Another glimpse of hidden London

MANY visitors to London’s Central Criminal Court never see the statue of Lady Justice straddling the distinctive dome of the Old Bailey.

Yet this is the statue used to illustrate countless news reports of the great criminal trials which have taken place here across the years.

IMG_1037 (2)

There’s been a court here since the 16th century, attached for much of its history to the adjoining Newgate prison, and it has witnessed hundreds of thousands of trials, including some of the most notorious and newsworthy.

Back in the 19th century, hangings were a public spectacle in the street outside and the condemned would be led along Dead Man’s Walk between the prison and the court to be met by riotous crowds pelting them with rotten fruit and vegetables.

Those crowds have long gone, but high on the dome above the court stands that bronze statue of Lady Justice, executed by the British sculptor F W Pomeroy, erected in 1906 and holding a sword in her right hand and the scales of justice in her left.

IMG_1043

It’s an iconic image that harks back to her origins as Iustitia, the Roman goddess of justice introduced by Emperor Augustus and subsequently a figure which every Roman emperor wanted to be associated with.

Though formally called a goddess with her own temple and cult shrine in Rome, it appears she was viewed more as a symbolic personification rather than as an actual deity with religious significance.

Today, she gazes down on streets steeped in history, although so much of this part of London was destroyed in the war and buried by modern monstrosities that you have to look hard to find those hidden traces of the city’s past.

IMG_1042 (2)

One such establishment is the Viaduct Tavern, a Victorian gin palace built to celebrate the opening of the Holborn Viaduct and with numerous claims over the years that its cellars incorporate old prison cells from Newgate Prison.

The Fuller’s pub is certainly in the right location for that – and it is also likely the pub stands on land which was the original site of a debtors’ prison which operated until 1853.

IMG_1009

Across the road and down a side street  and you find yourself in front of Cutlers’ Hall, home of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, one of the most ancient of the City of London livery companies.

It its first Royal Charter from Henry V in 1416 and, as was the case with the other trade guilds of the day, its function was to protect the interests of its members, to attend to their welfare, and to ensure that high standards of quality were maintained.

Their business was producing and trading in knives, swords, and other implements with a cutting edge. Over time the emphasis shifted from implements of war to cutlery and other domestic wares such as razors and scissors.

IMG_1011

A ‘House of the Cutlers’ mentioned in 1285 is the earliest recorded regular meeting place of the Cutlers, but the current building (the fifth such hall) dates from 1888 and survived a great fire bomb raid on December 29th 1940 which left only St Paul’s Cathedral and Cutlers’ Hall standing virtually unscathed amongst the devastation.

Back up Newgate Street and in the Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden you can find a much more recent tribute to the city’s past, commemorating Christ’s Hospital School’s 350-year presence in the City of London from 1552 until 1902, when the school moved to Horsham in West Sussex.

IMG_1015

The bronze sculpture by Andrew Brown was selected following an open competition run by The City of London Corporation.

From here, it’s but a short walk to Fleet Street and the first of many hostelries to have resonated with the exchanges of generations of journalists. The Punch Tavern is a Grade II listed refurbished 19th century gin palace once known as the Crown and Sugar Loaf.

IMG_1058 (2)

It is said to have been renamed in the 1840s in homage to the regular drinkers from the nearby Punch magazine, a weekly magazine of humour and satire which was at its most influential at that time, when it helped to coin the term ‘cartoon’ in its modern sense as a humorous illustration.

After the 1940s, when its circulation peaked, it went into a long decline, closing in 1992. It was revived in 1996, but closed again in 2002.

IMG_1047 (2)

Almost next door is another Fleet Street pub with a proud history, the Old Bell Tavern. Now part of the Nicholson’s chain, The Old Bell Tavern has been a licensed tavern for more than 300 years.

The claim is that it was built by Sir Christopher Wren to house his masons as they rebuilt St Bride’s Church after the Great Fire of London. Certainly it is still sought out by journalists returning for services at the church, with its centuries-old connections with the printing industry.

