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Today, I'm on a journey through the remarkable history and landscape
of Northamptonshire, one of north England's least discovered counties.
My journey starts here in Northampton, home of the county's famous shoe industry.
Next I'll travel north to Coton Manor to discover the story
of the gardens and some of its more exotic inhabitants.
You're kidding? 50-years-old?!
Well, yes, not just for Christmas!
At Holdenby, I'll visit what was once the largest private house
in England and find out how it was first a palace and then a prison.
And I'll end my journey just over the border in Bedfordshire
at Santa Pod raceway, the home of European drag car racing.
And along the way I'll be looking back at the best of
the BBC's rural programmes from this part of the world. This is Country Tracks.
Northamptonshire has a largely rural farming landscape.
It is affectionately known as the county of spires and squires,
because of its number of grand stately homes and ancient churches.
In the 18th and 19th century, parts of the county became industrialised, specialising in leather and shoes.
By the end of the 19th century, Northampton was said to be
the shoe and boot-making capital of the world.
The collection of boots and shoes at Northampton museum is the largest in the world.
There are well over 12,000 items, ranging from fine historic shoes
to Elton John's massive platform boots from the film Tommy
and even David Beckham's football boots.
In 1841, there were 1,871 shoe makers in Northampton,
but sadly the 20th century saw a huge decline in shoe manufacturing
as cheaply made imported footwear began to flood the market.
But a handful of British companies are still going strong.
I'm off to one Northamptonshire firm with royal connections.
Trickers was founded in 1829 by master shoemaker, Joseph Tricker.
Five generations later, his family continue to apply
the same traditional skills
in the production of their world-renowned shoes.
I'm meeting fifth generation owner Nick Barltrop
to see how those skills are still alive and kicking today.
So, Nick, what are the steps to making a fine shoe?
-Well, this is where it all starts...
..with the cutting out of all of the little pieces which go into making the upper of the shoe
and Ricky here is doing it by hand,
which is how we do it with all the hand-made shoes.
-A lot of detail goes into this.
It is very labour intensive.
Yeah. So Ricky is cutting out for the fine shoes, the bespoke shoes, is that right?
-It's great that you are keeping these skills alive.
It's not easy. You do have to do a lot of training in-house,
but the skills are there, but you have to put the time in
and train the youngsters.
Yes. It must feel good, though, being one of the last few companies that make shoes in this way?
Yeah, we're very proud of it.
So what's the next stage, then, Nick?
The next stage is skiving as we say it here.
Skiving, what does that mean?
What you'll see is that what Dawn has done
is reduced the edge from a big thickness here down to a thin edge there
which is going to aid the sewing through the leather.
Another piece of leather will come over the top of this one. You have to reduce the thickness down.
-Otherwise it'll be too thick to get the thread through?
-That's right. You'll end up with a bump.
Yes, the difference is amazing. How many will Dawn get through? She's working pretty fast.
-She looks like she's doing it fairly quickly.
-200 pairs a day.
200 pairs a day! Dawn, that's pretty speedy work. I love that.
MUSIC: "Kinky Boots"
Well, this looks interesting. What's happening here, then, Nick?
This is the next stage in the process of the hand-made bespoke footwear.
This is Scott, and he's lasting the uppers which you saw being made
in the closing room onto the individual lasts.
The lasts are the wooden foot shape, the mould?
That's right. The last is made according to the measurements taken
of the customer's foot and we then build the shoe around that last.
So each customer who's asked for a bespoke shoe will have their very own last made?
-That's right. Yes.
-Do their foot shapes change over time?
Feet can change. Every time that the customers orders a new pair
he will have his foot measured again
to make sure that everything is still as it was originally.
This is very specialised work.
How long did it take you to get to this level of skills?
A few years, but I have been doing it for seven or eight years.
There are very few of you who can do this?
There's only two other people that I know and they're both retired now.
-So it's only me, I can say.
How long will it take you to do this stage?
One foot takes about an hour to do, to get it to that stage.
Wow! Good gracious. I've heard you can tell a fine shoemaker, because the pins
in his teeth will affect his teeth, but your teeth look all right.
