Hidden Britain

Hidden Britain

The following are just a few examples of features published in The Big Issue's Hidden Britain column. The column appeared weekly in the magazine and aimed to capture the hidden away spots of the British landscape that reveal so much about our history and culture.

The village of Mow Cop straddles the county border between Stoke-on-Trent and Congleton. It developed as a centre for coal mining, agriculture and stone quarrying. Dominating the settlement is Mow Cop Castle, which sits on a rocky outcrop above it. Despite appearances it is a folly. It was built in 1754 by landowner Randle Wilbraham and, following the then fashionable ‘picturesque’ style, was deliberately made to look like a ruined castle. It can be seen from the family home at Rode Hall three miles away and was used by them as a summerhouse for picnics and entertaining friends. In May 1807 Hugh Bourne, a Methodist preacher disillusioned with the Methodist church, held a camp meeting in front of the castle that resulted in the founding of Primitive Methodism. The Castle remains today almost as it was built all those years ago. In June 1937 it and the land around it, including the nearby Old Man of Mow rock formation, was acquired by The National Trust. The Trust have carried out extensive preservation work over the years, with the latest being in 2002 to reinforce the foundations. Sadly bars have had to be put up at the windows and the entrance has a locked gate for public safety reasons, but the views are still wonderful, as far as Liverpool in one direction and the Derbyshire Peak District in the other.
The folly can be found on walk ID 2684 (Grid ref. SJ 857573).

No visit to Box Hill would be complete without passing by the memorial to Major Peter Labilliere, the man who is buried head down on its western side. Labilliere was born in Dublin in 1725, joined the British Army at the age of 14 and became a major in 1760. After leaving the army he became a political agitator. In 1775 he was accused of bribing British troops not to fight in the American War of Independence but was never tried. Labilliere moved to Dorking around 1789 and often went on meditative walks on Box Hill. With old age he became increasingly eccentric, neglecting personal hygiene to such an extent that locals called him ‘the walking dung-hill’. He asked to be buried head downwards on Box Hill, claiming that as the world was ‘topsy-turvey’ he would be righted in the end. There is also some suggestion that he wanted to follow the example of St Peter, who was crucified upside down. His internment went ahead in summer 1800. The memorial stone is not believed to mark the exact location of his burial, which is thought to be several metres away on a steep slope. There are two errors in the inscription: he was actually buried in June rather than July and surviving manuscripts indicate that he spelt his name Labilliere rather than Labelliere, as it is on the stone.
The memorial can be found on walk ID 2538 (Grid ref. TQ 176514).


A concrete trig point, swamped by undergrowth within a United Utilities enclosure, marks a location vital to the earliest Ordnance Survey maps. This was the Delamere Meridian, a centre point from which one-inch-to-a-mile scale maps were measured and laid out. In 1746 England was threatened by the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland and possible invasion from France. George II, persuaded that accurate mapping was an essential element in warfare, commissioned a military survey of the Highlands. Several decades later a full national survey got underway, with triangulations in the south radiating from a precisely measured 5-mile baseline on Hounslow Heath. Paper maps are based on a ‘projection’, a method of transfering points on the face of the earth onto squares or rectangles. The Cassini projection fulfilled the purpose right up to the 1940s, but the scale becomes distorted the further away you are from the central point. The first maps, for Kent and Essex, were based on the meridian at Greenwhich. Alternative meridians were required in the west and the north. In northern England four meridians were initially chosen; by the 1820s this had been narrowed down to just the one, the Delamere Meridian. By the mid 20th century it became clear that the Ordnance Survey needed a uniform grid for the whole country and the metric system that we are now so familiar with was introduced.
The trig point can be found on walk ID 5877 (OS Grid ref. SJ 543696).


Alan Turing statueThe cast bronze statue of a man seated on a bench in Sackville Gardens, Manchester, is a touching memorial to Alan Turing, father of theoretical computer science and pioneering codebreaker during WWII. Turing is shown holding an apple. The bronze bench he is sitting on bears the inscription 'Alan Mathison Turing 1912-1954' and a message as if encoded by an Enigma machine: 'IEKYF RQMSI ADXUO KVKZC GUBJ'. Some say this translates as 'Founder of Computer Science'. To Turing’s left is the University of Manchester and to his right is Canal Street. A plaque at his feet reads "Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, victim of prejudice". Turing committed suicide two years after being convicted of homosexual acts. It is no coincidence, then, that his memorial is situated near to Manchester's gay village. The statue was unveiled on June 23rd (Turing’s birthday), 2001. The money for its creation was raised through the Alan Turing Memorial Fund in just twelve months and Glyn Hughes, an industrial sculptor, was commissioned to produce it. It was cast in China for £16,000, a fraction of what it would have cost to make in the UK. On the plaque there is also a Bertrand Russell quotation: "Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture."
The memorial can be found on walk ID 3916 (OS Grid ref. SJ844977).

Standing stoneThere are no fewer than six stone circles at Machrie Moor, along with several burial cairns and individual standing stones. This relatively small patch of ground, not far from the sea and just above a meandering river, is strewn with prehistoric remains. Squat rings of turf-covered stone mark the foundations of ancient homes, while the surrounding field systems testify to a once thriving agricultural community. The moor was a focus for ceremonies over a long period from the Neolithic to early Bronze Age. Gatherings were very likely related to burials, cremations or ancestor worship. As a ritual complex it is reminiscent of others found along Britain’s Atlantic Coast, including the famous prehistoric monuments at Calanais on the Isle of Lewis and the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness on Orkney. The stone circles at Machrie Moor are notable for their variety. For many the ‘Circle 2’ group is the most striking. Only three of its slender red sandstone pillars remain standing, out of an original seven or eight. The tallest is 5.5m high. One of the fallen stones lies in two pieces, carved into millstones in the 18th century but never removed from the site. At the summer solstice the sun rises through a prominent notch in the ridgeline above, and this may explain why the stone circles and other monuments were placed here.
The memorial can be found on walk ID 6034 (OS Grid ref. NR911324).