IMG_1048 (2)

Down in the crypt, the church chronicles 2,000 years of its history, which began with the Romans some six centuries before the name of St Bride, daughter of an Irish prince,  emerged from legend to become associated forever with the site.

By the time the Great Fire of 1666 left the church in ruins, a succession of churches had existed on the site for a millennium. It took nine years for St Bride’s to re-appear from the ashes under the direction of Christopher Wren, and for the next two centuries his unmistakeable wedding-cake steeple cast a long shadow over the rise of the British newspaper industry.

In 1940, St Bride’s fell victim once again to flames as German incendiary bombs reduced Wren’s architectural jewel to a roofless shell. This time 17 years elapsed before rebuilding was completed.

IMG_1004 (2)

Generations of newspapermen and women have prayed here and feel a special affinity for the place. Many have been married here – while others have come to honour dead colleagues, whose pictures stand on a side altar beside flickering candles.

After exploring the long history of the “journalists’ church”, it’s probably time for another convivial Fleet Street pint, perhaps this time in The Tipperary, which can claim to be the “original” Irish pub outside Ireland.

IMG_1050 (2)

On a site which was once an island between the River Thames and River Fleet, a dribble of which is said to still run under the pub, The Boar’s Head was built in 1605 and, being made of stone and brick rather than wood, survived the Great Fire.

In around 1700 the S G Mooney & Son Brewery chain of Dublin purchased the pub and fitted it out in traditional Irish style. It became the first outside Ireland to have bottled Guinness and later draft, and was renamed in 1918 by the printers who came back from the Great War in honour of the song “It’s a long way”.

Greene King bought the pub in the 1960s and refitted the interior to the style of Mooney’s days, recapturing the original character of the 1700s.

Emboldened by an authentic pint of Guinness, there might just be time to pop across the road and visit another venerable Fleet Street watering hole which did not fare so well in the Great Fire.

IMG_1054 (2)

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of a number of London pubs to have been rebuilt shortly after the fire, although there was a pub here from 1538 and the establishment is chiefly known for its literary associations and lack of natural lighting, which lends a gloomy charm to its many little side rooms, bars and passages.

Hidden down a narrow alleyway and decorated with wood panelling from at least the 19th century, the pub boasts plaques showing famous people who were regulars, and who may have ranged from Dickens and Chesterton to Samuel Johnson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Talking of Dr Johnson, there may be time to look in on the charming nearby 300-year-old townhouse where the writer and wit lived and worked in the middle of the 18th century, compiling his great Dictionary of the English Language.

IMG_1051 (2)

Today, the hidden gem is open to the public with a collection relating to Johnson, a research library, restored interiors and a wealth of original features. But if you are pressed for time, there’s one famous local character you must look in on before saying a fond farewell to Fleet Street – Dr Johnson’s beloved cat, Hodge.

Hodge is remembered by a bronze statue unveiled in Gough Square in 1997 showing the cat sitting next to a pair of empty oyster shells atop a copy of Johnson’s famous dictionary.

IMG_1053 (2)

Sculptor Jon Bickley made Hodge about shoulder height for the average adult – just about right for putting an arm around. Most of the information on Hodge comes from Boswell’s account:

I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature.

I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed”.

 

 

 

 

Escape from the rat race

THERE’S something immensely restful and soothing about Gregorian chant – and the same can be said of the tranquil surroundings of Douai Abbey in Berkshire.

Here, buried in the depths of the English countryside, is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery founded in Paris in 1615.

Vespers is sung prayer – in Latin. Traditionally this evening sacrifice of praise to God takes place as dusk begins to fall, giving thanks for the day just past, and although guests are welcome and some services and concerts are well attended, it’s not uncommon to find the monks alone at this time.

IMG_1156

Uprooted by the French Revolution, the monks moved initially to Douai in Flanders and settled in England in 1903, when they moved to their current base at Woolhampton.

The Order of Saint Benedict, also known as the ‘Black Monks’ because of the colour of their habits, is a religious order of independent monastic communities like Ampleforth, Downside, Worth and Buckfast.

