How many of us know that the tallest building in England is not the flashy-looking Shard building in London, but a humble 365 metre high radio mast at Skelton near Penrith in Cumbria?
This fascinating fact is just one of a captivating cornucopia of England’s most bizarre secrets and surprises unearthed for our entertainment and delight by writer David Long, a long-time admirer of the country’s quirky history and habits.
From weird buildings and eccentric museums to the daftest laws and the most gruesome punishments, Long takes us on a journey through England’s forgotten folklore, strange traditions, local myths, oddball attractions and extraordinary inhabitants.
We visit places like Devon’s Gnome Reserve, a church for dragon slayers, a subterranean ballroom, Teapot Island and the White Hart in Canterbury, the only pub in England with a chute for dead bodies in its cellar.
Call in at Westminster Abbey where, at his coronation in 1821, George IV employed prizefighters as bouncers to prevent his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, from gaining entry to the building.
Snigger at some of the country’s rudest place names… Claggy Bottom in Hertfordshire, North Piddle in Worcestershire and Wham Bottom Lane in Rochdale, and enjoy some of our most bizarre museums… a gas museum in Leicester, a mustard museum in Norwich and Southport’s very own lawnmower museum!
Discover some of England’s most bizarre sporting moments, like a cricket match held at a private asylum in Wiltshire in 1849 billed as Sane v. Insane. Happily, the inmates were declared the winners by a margin of 61 runs.
Meet Tommy the 117-year-old tortoise who has lived with the same family in Surrey through the reigns of six monarchs, cost the princely sum of £1 at Croydon market and was not identified as a female until she laid several eggs a few years before her 100th birthday.
We are also a nation of great inventors, not least a square bullet patented in 1718 by English lawyer James Puckle who specified that they were to be used only for killing Ottoman Turks, and more recently, the world’s largest fart machine invented by a Lincolnshire man who aimed it squarely at France.
Indeed, necessity has long been the mother of invention in England… Plasticine was invented in 1897 by an art teacher looking for some non-drying clay that his students could use for practice purposes.
But perhaps the true height of eccentricity was reached in London in 1834, the day before the statue of Lord Nelson was winched into place atop his iconic column in Trafalgar Square. Fourteen brave souls sat down to a windswept meal served on a platform at the very summit, making their al fresco dinner venue one of the world’s earliest pop-up restaurants.
Long’s amazing, amusing and thoroughly entertaining collection of English oddities is proof, perhaps, that England may be a small nation but its wealth and breadth of idiosyncrasies is truly boundless.
(Michael O’Mara, hardback, £9.99)