PlaqueOn Moel y Golfa, one of the Breidden Hills in Powys, stands an unusual monument with two inscribed stone tablets dedicated to the Romany Chell, a leader of the Romany community. The slightly wonky stone pillar has the tablets on two faces. One inscription is quite modest, to Ernest Burton, who was cremated in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, in 1960, four years after his wife died in 1956.  It states that his wish was to have his ashes spread at this place, a wish that was fulfilled ‘by his sons and friends’. The other is much more fulsome in its praise of Uriah Burton, also known as Hughie or ‘Big Just’, who died in November 1986. Hughie is extolled as a ‘fighter for the weak, the good and the poor, teacher to the ignorant and a true legend in his lifetime’. The inscription also records that he ‘was never beaten in fisty cuffs from the age of five to sixty.'  The Breidden Hills sit just on the Welsh side of the border, between the counties of Powys and Shropshire. The three modest peaks are all the result of volcanic action but are geologically quite different. Moel y Golfa is the remnant of a huge volcano that erupted some 450 million years ago. Nearby Cefn y Castellm, or Middletown Hill, is made up of the ashes spewed out by the eruption, while Breidden Hill is dolerite, a tongue of magma extruded from the inner volcanic chamber.
The monument on Moel y Golfa can be found on walk ID 4000 (OS Grid ref. NY824065).


For ten years from when it was built in 1980, The National Westminster Tower, now called Tower 42, was the tallest building in the United Kingdom. Designed by Richard Seifert, from above its shape reflects the bank’s hexagonal chevron logo. The skyscraper was controversial from the start as it broke previous restrictions on tall buildings in London; it became emblematic of the rise of international banking in the City. Although it is tucked away from the road you can stand right under the three massive cantilevered leaves that make up the NatWest logo shape and which provided much of the office space. This is because the building was incorporated into an ill-fated pedestrianisation scheme called the City of London Pedway. The Pedway was an ambitious plan started during the 1960s to completely separate people on foot from road traffic by building a series of interconnected walkways at first floor level. The route was never properly joined up – in fact the only place where it is at all complete is at the Barbican Centre. At Tower 42 you can climb some steps onto a section of the Pedway from London Wall – walking south takes you to the very base of the skyscraper, while going north over the footbridge brings you to one of the Pedway’s classic dead-ends. By the mid 1980s enthusiasm for the Pedway was petering out and the National Westminster Tower was one of the last schemes to incorporate it. A pedestrian bridge from the tower over Bishopgate was never used and was eventually demolished.
The City of London Pedway can be traced on walk ID 4043 (OS Grid ref. NY824065).

Harris’ Well is an unassuming hole in the ground in a Hampshire wood, surrounded by a chicken-wire fence and almost lost in an undergrowth of ferns and bushes. The well was the scene of a brutal murder by a bunch of ruthless 18th century smugglers known as the Hawkhurst Gang. The episode shows that the widespread trade in contraband, brought about by prohibitive taxes on everything from liquor to tea, had a dark side. Smuggling was often organised on an industrial scale and there were severe penalties for anyone convicted of involvement. In an attempt to avoid justice the gang had kidnapped a potential prosecution witness, Daniel Chater, and the minor customs official escorting him to court. Chater had made the fatal mistake of gossiping after recognising one of the gang as they brought a large consignment through his home town. The two victims were tied to ponies, carried for miles and beaten until nearly dead. After a terrifying night at a local inn, the poor customs man was buried alive in a fox hole and Chater was taken to Harris’ Well in Ladyholt Park. After trying to hang him with a rope that was too short, the gang threw him into the well and tossed stones down until his pitiful cries ceased. The trial was widely publicised at the time, with a series of engravings illustrating the crime. Seven members of the gang were convicted; six were hanged, while the leader died in goal before the sentence could be carried out.
Harris’ Well is found on walk ID 3880 (OS Grid ref. SU751167).

The Nine Standards is an enigmatic line of cairns of varying shapes and sizes, clearly visible from most parts of the Eden Valley in Cumbria and from the desolate stretches of the Pennine moorland to their east and south. They appear as a set of irregular teeth on the horizon from the small market town of Kirkby Stephen which nestles in the valley below. Stretched out across a small plateau not quite at the summit of Nine Standards Rigg (662m), their original purpose and date of construction is shrouded in mystery. One story goes that they were built to fool Scottish raiders into believing there was an English army encampment protecting the town below. Although for centuries the area was border country and regularly ravaged by marauding Scots, it seems an unlikely tale. The cairns were certainly standing as far back as the 16th century and quite possibly earlier, as they are mentioned in a number of medieval property charters. In these documents the boundaries for properties are given as a list of established local features. Some think that they may date back even earlier to the Bronze Age, when the surrounding fell would have been lush summer pasture. The cairns have been continually rebuilt over the years, so no-one knows if they match the originals, except in their number. Whatever the reason for their first being erected, as time went by the Nine Standards simply became a landmark, a place for hill farmers to meet and exchange their wandering sheep.
The Nine Standards are found on walk ID 4210 (OS Grid ref. NY824065).