IMG_1158

They observe the Rule of St Benedict, a sixth-century Italian saint who studied in Rome and then turned his back on the world and lived in solitude before founding a monastery at Monte Cassino.

Here at Douai, under the patronage of the Edmund the Martyr (the East Anglian king who died in 869), the monks live a simple life of worship, study and work, centred around six daily services, from matins and lauds at 6.20am to compline at 8pm.

IMG_1162

Despite their crow-like appearance when their black hoods are raised – an indication that they are in silent communion with the Lord – they are individually friendly and welcoming to guests who seek them out.

But “listening” is central to the Benedictine doctrine, so silence is an important part of their daily life – and for guests, a welcome reminder of how important it is for us all to escape the incessant hubbub of the modern world.

IMG_1163

And so it is in preparation for the weekday service that we attend. Beforehand, individual monks sit in contemplation, both inside the abbey church and on benches around the grounds.

They then file silently to their places in the pews for a half-hour of praise and peace,  the two dozen male voices echoing round the impressive arches of the abbey where we are the only other members of the congregation.

IMG_1159

The abbey church was opened in the 1930s but not completed until 1993, and is a Grade II* listed building on the National Heritage List for England with marvellous acoustics.

Our simple evening service is without ceremony or accompanying music but is no less moving for that. The individual Latin words  may be indistinct or unfamiliar, but the message of praise is clear – and the underlying sense of self-sacrifice and humility which underpins the monks’ way of life shines through.

IMG_1149

Douai monks still serve in parishes throughout England and welcome guests on retreats and courses,  as well as those seeking space for quiet or study. There are facilities for  conferences and for youth and chaplaincy groups and throughout the year they host a number of  concerts in the abbey church.

Guests may take a peaceful walk in the nearby meadow or sit in a small wooded glade at the foot of a statue of Christ. This is a place of peace and contemplation – and a welcome escape from the unrelenting noise and activity of our everyday lives.

For more information about the work of the monks at Douai, see their website.

IMG_1153

Snatch a glimpse of London’s past

LONDON’S skyline is under attack.

Well, in truth it has been under attack for years, but it’s only now that we can fully appreciate the scale of the onslaught as dozens of high-rise buildings reach completion.

When architecture critic Rowan Moore highlighted the problem back in 2014, more than 200 towers were being planned across the city, in urban and suburban locations alike.

IMG_1014 (2)

But it’s telling that today the London Town website actually says that this part of London is “aesthetically defined by its towers” and even suggests venues where high-rise visitors might want to savour a vertigo-inducing glass of bubbly and pricey meal while taking in the view of what remains of our once glorious capital.

Moore discusses the aesthetic dangers and practical drawbacks of this race to look like Dubai, Shanghai or New York, but if you haven’t wandered round the backstreets of the City lately, you could be forgiven for thinking that every cobble, every tiny alleyway, is being transformed – mainly into offices or high-rise luxury penthouse blocks.

IMG_1021

Much of that is driven by overseas investment – and a glance in the estate agent’s window quickly establishes that no “normal” rent-payer would find it easy to pick up a bargain around here, even in the few bijou low-rise developments which remain.

Property agents confirmed this month that overseas investors had shrugged off Brexit worries to invest nearly  £7bn in London property in 2018 – ahead of Hong Kong and Paris.

The only consolation is in tiny alleys and hidden squares there are a few remnants of the old city for the wanderer to stumble upon.

The main tourist attractions like St Paul’s still provide visitors with a focal point, of course. Sadly Hitler’s sustained bombing campaign during the Blitz saw swathes of central London flattened in 1940 and 1941, leaving only blue plaques to remind us of some of the buildings which had graced the historic square mile since that other great London disaster, the Great Fire of 1666.

The Museum of London is a great place to start an exploration of London’s past – and when it moves to its new home beside Smithfield Market it should be an even more fascinating attraction.

