. There have been a few people I’ve known who refused to change, to adapt, perhaps because of how they were treated. Sadly a number of them are no longer alive now. But I am reminded of some good, thoughtful words spoken by Srinivas Arka, an Indian Guru I know, which are, “Our future depends mainly on the way we think at present. To change our lives, we must change the way we think”. I have seen this to be true, I have learned of this adaptation in other creatures on Earth too, for example polar bears who, finding their world was being taken over by us humans, adapted. They found food from wherever they could and they continue to survive. We too must adapt and adjust so that we may survive. The ones who cannot or perhaps will not change? Some refer to them as dinosaurs, but that isn’t fair on those creatures who lived so long ago, as evidence suggests an asteroid impact was the main culprit of their downfall. Volcanic eruptions that caused large-scale climate change may also have been involved, together with more gradual changes to Earth’s climate that happened over millions of years. Some folk are just stubborn and will not change their ways!

It is around this particular time of year that I especially recall memories of people not now with us, also places I have been to and know well. I do not dwell on these memories, but remember them, mainly with happiness. We all have our own, special, individual thoughts and memories. I wrote last week about the lovely, unexpected trip to the seaside and I can still recall the sea air, the soft sand, fresh fish & chips and that lovely ice cream! Yes, my legs ached afterwards but it was worth it. People come and go, places may not be as easily reached but memories, for most, linger on. I look to the future and wonder – where to next?

This week…
A word of warning. Never get stuck behind Satan in the queue at a Post Office. For the devil takes many forms…

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A Good Day Out

I had set an alarm for 6:00am and that did in fact work, but a Carer also made sure I was awake. I began my day as usual and was ready in good time. I sent greetings to a few folk as always, but it had to be a short message this time before I went down for my breakfast and tablets. We were all ready at the planned time and we made our way onto the little bus we would be going on for our trip out. I was interested to see what route we might take, but it was soon clear we would go east and over to Peterborough, then north to Boston and east once again to our destination, Skegness. Having worked for British Telecom in their Peterborough Telephone Area, I knew the general locations of telephone exchanges and main buildings in that area. I couldn’t tell you now where all of them were, but I still recall many! So we made our way along the A47 and were soon on the outskirts of Peterborough. Then it was up the A16 past Crowland and Spalding to Boston, where we turned right onto the A52 to Skegness. Our bus driver, with his customary sense of humour, joked about us having “a quick drive along the sea front and then heading home!”. He made sure we knew he was joking. We parked up and all began a slow, easy walk towards the beach. One inmate was in a wheelchair and the Carers, including the bus driver, took turns in pushing that. We were all kept together, there were several Carers and it was neatly done. It was a glorious, sunny day to be at the seaside, beside the sea! When it became clear we all needed a rest, a nearby cafe was visited and that suited me. Soft drinks were organised, I got my usual black tea with one sugar and it was just right. I noticed that we were near to the lifeboat station, so I took a photo of that.

Skegness Lifeboat Station.

This lifeboat station is now located on Skegness seafront. This area of the British coastline is characterised by many shoals as well as constantly changing sandbanks, many of which lie between the town and the East Dudgeon Lightship. The building dates from 1990 and was the first in the British Isles constructed especially for a Mersey-class lifeboat. The boathouse also accommodates an inshore lifeboat and a souvenir shop. But the first lifeboat service in Skegness was organised by the Lincolnshire Coast Shipwreck Association who placed a lifeboat at the Gibraltar Point coastguard station. In 1859 the lifeboat and boathouse was moved from Gibraltar Point to a position in Skegness, among sand dunes to a location now called Lifeboat Avenue. The station was taken under the control of the RNLI in 1864 who had a new boathouse constructed. The location of this first RNLI station was close to the original station but is now a privately owned dwelling. The RNLI built another boathouse in 1892, located on South Parade in Skegness to the south of the clock tower. This boathouse had access doors for the lifeboat at either end of the building and there was also a watch room constructed on the first floor. This station was in use until 1990 when it was sold to a private buyer. The RNLI placed an inshore lifeboat (ILB) at Skegness in May 1964. The ILB was kept in a small house close to the main beach until it was moved in 1990 to the new lifeboat station on the Tower Esplanade. Then in 1990 it was decided that offshore health and safety cover for this area of the Lincolnshire coast would be greatly improved with the placing of a Mersey-class all-weather lifeboat at Skegness. To accommodate the new lifeboat a new, purpose-made station was constructed for the Mersey-class lifeboat on the Tower Esplanade. The ILB was placed within the same building as well as improved crew and equipment facilities. The place also included a souvenir shop to help with branch fund raising. Then on 20 May 2016, the Skegness ‘D’-class lifeboat, RNLB ‘Peterborough Beer Festival IV’ was taking part in a search for a missing person when a fire started on board. The fire spread rapidly, and after issuing a mayday call, the crew abandoned the vessel, swimming 200-yards (180 metres) to shore whilst the lifeboat sank. The RNLI started recovery operations, but the damage was severe. In May 2017, the Shannon-class ‘Joel and April Grunnill’ officially replaced the Mersey-class ‘Lincolnshire Poacher’. The new lifeboat cost £2.2 million, she was launched at Poole on 9 September 2016, then delivered to Skegness on 28 January 2017 and officially named on 27 May 2017. Funding came from the legacy of Joel Grunnill and a donation from his cousin April Grunnill, both of whom had been volunteers with the station. In 2019, D-class lifeboat ‘The Holland Family’ was donated by Robert Holland, in honour of his parents and wider family, who have been long-term volunteers at the station.