There is good dental work there.
Thank you very much.
Some very well-known people have their shoes made here at Tricker's,
but it's not really the done thing to reveal their identities.
It's certainly an investment.
A pair of made-to-order shoes will cost up to £500,
while a pair of fully bespoke hand-made shoes
will cost upwards of £1,000,
but shoes of this quality can last a lifetime.
So this is the very final step?
-What happens here?
Well, Donna's putting the finished shoes into the boxes.
It really feels like a luxury product.
It is just beautiful packaging, beautifully presented.
What I love is that these shoes will have all been touched by humans.
They are not purely machine-made?
That's right. There are 266 different operations that go into a pair of Tricker's shoes.
266! And how many people may have come into contact with them?
We employ 92. So 92 could have come in contact with every pair of shoes.
They are very beautiful.
It is fine craftsmanship, isn't it?
And off they go to some very lucky buyer!
I've started my journey in the county town of Northampton,
but when the One Show's Christine Walkden visited,
she headed out in the countryside to explore the county's rolling fields.
To many of us, British agriculture is nothing more than a blur
as we whizz up and down roads and motorways.
From the air, the farmland that blankets the British countryside
reveals itself like paint on a canvas,
and literally defines the colour of our country from the sky.
But how much do we really know about the crops that fill this canvas?
Crops define our ever-changing landscape,
and one crop has changed that more than any other.
Brassica napus. Oilseed rape.
Spreading it on your bread or pouring it in the pan could help you
live longer and using it in the car could one day help save the planet.
Oilseed actually belongs to the cabbage genus, brassica.
Rapeseed has a cluster of flowers on a central stem
known as an inflorescence.
It's that tight arrangement that creates vast splashes of colour,
that paints the countryside yellow.
This dazzling display can be seen from early April all the way through to late July.
The family name for these plants is cruciferae, because of its flowers' four-petal pattern,
also found in its cousins - mustard, cabbage, turnip and broccoli.
Rapeseeds are pollinated by insects, particularly bees,
and it's their vivid colour that attracts the bees to them,
unlike cereals that are pollinated by air.
Once the plant has flowered, pollinated and wilted,
we're left with these, the seed.
And this is where all the money is.
These yellow fields didn't exist when I was growing up,
but today, oil-seed rape is Britain's most easily recognisable crop.
In the last 20 years, the increased demand for margarine and healthy cooking oils
has meant that oil-seed rape now takes up 15% of arable land in the UK,
but it's not all for culinary use.
There's an awful lot of talk about rapeseed being used as bio-fuel.
Most of the biodiesel is coming from reused cooking oil.
So the rape goes into making cooking oils, then when it's been used once
it goes into turning into biodiesel. That strikes me as
a very sensible use for a plant getting at least two uses out of it.
The first people to cultivate oil-seed rape in Britain
were the Romans for lamp oils and soap,
but here in Northamptonshire, Duncan Farrington is purely interested in the taste.
What we do is a very traditional method of extracting the oil.
It's called cold pressing - we don't use high temperatures
We take those little black seeds and literally squeeze the oil out of it.
It's very simple, very old fashioned.
It's like the very best olive oils. We don't refine it
in any way. We just let it settle, filter it and put it in a bottle.
Because of that, it retains all the natural goodness within the seed.
-The next thing to do is get you filling some bottles for us.
So, the thing to do is not to panic. I think there might be
a cup of tea and a piece of cake in it if you do a good job.
-Will you take me on?
-Yeah, go on, then. Carry on.
So there we are.
-The finished product. Shall we go and try it?
OK. So this is my bottle, what's so special about rapeseed oil?
It's got the lowest saturated fat content of any oil.
It's Omega-3 in balance with Omega-6.
It's got vitamin E which is a good antioxidant.
It's a good all-round healthy oil.
That is seriously nice.
These glorious yellow fields boost our bee population,
provides fuel for tomorrow's cars
and even combats cholesterol to keep us fit and healthy.
Not bad for a relative of the cabbage.
Christine Walkden extolling the virtues of oil-seed rape in the heart of Northamptonshire.