But what remains of that historic capital, the Roman and medieval city largely hidden under our feet? There are still glimpses of London’s history down dark alleys and quaintly named closes, although it has to be said much of it is masked by traffic fumes and the detritus of modern living.

Between the high-rise blocks, London’s financial heart has become relentlessly hipster in mood and appearance, although the obsession with quality coffee is nothing new. London’s coffee houses were famed across the centuries, even if Samuel Johnson declared himself  ‘a hardened and shameless tea drinker’.

But where to start after you emerge from the overheated hubbub of the Central Line in rush hour and step aside from the frantic City hordes to take your breath outstide St Paul’s?

Down on Ludgate Hill it’s reassuring to see an old Routemaster bus struggling to make any progress down towards Ludgate Circus and Fleet Street, but this throwback to the past is something of a sop to the tourists.

IMG_1007

The vehicle itself is authentic enough, now more than 50 years old, having been originally delivered to London Transport in July 1964.

But it was withdrawn from service in the 1980s and spent time in Hampshire, Perth and Glasgow before being selected as one of a handful of buses to operate “heritage routes” through London – in this case from St Paul’s down to Trafalgar Square.

IMG_1025

More authentic, perhaps – and a lot less well known – is a small park round the corner from St Paul’s which provides a welcome splash of green among the concrete.

Postman’s Park has an intriguing history in its own right, occupying an amalgamation of three burial grounds and taking its name from the fact that when it opened in 1880 it became a popular haunt with postal workers from the nearby General Post Office.

IMG_1023

Efforts to resist the attention of Victorian property developers in the 1890s ensured that the park was saved for posterity and when it reopened in 1900 it incorporated an extraordinary and moving memorial to self-sacrifice, remembering ordinary “humble heroes” who had lost their lives endeavouring to save the lives of others.

Chief proponents of the scheme to remember the extraordinary actions performed by everyday men, women and children were the artist George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904) and his wife, Mary (1849 – 1938).

IMG_1024

The Watts Memorial contains 54 memorial tablets commemorating 62 individuals. The earliest case featured is that of Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist who died in 1863 and the latest is Leigh Pitt who drowned in 2007.

A short walk from the park is a somewhat grimmer memorial on the outer wall of St Bartholomew Hospital in Smithfield paying tribute to Sir William Wallace, one of the main leaders during the Wars of Scottish Independence – most famously portrayed by Mel Gibson in the film “Braveheart” – who was executed nearby on August 23, 1305.

IMG_1033 (2)

Wallace was charged with treason, to which he responded that he could not be guilty, for he had never sworn fealty to Edward I. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to the traitor’s death, one of the most vicious punishments devised during the medieval era.

He was taken to the Tower of London where he was stripped naked and dragged behind horses to the scaffold at Smithfield. He was first hung by the neck and then cut down while still alive. He was then eviscerated and castrated, and eventually beheaded. His body was cut into four parts, and his limbs sent to the corners of Scotland as a warning to the rebellious country. His head was set on London Bridge, where it was soon joined by other Scottish rebels.

IMG_1036

Hidden away from the main tourist thoroughfares, Wallace’s monument is a place of pilgrimage for Scottish visitors to London, while round the corner Sherlock Holmes buffs gather to see the vacant pathology block where Benedict Cumberbatch took his famed mystery plunge in the BBC series reimagining Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novels.

This part of one of Britain’s oldest hospitals is being redeveloped into a private healthcare facility. But opposite it is a reminder that this was once a rather seedy corner of medieval London where the Great Fire of London – ‘occasion’d by the sin of gluttony’ – finally stopped, as commemorated in a statue of the Golden Boy of Pye Corner.

IMG_1038 (2)

The fire which broke out in in the early hours of Sunday, 2 September 1666 swept across London from the Thames to Smithfield, destroying thousands of houses and more than 80 churches over five days.

Initially blamed as part of a treasonous plot by Roman Catholics, the 18th-century monument credited an alternative culprit in the shame of the extravagant feasting of well-off 17th-century Londoners.