Now, back to our visit. After a break we all walked on a bit more and onto the beach. I had never walked on soft sand whilst using a walking stick, it took some getting used to! A few inmates wanted to go down to the water’s edge, so naturally some Carers went with them whilst the rest of us, inmates and Carers, sat watching. After a while they returned and we went to a nearby fish & chip place, food was organised and a further drink. My scalp was getting a bit sunburned but I got a hat. The cost of everything was all sorted by the Care Home. As you might expect at this popular seaside town, there were donkey rides and a few inmates wanted photos of themselves next to the donkeys, though nobody was allowed to have a ride. I must say that the people managing the donkeys were very accommodating and there were no difficulties. The donkeys travelled in a specially designed lorry and our bus driver jokingly said about going home in the back of that! Nobody wanted to though… So we slowly headed back towards the shops, but by now my legs were giving out, this was the furthest I had walked in a good few years, so I sat on a low wall and chatted to the bus driver. Meanwhile the other inmates, again accompanied by Carers, had a look in a few shops. At no time were any of us left unattended, but with one person in a wheelchair and another using a walking frame, also some were looking at different things along the way, it took a while to keep us all together. So at times, to the Carers it must have felt like they were herding cats! But it all went well. A further walk resulted in an ice cream each and I sat chatting to some other people who were also there for the day. Then it was a visit to facilities and a return to the bus. It was now 3:30pm or so, which I thought was good. We had a fairly easy journey back, a friend of mine had sent me a text earlier saying they wished it would rain and sure enough it did, as we were between Skegness and Boston. We had just missed it! Our route back to Leicester was exactly the the reverse of the way we had come, via Boston and Spalding, so once we got as far as Peterborough to me that meant we were almost back! The driver had estimated to be at the Care Home for 6:15pm and that is exactly when we arrived. I returned to my room and was warmly greeted by a Carer who asked how the day had been. I told him it had been great, I’d enjoyed it but my legs were aching now as I’d not walked that far or for so long in a few years, having been first in hospital and then in Care Homes for over two years. I’d also had to learn to walk again over those two years and now I was doing so, aided by a single stick instead of a walking frame. I had been out in the big wide world again, mixing with people, something I hadn’t done for quite a while. I think we can sometimes forget that aspect of life. So for me it was a bit emotional, but I had done it. I’d had a good day out.

This week…
A short, ‘fun’ version of the above:
Escape Attempt No. 300.
The other day I and a few others finally managed to get out. We even made it to Skegness. I thought we had fooled a few Carers into coming with us, but they were too clever. They stayed with us, made sure we were fed and watered in the sunshine then brought us back. My scalp got a bit sunburned but I got a hat. At times it was difficult for the Carers, I think they must have thought they were herding cats! I was tired, my legs ached afterwards but I’m glad I made the effort. It was a good day out.

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The British Postal Service

We should all be used to sending and receiving items ‘by post’ but, as with so many things in this world, there is change and our postal service is no exception. It is known today as Royal Mail Group Ltd and is a British multinational postal service as well as a courier company.