My journey has now brought me to an area of the county
to the north-west of Northampton,
littered with beautiful villages and stately homes.
I'm visiting one of the prettiest in the area, Coton Manor.
In 1662, a farmhouse was built on the site of the original house
which had been razed to the ground after the Battle of Naseby.
Some of the mellow Northamptonshire stone came from the royal palace
of Holdenby House, which I'll be visiting later.
From this smaller house, the surrounding land was farmed
for nearly three centuries until the property was bought
by the grandparents of the present owner in 1923.
But it's the gardens and their inhabitants that I've come to Coton to see.
I'm meeting up with the head gardener Richard Greene
for a tour of the floral highlights -
some already showing and some still to come.
Richard, these snowdrops are looking fantastic.
It's obviously early on in the year, but what other flowers are we getting to see around now?
We start off with the snowdrops and the aconites
during the early part of the spring.
We also have a lot of primulas and pulmonaria.
-A few daffs up.
-That's right, yes. The hellebores, of course.
We make quite of thing of hellebores.
-They're glorious, aren't they?
-Not bad at all, yes.
They've been quite late this year, but they're looking good now.
They're looking really good.
This is just the start of the flowering year, there must be plenty more to come.
Oh, yes, we move on to the main feature,
which, I guess, is the herbaceous borders.
They should be looking good right through to the end of November.
-Good long flowering year.
-Good for your pollinators.
-Yes, that's right.
Well, this is lovely.
-This is one of my favourite areas of the garden.
It comes into its own in a few weeks' time,
but already there are nice things coming through.
Particularly like this pulmonaria here, this Munstead blue.
-That is amazingly vivid, isn't it?
-It's a wonderful colour.
-What else is here?
-We also have some dicentra poking through
and some corydalis that are already in flower.
-Actually, once you get your eye in, there's plenty in flower at the moment.
-It is coming along.
One of my favourite views is from down in the summer house down there,
looking back up this way.
I can see why, I really can. There's lots of water features as well.
We have a spring that comes up from the main pond behind us there.
That diverges through the garden and feeds the rest of the ponds below.
That's really peaceful. Let's keep exploring.
So, Richard, these are the herbaceous borders?
-That's right, yes.
-What sort of thing will we get here?
We have a range of herbaceous plants that come on around about May time
and build up into a crescendo, late July, August.
But the trick is continuity.
So there's always something replacing a plant that's already flowered and gone over.
We do a bit with annuals, replacing here and there,
filling holes and gaps and so on, but we have to keep
a careful eye on the colours to make sure that nothing clashes,
so everything carries on in a subtle colour scheme that we like.
So what other new developments have been going on here?
Over here on the right, we have the old orchard
that we now planted up underneath with spring bubs and so on.
That comes into its own in a few weeks.
We recently made a wild flower meadow.
That works on so many different levels.
in that it's aesthetic in its own right for the beauty of the flowers,
but then you've got the attraction of the butterflies and the bees and all the other insects,
and of course it's practical, in that
we get a crop of hay off it and we can feed it to our longhorn cattle.
Fantastic. There is a lot of work here, you must be very, very busy.
Oh, there is always something. Yes.
As lovely as the gardens are, I'll be honest,
there's another reason I really wanted to visit Coton.
Flamingos were introduced to the garden in the 1960s
when the pioneering conservationist Sir Peter Scott
brought a small collection to Slimbridge Wetland centre.
Being a good friend of the family at Coton, a few ended up here.
Peter Scott was the son of the famous Scott of the Antarctic
and became the most influential conservationist of the 20th century,
the first to be knighted in 1973.
He's photographed here with a young Sir David Attenborough.
So, all the years that you've been working here, you've had flamingos around you?
That's right, yes.
The two here, darker ones they're Caribbean,
but the paler ones behind, they are greater flamingos.
I believe they are the original ones that came over all that time ago.
-You're kidding?! What 50-years-old?
-Yes, not just for Christmas!
That's impressive, in the wild they would be 30 years alive, maximum, really.
I guess so, but then, they're rather pampered here.
They're rather mollycoddled, look at all this daily food they're getting.