At this corner of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street also stood The Fortune of War pub, a rather unsavoury drinking den where in the early 1800s corpses provided by body snatchers used to be held in a backroom for surgeons at the nearby hospital to view and purchase.

The high-rise office blocks haven’t quite obliterated this part of London yet, although they are certainly encroaching from all sides.

Not that anyone is suggesting that the medieval brothels of Cock Lane or nearby Victorian gin palaces provided a vision of London which tourists would enjoy today.

But between the soaring office blocks there are those glimpses of a different London skyline – like the distinctive dome of the Old Bailey, where the gleaming statue of Lady Justice, erected in October 1906, has long been used to sum up anything to do with the criminal justice system.

But that, as they say, another story…

See the Further Afield section of The Beyonder for additional snippets about London’s history.

IMG_1037 (2)

 

 

 

 

Full steam ahead at Bo’ness

IT’S HARD to think of a less likely tourist attraction that the UK’s second oldest oil refinery, at Grangemouth.

But if you drive past the gas flares and cooling towers for a few minutes, the detour off the busy M9 motorway from Edinburgh to Stirling will take you to a quite extraordinary reminder of a golden age of steam.

For this is the home of the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway, a five-mile working heritage railway and home to Scotland’s largest railway museum.

BONESS

The view from the station platform – the main station at Bo’ness was actually relocated from Wormit, at the south end of the Tay Bridge – could hardly be more authentic, although the 0-6-0 tank engine decked out in British Railways black is also “in disguise”.

Despite the BR livery, this is not the former LNER Class J94 engine which once bore that number, but a lookalike – an engine once owned by the National Coal Board which was built by W G Bagnall in 1945 and acquired from the NCB’s Comrie Colliery in Fife.

In its gleaming BR livery it certainly looks the part, though, and it’s only one of a large selection of steam and diesel engines to be found here.

Another surprise is the surprisingly rural atmosphere of the route. Despite the proximity of heavy industry, the line takes passengers to a local nature reserve, and you can always walk back along the coast or disembark at another rural station that has been a favourite with film-makers.

The museum across the footbridge at Bo’ness is open seven days a week until October 28 from 11am-4.30pm and boasts three large buildings full of memorabilia – from full size locomotives to old-fashioned railway signs which once adorned the walls of busy railway stations across the country.

For full details of the railway, see the link above – and more information about the Scottish Railway Preservation Society can be found here.

 

Landmark steeped in history

IMG_0671‘CATHEDRAL OF THE DOWNS’: St Michael & All Angels at Lambourn

THERE’S a solidity to the church at Lambourn that you might expect of a landmark that has witnessed ten centuries of history.

A stone’s throw from the busy M4 motorway between Swindon and Newbury, the village provides a welcome escape from the traffic streaming west from London and the historic Grade I listed church is a cool, peaceful oasis at the heart of the village.

Nowadays Lambourn is perhaps best known as the largest centre of racehorse training in England outside Newmarket, but centuries ago it was the market town for the sheep farmers of the western Berkshire Downs – and the church of St Michael and All Angels is known as the ‘Cathedral of the Downs’.

At least four Anglo-Saxon documents refer to the town and the church and since the association of King Alfred with this part of England is well known and Alfred was a devout Christian, it is perhaps reasonable to presume that he may have had something to do with the founding or improvement of St Michaels. The dedication of Michael the Archangel was certainly a popular one in Saxon times; the addition of All Angels came later

From the outside, the visitor’s attention is perhaps initially focused on the distinctive lych-gate.

Nowadays we tend to have forgotten the purpose of these traditional gates but the name derives from the Old English ‘lich’, meaning corpse, and they were meeting places and shelters for the party bringing a corpse for burial.

Although some had been built earlier, the 1549 Prayer Book required the priest to meet the corpse at the churchyard entrance. This encouraged the provision of lych-gates to shelter the corpse and the funeral party for that purpose.