In England, a monarch’s letters to their subjects are known to have been carried by relays of couriers as long ago as the 15th century. The earliest mention of ‘Master of the Posts’ is in the ‘King’s Book of Payments’ where a payment of £100 was authorised for a Master of the Posts in February 1512 and it was then established in 1516 as a government department, so belatedly in 1517 the office of ‘Governor of the King’s Posts’ was officially appointed as the role actually was when King Henry VIII officially established it. Then in 1603 King James VI moved his court to London and upon his accession to the throne of England at the Union of the Crowns, one of his first acts was to establish the royal postal service between London and Edinburgh in an attempt to retain control over the Scottish Privy Council. In 1609 it was decreed that letters could only be carried and delivered by persons authorised by the Master of the Posts. The Royal Mail service was first made available to the public by King Charles I on 31 July 1635, interestingly with postage being paid by the recipient. The monopoly was farmed out to Thomas Witherings, an English merchant and postal administrator who then established the Royal Mail public letter service. He was a politician who sat in the House of Commons in 1640 but for some reason, in the 1640s Parliament removed the monopoly from Witherings. So during the time that England and Wales (later along with Ireland and Scotland) were governed as a republic until the execution of King Charles I, the parliamentary postal service was run by Edmund Prideaux, a prominent parliamentarian and lawyer who rose to be attorney-general at great profit for himself. To keep his monopoly in those troubled times, Prideaux improved efficiency and used both legal impediments and illegal methods. In 1653, Parliament set aside all previous grants for postal services, with contracts then given for the inland and foreign mails to John Manley, which gave him a monopoly on the postal service and was effectively enforced by Protector Oliver Cromwell’s government, but thanks to the improvements necessitated by the war Manley ran a much improved Post Office service. In July 1655, the Post Office was put under the direct government control of John Thurloe, a Secretary of State best known to history as Cromwell’s spymaster general and he became ‘Master of the Posts’. Previous English governments had tried to prevent conspirators communicating with each other, but Thurloe preferred to deliver their post having surreptitiously read it. As the Protectorate claimed to govern all of Great Britain and Ireland under one unified government, on 9 June 1657 the Second Protectorate Parliament (which included Scottish and Irish MPs) passed the ‘Act for Settling the Postage in England, Scotland and Ireland’, which created one monopoly Post Office for the whole territory of the Commonwealth and Thurloe’s spies were therefore able to intercept mail, and he exposed Edward Sexby’s 1657 plot to assassinate Cromwell, capturing would-be assassin Miles Sindercombe and his group. Ironically, Thurloe’s own department was also infiltrated as his secretary Samuel Morland became a Royalist agent and in 1659 alleged that Thurloe, Richard Cromwell and Sir Richard Willis – a Sealed Knot member turned Cromwell agent – were plotting to kill the future King Charles II. About forty years after his death, a false ceiling was found in his rooms at Lincoln’s Inn, the space was full of letters seized during his occupation of the office of Master of the Posts. These letters are now at the Bodleian Library. As a quick aside to this, I have learned that Lincoln’s Inn has quite a history to it and The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn is one of the four Inns of Court in London to which barristers of England and Wales belong and where they are ‘Called to the Bar’. The other three are Middle Temple, Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn. Lincoln’s Inn, along with the three other Inns of Court, is recognised as being one of the world’s most prestigious professional bodies of judges and lawyers. Incidentally, the term ‘call to the bar’ has nothing to do with alcohol, it is a legal term in most common law jurisdictions where persons must be qualified to be allowed to argue in court on behalf of another party. The ‘bar’ is used as a collective noun for barristers, but literally referred to the wooden barrier in old courtrooms, which separated the often crowded public area at the rear from the space near the judges reserved for those having business with the court. Barristers would sit or stand immediately behind it, facing the judge, and could use it as a table for their work. In 1657 an Act entitled ‘Postage of England, Scotland and Ireland Settled’ set up a system for the British Isles and enacted the position of Postmaster General. The Act also reasserted the postal monopoly for letter delivery and for post horses. Thurloe retained his position as Master of the Posts until he was accused of treason and arrested in May 1660. At the restoration of the monarchy in that year, all the ordinances and acts passed by parliaments during the Civil War and the Interregnum passed into oblivion, and so the General Letter Office, which would later become the General Post Office (GPO), was officially established by King Charles II. The first Postmaster General was appointed in 1661, and at first a seal was fixed to the mail.

Plaque marking the former site of the General Letter Office in London.

Between 1719 and 1763, a postmaster at Bath signed a series of contracts with the post office to develop and expand Britain’s postal network. He organised Royal Mail coaches which were similar to ordinary family coaches, but with Post Office livery. The first one ran in 1784, operating between Bristol and London. Delivery staff received uniforms for the first time in 1793, and the Post Office Investigation Branch was established. The first mail train ran in 1830 on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway then the Post Office’s money order system was introduced in 1838.

Post Office Regulations Handbill, giving details of the Uniform Penny Post.