Also, flamingos that aren't in their natural environment tend to go paler without their usual food.
Do you have to supplement that to keep them pink?
Yes, this stuff here that we give them.
This is sort of cereal-based. It has a bit of fish food in there,
but it has the carotene that helps to keep them that colour.
The proteins that give them the lovely pink. Are they hard to keep?
-Do they give you any trouble?
They basically look after themselves.
They're quite hardy and stay out all year round.
We have to take them in during the very cold weather in the winter.
Just because they get frozen into the water.
They roost in the water at night, and they could find themselves stuck in the morning.
So one of your jobs has been to icepick out a flamingo?
-It has been, once or twice, yes.
Are they useful from a gardening perspective?
Are they eating your slugs?
I don't know about slugs, but we see them often,
especially after rain, they poddle around with their feet
and try to raise the worms out the grass.
You see them scooping backwards and forwards with their beak.
So they must be finding something.
They've got that fantastically unusual way of feeding where their beaks are completely upside down
They scoop up all the mud, push it out again and eat what's left in their mouths.
There's a bit of squabbling going on here. It's so funny!
So elegant, too!
In the wild, flamingos live in enormous colonies
and won't nest unless there are lots of other flamingos around.
So small groups in captivity rarely breed
and opposite sexes view each other as friends.
Too civilised for their own good.
The reason flamingos famously stand on one leg has long puzzled naturalists.
The latest thinking is that it's to regulate their body temperature.
There's something incredibly charming about
non-native, purely ornamental birds in an English country garden.
I think that it plays to our sense of eccentricity.
You can almost imagine the Queen of Hearts coming out to flip one over and using it as a croquet mallet.
I think they're great fun.
The flamingos aren't the only surreal sight in these parts.
When Ben Fogle visited Northamptonshire, he came to rekindle his passion for conkers.
Now this is what childhood's all about -
crisp autumn mornings, crunching through leaves
and the joy of finding one of these spiky fruits,
and then the excitement of opening it up to find a fresh new conker.
But who would have thought you could go from this...
to this!? What was just a childhood pastime for me
was another man's dream of a world where conkering never ends.
The International Conker Championships in Ashton!
# I want to love you
# I want to be a better man... #
Well, this started in 1965, I think,
when there was a group of regulars at the pub.
There they were sitting, looking, gazing into their beer,
wondering what to do and somebody saw conkers falling
and challenged a friend to a game
and they were all looking out of the window at it,
and the following week, that's when it all started.
They'd bought a cup. There were, I think, about 20 of them.
We've been doing it ever since,
but it's grown from 20 competitors to nearly 400.
Half a dozen spectators to between 4,000 and 5,000.
Once you've got your conkers, as every child knows,
there are ways that you can improve them.
You can varnish them, soak them in vinegar.
I even had a friend who chopped his in half and filled it with Polyfilla,
but to true conkerers, there's no conker tampering allowed.
There's only one way to play the sport,
and that is with a pure, unsullied conker!
Now, how on earth do you find this many conkers?
Well, people who are involved in the conker championships,
they leave huge carrier bags full of them outside of our front door.
So we then take them all in.
We have to grade them. We'll say,
right, what's the best size? Probably something like that.
If we say golf ball and a bit smaller,
that's what we're really looking for.
-What about flat ones? Do they make good conkers?
-No, they don't.
I always remember calling those cheese cutters.
I thought that was quite good cos it would start a crack in it, no?
-That's why I always lost as a child!
Now the first records of conkering date back to the Isle of Wight in 1858.
Although a lot of people think of this as a British tradition,
there are some conkering aficionados who have taken it further afield.
Stuart, I understand that you're actually from France now?
Yes, I live in France. I've lived there for 14 years,
where I am the president of the Federation Francaise des Conkers!
I got involved when we first went to the Dordogne in France.
Conkers lay on the ground, nobody touches them.
So we decided to have a impromptu conker competition in front of a bar in our little village.
A few local Brits turned up to play.
That continued for two or three years, until one year, in 1995,
a young Frenchman, Stefan Jally, won the French conker championships.
That suddenly gave it immense credibility to all the local French people.