Lenton_Lincolnshire_Lychgate_geograh1761572_by_BobHarveyFUNERAL SHELTER: a lych-gate at Lenton in Lincolnshire [PICTURE: Bob Harvey]

Medieval lych-gates were made of timber and most have long since disappeared. However many new lych-gates were erected in Victorian times, sometimes as memorials to prominent local people or as war memorials.

Although the numerous ancient barrows in this area are proof of much earlier settlements, as are finds of Roman pottery in the vicinity, Norman invaders later made their presence felt and the grand nave of the church dates from the 12th century.

IMG_0673IMPOSING INTERIOR: St Michael’s boasts several chantry chapels

The first written record of a church at Lambourn dates from 1032, but it seems likely there was a Saxon church here several centuries earlier and the circular shape of the churchyard suggests that the site may have been in use in Roman times.

The current church was begun in the 12th century and the core of the building dates to about 1180 and is constructed on a cruciform plan. More information about the church’s history, transepts, chapels and stained glass windows can be found on a website run by the Friends of St Michael.

By the 13th century Lambourn had assumed some importance and a charter was granted by Henry VI to allow a market and two sheep fairs a year to be held. Around this time the Market Cross in the Market Square was erected.

IMG_0675PAST GLORIES: some stained glass dates from the 16th century

Inside the church a variety of chapels provide plenty to interest the passing visitor – from the Holy Trinity Chapel built in 1502 by John Estbury, featuring a tomb chest decorated with coats of arms and a brass effigy, to the North Chapel, added in the late Elizabethan period and heavily restored in 1849, which contains a wonderful table tomb to Sir Thomas Essex and his wife Margaret.

At Sir Thomas’s head is a fiery salamander, emblem of the Essex family, while his feet rest upon a dolphin, an unusual symbol in an English church.

IMG_0676CHAPEL OF REST: the table tomb of Sir Thomas Essex and his wife Margaret

After exploring the historic delights of the various chapels, you don’t have to go far for more earthly sustenance. The George across the road is not perhaps the most impressive looking of village hostelries from the outside, but the Arkell’s inn is friendly and bustling inside and the Sunday lunch proves a unexpected delight – and excellent value for money too.

IMG_0684SUNDAY LUNCH: the George at Lambourn

Lambourn Church is at Parsonage Lane, RG17 8PA and The George on High Street, Lambourn, RG17 8XU.

Council hails litter ‘heroes’

MICHEELEVOLUNTEER litter pickers in Kidderminster have been hailed as local heroes by their district council for organising a series of litter picks around the town.

More than 300 members of the Facebook group Keeping Kidderminster and Surrounding Places Clean have been getting out and about their local streets and neighbourhoods picking up litter and disposing of it in litter bins around the district.

The idea stemmed from local teacher Michelle Medler’s new year resolution to pick up a bag of litter a day while walking her dogs – and mushroomed into a community supported by hundreds of volunteers.

Michelle said: “I’m amazed at how many people care and want to make a difference, which is great to know, and the positive comments from the public make it all worthwhile.”

After launching the group in January, she was surprised to see it grow into a 400-strong group after she initiated a number of communal litter picks in different parts of the town. Membership has since doubled to more than 800.

She soon won plaudits from councillors and council officers too. Youngsters and retired pensioners have been among the groups taking part – and Wyre Forest District Council, which has street cleaning reponsibilities in the area, praised Michelle and supplied volunteers with litter pickers, high visibility jackets and gloves, as well as advice about safely disposing of any dangerous items they came across.

Cabinet member for operational services Councillor Rebecca Vale said: “It is truly remarkable to hear about the positive impact these volunteers have had and I’d like to thank every one of them. We spend a lot of time, effort and money cleaning our streets – this just goes to show what a huge difference we can make to the look and feel of the district by working together.”

The Kidderminster model is one The Beyonder is keen to explore further. Beyonder editor Andrew Knight said: “The Kidderminster group are doing an amazing job and seem to have a real community spirit. They can also see the impact they are having on making the town cleaner – and it’s great that the district council has been so supportive.”