In December 1839, the first substantial reform started when postage rates were revised. Rowland Hill, an English teacher, inventor and social reformer, became disillusioned with the postal service and wrote a paper proposing reforms that resulted in an approach that would go on to change not only the Royal Mail, but also be copied by postal services around world. His proposal was refused at the first attempt, but he overcame the political obstacles, and was appointed to implement and develop his ideas. He realised that many small purchases would fund the organisation and implemented this by changing it from a receiver-pays to a sender-pays system. This was used as the model for other postal services around the world, but has also spilled over to the modern-day crowd-funding approach. It meant that greater changes took place when the Uniform Penny Post was introduced on 10 January 1840, whereby a single rate for delivery anywhere in Great Britain and Ireland was pre-paid by the sender. A few months later, to certify that postage had been paid on a letter, the sender could affix the first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black, which was available for use from 6 May that same year. Other innovations were the introduction of pre-paid postal stationery, letter sheets and envelopes. As Britain was the first country to issue prepaid postage stamps, British stamps are the only stamps that do not bear the name of the country of issue on them. By the late 19th century, there were between six and twelve mail deliveries per day in London, permitting correspondents to exchange multiple letters within a single day. The first test of the London Pneumatic Despatch Company was made in 1863, sending mail by underground rail between postal depots. The Post Office began its telegraph service in 1870.

An ornate Pillar Box dating from the reign of Queen Victoria.

The first Post Office pillar box was erected back in 1852 in Jersey, they were then introduced into mainland Britain the following year. British pillar boxes traditionally carry the Latin initials of the reigning monarch at the time of their installation, for example: ‘VR for Victoria Regina or ‘GR’ for Georgius Rex. Such branding is not used in Scotland, due to a dispute over the current monarch’s title, because some Scottish nationalists argue that Queen Elizabeth II should have simply been Queen Elizabeth, as there had been no previous Queen Elizabeth of Scotland or of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Elizabeth I was only Queen of the pre-1707 Kingdom of England. The dispute involved vandalism and attacks on pillar and post boxes introduced in Scotland which displayed EIIR. To avoid the issue, pillar boxes in Scotland are therefore either marked ‘Post Office’ or use the Scots Crown. A national telephone service was opened by the Post Office in 1912 and in 1919, the first international airmail service was developed by Royal Engineers (Postal Section) and the Royal Air Force. The London Post Office Railway was opened in 1927 and in 1941 an ‘airgraph’ service was introduced between UK and Egypt. Over the next four years this service was extended to Canada, East Africa, Burma, India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon and Italy. Then under the Post Office Act 1969, the General Post Office was changed from a government department to a statutory corporation, known simply as the Post Office. The office of Postmaster General was abolished and replaced with the positions of chairman and chief executive in the new company. A two-class postal system was introduced in 1968, using first-class and second-class services. The Post Office also opened the National Giro Bank that same year. Postcodes were extended across Great Britain and Northern Ireland between 1959 and 1974. Royal Mail established Romec (Royal Mail Engineering & Construction) in 1989 to deliver facilities maintenance services to its business. British Telecom was separated from the Post Office in 1980 and emerged as an independent business in 1981. Girobank was sold to the Alliance & Leicester in 1990, and Royal Mail Parcels was rebranded as Parcelforce. The remaining business continued under public ownership, as privatisation of this was deemed to be too unpopular. However, in the 1990s, the then President of the Board of Trade began investigating a possible sale, and eventually a Green Paper on Postal Reform was published in May 1994, outlining various options for privatisation. The ideas, however, proved controversial, and were dropped from the 1994 Queen’s Speech after a number of Conservative MPs warned that they would not vote for the legislation.

Then, after a change of government in 1997, the Labour government decided to keep the Post Office state-owned, but with more commercial freedom and this led to the Postal Services Act 2000. The company was then renamed Consignia Plc in 2001 and the new name was intended to show that the company did more than deliver mail, however the change was very unpopular with both the general public and employees. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) boycotted the name, and the following year it was announced that the company would be renamed Royal Mail Group plc. In 1999, Royal Mail launched a short-lived e-commerce venture, ViaCode Limited, aimed at providing encrypted online communications services but it failed to make a profit and closed in 2002. As part of the 2000 Act, the government had set up a postal regulator, the Postal Services Commission, known as Postcomm, which offered licences to private companies to deliver mail. In 2001 Postwatch was created for consumers to express any concerns they may have with the postal service in Britain. In 2004 the second daily delivery was scrapped in an effort to reduce costs and improve efficiency, meaning a later, single delivery would be made. That same year, the travelling post office mail trains were also axed. Then in 2005, Royal Mail signed a contract with GB Railfreight to operate an overnight rail service between London and Scotland which carried bulk mail but without any on-train sorting and this was later followed by a London-Newcastle service.