Am I right in thinking that you take it so seriously that you even
practise through the summer months?
We have training conkers made by our manufacturer
who actually produces these so that during the summer
we can train throughout the year with unbreakable conkers.
That's one the reasons that the French team is so strong,
they continue playing throughout the year and not just in autumn.
Now, Stefan, I understand that you were the French champion?
-Yes, I was.
-What do they call you?
The Cantona Of Conkers.
Cantona Of Conkers!
These are your training conkers?
Yes, conkers are normally in October.
The rest of the year we practise with that.
First of all, where should I be aiming for?
The best is here.
Right, on the top.
-What sort of length? About that?
-So just hold it down?
I don't need any more tips.
I was a bit of an expert as a schoolboy, actually.
Well, I'm kitted out with my conker.
I've got the top tips from the Cantona Of Conkers.
Now here I am to rescue British pride from the French!
My conker's smashed to bits.
Ben Fogle at the International Conker Championships in Ashton.
I've now travelled a few miles south from Coton
to another of Northamptonshire's grand country houses,
just outside of the village of Holdenby.
Holdenby House, or Holnby as it is known locally,
is the surviving wing of a huge Tudor palace,
built by Sir Christopher Hatton.
Hatton was the Lord Chancellor to Queen Elizabeth I
and one of the most powerful men in England.
The palace reflected his exalted status.
When it was finished in 1983,
it was the largest and most glittering house in all of England.
It's also thought that Hatton built the palace to impress his Queen,
who allegedly visited only once, before he died nine years later
with vast debts of £42,000.
Sadly, his heir could not afford to run the house
and sold it to King James I in 1605.
Over the following years, King James I was a frequent visitor to Holdenby.
At a time of history when a great rebellion was gathering momentum,
one that would change the future of the English monarchy forever.
Charles I succeeded his father King James in 1625.
He hoped to unite the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland
into a new single kingdom fulfilling the dreams of his father.
But trouble loomed.
Like his father, Charles believed in the divine power of the crown,
but this concept was radically opposed by the Parliamentarians or Roundheads.
Eventually this fundamental difference on opinion
on the power of the monarchy led to the English Civil War
which raged on and off between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists for nearly ten years.
Just a few miles north of Holdenby, one of the most significant battles of this war took place.
The Royalists were led by Charles I and Prince Rupert,
the Parliamentarians by Oliver Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax.
In 2004, Peter Snow told the story.
Charles, Rupert and the Royalist army
arrived here in the town of Market Harborough in June 1645.
At this stage, they had no clear idea where the New Model Army was.
In fact, Fairfax and his Roundheads were hard on their heels.
They were just 15 miles away and in very good cheer.
The New Model Army was spoiling for a fight.
Soon word reached the Royalists that the enemy was close by.
The moment he received the news,
Charles called a council of war here in Market Harborough.
The outcome - rather than march on north,
they would turn around and confront the Parliamentarians.
In the next 24 hours, the most decisive battle
of this protracted Civil War would be played out.
And the battlefield? A hilly area between Market Harborough
and the village of Naseby six miles to the south-west.
Early on the morning of Saturday 14th June, 1645, at 6:00am,
the Royalists moved south, out of Market Harborough
and formed a battle line along that high ground about three miles away over there.
This is that ridge just here.
The King and Prince Rupert positioned their forces all the way along that ridge.
This piece of high ground here, where I'm standing now, is where
Cromwell and Fairfax rode up to, to look at the lie of the land.
They'd moved their New Model Army up here,
just slightly north from the village of Naseby,
which is just off down there.
They could clearly see the Royalists fanning out on that other ridge over there,
so they were in no doubt the King and his men wanted to do battle.
But there was one snag.
The trouble was, the New Model Army's position was too good,
and actually made a battle less likely.
The slope in front of them was so steep,
it would be suicide for enemy cavalry to charge up it -
fine for defence, but not if you wanted to provoke an attack,
and that was exactly what Cromwell wanted to do.
So, he said to Fairfax, "I beseech you,
"draw back to yonder hill, which will encourage the enemy to charge us."