The Beyonder is carrying out a local audit before deciding how to pursue its anti-litter campaign in the Chilterns. It is in the process of contacting local parish, district and county councils to find out more about existing waste collection activities across south Buckinghamshire from Marlow to Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross, Chalfont St Giles, Chalfont St Peter and Denham.

 

Kate goes back to the land

201853162_Back_to_the_Land_witSEAWEED FEAST: filming in Cornwall  [PICTURE: 7 Wonder Productions/BBC]

THERE’S a growing appetite for lovingly produced high quality food – and for rural success stories, it seems.

That was certainly the message when BBC2 placed a supersized order for Kate Humble’s Back To The Land series following a three-part debut run last March.

After whetting audiences’ appetites with a handful of extraordinary tales of aspiring businesses turning seaweed into food and goat’s milk into probiotic drinks, the TV production company 7 Wonder got the go-ahead for a 12-part series of the 60-minute programmes after the show picked up an average audience of 2m on its first outing.

Presented by Kate Humble, the series celebrates rural Britain by championing the UK’s most inspirational rural entrepreneurs and meeting them at different times of the year as they struggle to bring their business dreams to fruition.

Screened four nights a week from May 8 until May 24, the new series allows Humble to roam the country from Cornwall to Yorkshire seeking out more aspirational and innovative businesses fighting to turn their ideas into commercial successes.

The series was ordered by head of popular factual and factual entertainment David Brindley and is executive produced by Alexandra Fraser and Sarah Trigg.

Trigg was quoted in Broadcast magazine as saying: “What we all enjoy about the creative process of making it is witnessing these incredible and aspirational people doing what they love to keep the countryside alive.”

Kate-Humble-Back-To-The-Land-776438RURAL RETURN: Kate Humble [PICTURE: 7 Wonder Productions/BBC]

Humble is the ideal host for this sort of show, not just because of her long-standing interest in animals but because she brings a cheery enthusiasm and empathy to the task that  helps her interviewees to shine on screen as they describe their dreams and dilemmas.

The presenter was born in 1968 and grew up in rural Berkshire in a house next to a farm. She describes on her website how she enjoyed a ‘proper childhood’ – building camps, racing snails, and climbing trees, interspersed with trips to A&E to patch up things when they broke.

Of the first series, David Butcher wrote in Radio Times: “Some series have a cool, wholesome kind of vibe to them right from the off and this, happily, is one of them. It’s warm and watchable and full of heartening tales of rural entrepreneurs who are taking gambles with their livelihoods on innovative (in some cases, slightly crazy-seeming) business ideas.”

These days Humble and her husband, producer/director Ludo Graham, live on a smallholding in Wales where in 2011 they set up a rural skills school on a working farm in the Wye Valley. They live with a variety of feathered and furry livestock and three dogs.

Back To The Land may boast heartwarming tales but it’s not a rose-tinted portrait of rural life. Humble isn’t slow to play up the financial risks and gruelling working hours faced by the budding entrepeneurs – or the personal tragedies encountered along the way, as when in episode two, Mangalitza pig farmers Lisa and Tim in Yorkshire lose two broods of piglets.

In the first episode she meets Caro and Tim (above), who harvest seaweed by free-diving off the coast and have got big plans to cultivate their own crop by gluing seeds to ropes that are strung out next to a mussel farm. Elsewhere, we meet a mass of very sweet ducklings bred by egg-to-plate experts Tanya and Roger, and a forager who puts what he picks into craft beer.

Then she’s off to Yorkshire, meeting 69-year-old ex-submariner Bob, who on retirement bought a boat and set about catching lobsters off the beautiful coastline. We also meet a sustainable game-keeper who sells what he hunts directly to the public and visit an award-winning glass-blowing business based in the heart of the Yorkshire Moors.

Critics may find the hour-long slots a little slow paced on occasion and there’s always the danger of sounding too much like an advertorial when you home in on business ventures, but Humble steers a nice path through these challenges, introducing us to some intriguing and courageous individuals along the way.