Mount Pleasant Postal Sorting Office, London.

On 1 January 2006, the Royal Mail lost its 350-year monopoly, and the British postal market became fully open to competition. Competitors were allowed to collect and sort mail, and pass it to Royal Mail for delivery, a service known as ‘downstream access’. Royal Mail introduced Pricing in Proportion for first and second class inland mail, whereby prices are affected by the size as well as weight of items. It also introduced an online postage service, allowing customers to pay for postage online. In 2007, the Royal Mail Group plc became Royal Mail Group Ltd, in a slight change of legal status. Royal Mail ended Sunday collections from pillar boxes that year. On 1 October 2008, Postwatch was merged into the new consumer watchdog Consumer Focus. Also in 2008, due to a continuing fall in mail volumes, the government commissioned an independent review of the postal services sector by the former deputy chairman of Ofcom. The recommendations in the review led to the Business Secretary to seek to part-privatise the company by selling a minority stake to a commercial partner. However, despite legislation for the sale passing the House of Lords, it was abandoned in the House of Commons after strong opposition from backbench Labour MPs. The government later cited the difficult economic conditions for the reason behind the retreat. On 6 December 2010, a number of paid-for services including Admail, post office boxes and private post boxes were removed from the Inland Letter Post Scheme (ILPS) and became available under contract. Several free services, including petitions to parliament and the sovereign, and ‘poste restante’, were removed from the scheme. Following the 2010 general election, the new Business Secretary in the coalition government asked for an expansion on a previous report to account for EU Directive which called for the postal sector to be fully open to competition by 31 December 2012. Based on this review update, the government passed the Postal Services Act 2011 which allowed for up to 90% of Royal Mail to be privatised, with at least 10% of shares to be held by Royal Mail employees. As part of the 2011 Act, Postcomm was merged into the communications regulator Ofcom on 1 October 2011, with Ofcom introducing a new simplified set of regulations for postal services on 27 March 2012. On 31 March 2012, the Government took over the historic assets and liabilities of the Royal Mail pension scheme, relieving Royal Mail of its huge pensions deficit. On 1 April 2012, Post Office Ltd became independent of Royal Mail Group, and was reorganised to become a subsidiary of Royal Mail Holdings, with a separate management and board of directors and a ten-year inter-business agreement was signed between the two companies to allow Post Offices to continue issuing stamps and handling letters and parcels for Royal Mail. The Act also contained the option for Post Office Ltd to become a mutual organisation in the future. In July 2013 it was announced that Royal Mail was to be floated on the London Stock Exchange and that postal staff would be entitled to free shares. On 12 September 2013, a six-week plan for the sale of at least half of the business was released to the public, though the Communication Workers Union (CWU), representing over 100,000 Royal Mail employees, said that 96% of Royal Mail staff opposed the sell-off. A postal staff ballot in relation to a nationwide strike action was expected to take place in late September 2013. Applications for members of the public to buy shares opened on 27 September 2013, ahead of the company’s listing on the London Stock Exchange on 15 October 2013. The government was expected to retain between a 37.8% and 49.9% holding in the company. A report on 10 October 2013 revealed that around 700,000 applications for shares had been received by HM Government, more than seven times the amount that were available to the public. At the time of the report, Royal Mail staff continued to ballot regarding potential strike action. The initial public offering (IPO) price was set at 330p, and conditional trading in shares began on 11 October 2013, ahead of the full listing on 15 October 2013. Following the IPO, 52.2% of Royal Mail had been sold to investors, with 10% given to employees for free. Due to the high demand for shares, an additional 7.8% was sold via an over-allotment arrangement on 8 November 2013. This left the government with a 30% stake in Royal Mail and £1.98bn raised from the sale of shares. The CWU confirmed on 13 October 2013 that strike action would occur in response to the privatisation of Royal Mail but this was called off whilst negotiations took place and on 6 February 2014 the CWU confirmed that Royal Mail staff had voted to accept the settlement. Share prices rose by 38% on the first day of conditional trading, leading to accusations that the company had been undervalued. Six months later, the market price was 58% more than the sale price, and peaked as high as 87%. The Business Secretary defended the low sale price that was finalised, saying that the threat of strike action around the time of the sale meant it was a fair price in the circumstances following questioning from the House of Commons Business Committee in late April 2014. On 4 June 2015, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stated that the government would sell its remaining 30% stake. A 15% stake was subsequently sold to investors on 11 June 2015, raising £750m, with a further 1% passed to the company’s employees. The government completed the disposal of its shareholding on 12 October 2015, when a 13% stake was sold for £591m and another 1% was given to employees. In total the government raised £3.3bn from the full privatisation of Royal Mail. During its Annual General Meeting in 2022, the company announced that the holding company responsible for both Royal Mail and GLS would change its name to International Distribution Services. It was also suggested that the board of directors might look to separate GLS in order to distance the profitable company from Royal Mail, as they are currently in negotiations with the CWU over both pay and future changes to ways of working. It seems that some things never change, or perhaps some things always will. Either way, it is a good bit different to when it first started!

This week…
Some folk just like to be awkward and seem to enjoy an argument. They may even try to be what they think is ‘clever’, so if someone says to them “May I ask you a question?”, they reply “You just did!”. Therefore I always start such conversations with the statement “I have a question for you”.

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North Devon

There is so much to see and write about in the United Kingdom! So I will now mention a bit more about North Devon, where some of our family, comprising parents, an elder brother and I had what I would call our first real holiday together. Dad had been involved with the scouts for many years, so the plan was to have a camping holiday. Dad found that there was a campsite at Steart Farm in North Devon, so in our 1937 Ford Eight we drove down there. I was probably about six years old. It took many hours to get from Peterborough to Steart Farm and on our first visit we found that you turned off the main A39 road and went down a fairly steep hill to the farmhouse and yard. Parts of the yard were a bit muddy in places but we saw it was quite easy to get through and up the other side to the where the caravans and tents were. The site consisted of two large fields, an upper and a lower, with all of the camping in the lower field and the caravans in the upper one. Except there had been heavy rain for a few days prior to our visit and the lower field was flooded, so camping was impossible. But the farmer had a few caravans in the upper field for folk to use and previous visitors had given up and gone home, so we used a caravan! We went back there a few times for holidays, including the time I happened to catch mumps and had to be kept isolated, much like the recent Covid-19. Then we found a place called Westward Ho! in our journeys round the area and saw a holiday camp with both caravans as well as small chalets with corrugated iron roofs that meant you could hear the birds walking across them in the early hours of the morning. During my recent research for this blog I came across the South West Coast Path Association and have included some information of a national trail walk which begins and ends at Steart Farm, near Bucks Mills and is around 3.9 miles (6.2 km) in length. It features woodland paths, wildflower meadows and glimpses of stunning sea views through a screen of ancient hanging oaks. The route visits the thatched thirteenth-century Hoops Inn, but you can take the short-cut to the Coast Path for a quicker stroll. To get to the start, buses do run regularly if required between Barnstaple and Kilkhampton, passing Steart Farm.

Steart Farm Walk.

I never did this walk, but as a child I would regularly walk (with my parents of course!) along the main road from the farm to Bucks Cross and the shop, which also had a post office and a telephone box. As you can see from the map, it seems interesting as to begin with, you walk down through the campsite to pick up the signed footpath, going down the steps into the lower terrace of the Middle Burrows camping field. In the woods you then turn left at the waymarker, bearing right shortly afterwards when another path joins from the left. You follow the red waymarkers above the stream, to come out in Bucks Mills Woodland car park. Steart, Walland and Loggins Woods were purchased by the Woodland Trust in 1996, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The woods are mostly broadleaved trees, including oak and beech, with some conifers which were planted more recently, mainly larch and sitka spruce. Over time the Trust aims to reduce the number of conifers and return the woodland to broadleaved species, both naturally and through a programme of planting. There are a number of tracks and paths through the woods, created to carry out forestry operations and the public are welcome to walk along them. Most of the houses in Bucks Mills were built at the beginning of the nineteenth century to accommodate workers on the Walland Cary estate, the manor to the west side of the village. The stream carries on down through the village and once powered the corn mill which gave the village its name. Going out onto the road you turn right, crossing the footbridge, to pick up the narrow footpath to the left of the house ahead. Behind the house the path turns to the right, climbing steadily through the wood and emerging in a meadow. You then follow the right-hand hedge and cross the stile at the far end, beside the barn, carrying on between the buildings at Lower Worthygate Farm to the farm drive. An area of woodland to the left of the path was given over to the Bodgers and Badgers woodland project in October 2000. The project is funded by the National Lottery through its Millennium Commission and the objective is to manage the woodland in line with the conservation strategies used in the neighbouring areas. Traditional skills and techniques are employed, such as coppicing, charcoal-burning and hurdle-making. Volunteers help restore neglected areas through tasks like cutting back hazel stools and erecting deer fencing. The aim is to develop the area as a woodland amenity as well as to encourage wildlife. Guided walks are provided, also flora and fauna surveys are carried out. It was first documented in 1600 that the area was wooded and since that time its oak trees have been used for producing tannin from the bark, charcoal for smelting and making gunpowder, timber for pit-props and shipbuilding (which is done at nearby Appledore) and more recently, for building and firewood. The practice of coppicing – cutting back new growth for commercial use while leaving the main stem to continue growing – means that a tree may live for several centuries. Some of the wildflowers here are only seen in ancient woodland, so look out for the delicate white flowers of wood sorrel, and the clusters of dainty yellow-green leaves of the opposite-leaved golden saxifrage. Watch out, too, for shy roe deer between the trees. For the short route, you turn left up the drive, turning left on the road beyond to join the main route at the footpath at 6 on the above map. To visit the Hoops Inn, on the longer route turn right on the drive to pick up the waymarked footpath leading from the bottom corner of the farm’s garden. The path follows the left-hand boundary of two fields to the road beyond. Turn right and drop down to the main road, turning left here to walk with care along the main road to the Hoops Inn. The A39 along the North Devon coast to Cornwall was named the Atlantic Highway in the 1990s as the name reflects the coastline’s strong ties with the Southern Railway’s ‘Atlantic Coast Express’, which ran daily from London Waterloo between 1926 and 1964. The road itself, travelling between Bideford and Bude, was built long before the arrival of motor vehicles and was the main coaching route into Cornwall from North Devon. The Hoops Inn was one of three coaching inns en route where horses were changed, the other two being the West Country Inn on Bursdon Moor, near Hartland, and in Kilkhampton. It would take all day to travel from Bideford into Bude, and the horses would be returned to the inns on the journey back. The Hoops Inn is a Grade II listed building for its many seventeenth century features, but the original building dates back to the thirteenth century. In Tudor times it was a popular meeting place for seafarers such as Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Richard Grenville. It was also known as a notorious smugglers’ haunt. Incidentally, a short distance further on from Hoops Inn is Horns Cross, with a small public house called the Coach and Horses, along with just a few houses. Opposite the pub is what used to be a garage but which is now just a repair centre for certain types of vehicle. In my young days it was a proper garage and petrol station and my dad had his car urgently repaired there, we also became friends with the owners of the place. But back to Hoops Inn. You can head through the archway to the car park, continue straight ahead uphill to go through the gateway at the top into the small field beyond. Then bear left in the field to cross the stile in the far left-hand corner, turning left on the footpath beyond to follow the left-hand hedge of the big field uphill to the road. Turning left on the road, walk past a little place called Sloo and then down to the sharp left-hand bend about half a mile beyond. You take the footpath on the outside of the bend and follow the green lane towards the coast, where it meets the South West Coast Path. Turn left and follow the Coast Path down into Bucks Mills village, coming out on the road a little way up from the beach. The oak woods along this part of the Coast Path are also very old. The remoteness of the location and the steep hillsides mean that they have survived the extensive felling which destroyed the greater part of the ancient forests that once covered the whole of Britain and like the rest of the area’s woodland, it supports a wide diversity of species with a large range of habitats being provided by the scrub, grassland and marsh elsewhere in the valley. As a result, the area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is particularly known for its rare lichens. The abundance of wildflowers, such as early purple orchid and marsh orchid, in turn attract butterflies. Here you can look out for the speckled orange-brown, pearl-bordered fritillary, and the well-camouflaged brown dingy skipper. Then turn left on the road and walk back to the woodland car park. Going into the car park, you can take the footpath in the far left-hand corner ahead of you, and follow it back up through the woods to Steart Farm. In my young days I never walked this path, but we often visited nearby Clovelly in order to get there one could either use the ‘main’ road or travel along, as I managed to persuade Dad to do once, the ‘Hobby Drive’. This was built between 1811 and 1829 by Sir James Hamlyn Williams, providing employment for Clovelly men after the Napoleonic wars. It was part of the Romantic movement, which celebrated the beauty of the natural world in response to the increasing emphasis placed on science and logic following the Industrial Revolution. In 1901 Frederick and Christine Hamlyn extended the drive by a further half a mile, making a three-mile carriage drive with breathtaking vistas high above the Atlantic. Over the years the estate has planted new trees in several areas along the drive as part of its woodland management plan, which aims to replace native deciduous trees as they die off, and in the last ten years some 2,500 saplings have been planted each year. In summer pheasant chicks are much in evidence on the lower slopes of the woodland, and pheasant shoots take place between November and January. Nearing the end of the drive you can either turn right to visit Clovelly village, or continue ahead to go straight to the visitor centre, where there is a cafe and a souvenir shop.

For four hundred years, from the fourteenth century to the eighteenth, the village of Clovelly belonged to the Carey family. Then in 1738 it was sold to Zachary Hamlyn, whose descendants have managed it ever since. Built into a cleft in a 400-foot cliff, the whitewashed cottages line a cobbled street which plunges straight down the hillside to the ancient working port below. Using traditional materials and craftsmanship, the family keeps the village in the style of the mid-nineteenth century, and donkeys are used to carry goods uphill, whilst sledges bring things down. From Elizabethan times Clovelly’s main livelihood was from fishing, mostly mackerel and herring, and this provided a prosperous living until the 1840s, when the shoals began to move away. Clovelly herrings were famous throughout the land and donkeys brought the catch uphill to be taken by train to London and the Home Counties. A good day’s catch sometimes amounted to as many as 9,000 herrings, and on one particularly good day 400 donkey-loads were brought in! Even now, fishing is still part of village life, and it is celebrated every autumn in the Herring Festival. The quay was first built in the thirteenth century and extended in Tudor times, then in 1826 the quay was lengthened. The four cannon barrels in use today as bollards are said to have come from the Spanish Armada. Clovelly is the only safe harbour between Appledore and Boscastle, and ships will sometimes wait in Clovelly Roads for storms to pass. Also, because of the number of ships that have been wrecked here, this part of the coast is known as the Iron Coast. This is as a result of the westerly winds rolling in over 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean, and the deadly fingers of rock lurking beneath the waves. As a result, Clovelly has had its own lifeboat since 1870. Beyond the lifeboat station is a coastal waterfall, one of several along this coastline. Unable to erode the hard rock over which they pass, the rivers here meet the sea high above the shore in ‘hanging valleys’, and the water tumbles over the cliffs to the beach below, so after heavy rainfall the torrent is quite dramatic. According to legend, the cave behind the waterfall was the birthplace of King Arthur’s magician, Merlin. One of the cottages on the street between ‘Upalong’ and ‘Downalong’ belonged to ‘Crazy Kate’ Lyall, who watched helplessly from her window as her fisherman husband drowned in the bay. It is said that, overwhelmed by her grief, one day in 1736 she put on her wedding dress and walked out into the sea to join him in his watery grave. Nearby is Kingsley Cottage and writer Charles Kingsley spent much time in Clovelly, his father having been rector here. Kingsley wrote his novel ‘Westward Ho!’ in the village, it was also his inspiration for the book ‘The Water Babies’.

Hartland Point lighthouse during a storm.

Because of its rugged coastline, a short distance along from Clovelly is Hartland. There you will find a small village, also a quay and as you might expect, on the edge of the headland is Hartland Point, with its lighthouse. Many years ago I was on holiday with my parents and an older brother who happened to be driving us all back from a day out in Bude to where we were staying, when we saw what might be a lovely sunset. We drove to Hartland quay and sure enough, the sun was setting beautifully. I got my camera and began adjusting the settings, my brother began doing the same and dear dad simply took his camera out of its case, pointed it and took a photo. My brother and I were still fiddling with settings, focussing, whilst dad just looked at us. Can you guess who got the best photograph? You’re right, it was dad. Back then we were still using film, not the modern cameras of today so it wasn’t until after we returned home and the films were developed that we found out. We all had a laugh at the memory of that evening and the holidays we had. On one occasion we went to an air show at RAF Chivenor, an airbase near Barnstaple and I got the great opportunity for a flight in a helicopter there. I think it was a good excuse to keep me occupied as I had to queue for an hour or so just for a three-minute flight, whilst parents went off for a cuppa tea in a refreshment tent. Except my flight lasted a few minutes longer because the Red Arrows were doing part of their display, so I got to see more than I expected! RAF Chivenor was where some of the air-sea rescue helicopters flew from and I would often see them flying around and along the coast. But what really was entertaining was some years later when I moved to a house in Peterborough and was chatting to a new neighbour who I soon learned was in the Royal Air Force. It turned out that one of his good friends knew RAF Chivenor well and had worked on maintaining helicopters, though not at the time I visited. But it is surprising how people and events all link up over time. I have many good memories of Devon and Cornwall, it will always be a special area in this world for me.

This week…
“Family isn’t always blood, it’s the people in your life who want you in theirs. The ones who accept you for who you are, the ones who would do anything to see you smile and who love you no matter what.”
~ Maya Angelou.

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