And so they agreed to shunt their entire battle line sideways
to some more gentle ground to the west.
The Royalists followed the lead -
also eager to bring the conflict to a head.
Both sides now began to assemble on either side of a valley
that was to become the battlefield of Naseby.
By 10.00am, the two armies had moved to their new positions,
the Royalists along that slope over there,
the Parliamentarians up there.
That Royalist ridge over there is just here.
The two sides were on opposite slopes,
facing each other with 800 metres of flat ground between them.
The two battle lines were about a mile wide from end to end.
Estimates vary, but the King had roughly 4,500 infantry
in three lines in the centre.
The King himself, dressed in full plate armour,
was back with his reserves in the third line.
On the flanks, the Royalist cavalry -
around 10,000 Royalists all together.
Against them, around 13,500 men of the New Model Army.
Their cavalry were also split into two wings.
Their right wing was commanded by Oliver Cromwell.
In the centre here, were the infantry.
Neither side had a great battle plan.
Both thought they would win in a straight contest, a head-on clash.
It was not strategy,
but strength, courage and discipline that would decide the battle.
They're firing from the hedges!
The battle ebbed and flowed with terrible violence.
At first, the Royalists had the upper hand,
with the Parliamentarian New Model Army fleeing and coming close to collapse.
But at a crucial moment,
Cromwell made the key decision to split his cavalry in half.
One half pursued the royalist cavalry,
the other swung left to support his flailing infantry.
This daring decision worked,
turning the battle in favour of Cromwell and Fairfax's New Model Army.
Here on the fields of Northamptonshire,
the Parliamentarians had won one of the most significant battles in British history.
At the end of the Civil War, with the Royalists defeated,
Holdenby House turned from palace to prison.
The King, Charles I, was held here for five months in 1647.
However, it wasn't prison as you and I might know it,
as the King was allowed to live in comfort,
with just 120 of his own servants to look after him.
The library was part of the original Elizabethan palace,
and has strong associations with Charles I.
Whilst Charles was here, he wrote a pamphlet which, when it was published, was entitled
The Portraiture Of His Sacred Majesty In His Solitudes and Sufferings.
"If thou will turn the hearts of my people to thyself in pity to me in loyalty
"and to one another in charity, if that will quench the flames
"and withdraw the fuel of these civil wars..."
His words really give a sense that he felt he was chosen by God
and only answerable to God.
Around the time that Charles was writing his pamphlet,
this picture was painted, called His Clouded Majesty,
and in it, you can see Charles with a backdrop all dark and moody,
with rumbling clouds and dark rock, next to his son James.
It clearly reflected his mood on the Civil War at the time.
Charles was taken from Holdenby in June 1657 and eventually tried for,
"Subverting the fundamental laws and liberties
"of the nation and maliciously making war on the Parliament and people of England."
In 1649 he became the first British monarch to be executed.
After this, Holdenby fell into decay,
and much of the palace's original stone was used
to build other houses in the county.
Then, towards the end of the 19th century, the great, great grandparents
of the current owner took the one remaining wing
and adapted it into the house that you see today.
There may only be an eighth of the original palace left,
but as grand country houses go, it's still pretty impressive.
But in amongst all the history, my favourite room houses
a collection of unusual pianos from the British Musical Museum.
They're a passion of Holdenby's current owner, James Lowther.
Wow! What an amazing room!
-Full of pianos!
-Yep, full of pianos.
Shall we have a little tour around? What about this one?
This is probably the best piano in the room,
but not necessarily in the best condition at the moment.
This is a Broadwood from about 1780,
and this is the exact make of piano
which Beethoven would have been playing when he died.
In fact, after he died, there was a picture of his piano.
Because he was deaf by that time,
and he couldn't hear, so he actually sawed the legs off and put it
on the ground and he could listen to it through the vibrations through the ground.
-It doesn't really...
-Does it play?
Well, it's missing a few notes.
Beethoven would actually WANT to die if he heard this but...
-I'm sure he wouldn't!
-HE PLAYS BEETHOVEN'S "Moonlight Sonata"
It's like he's in the room!
It has got quite a tinny sound.
It has, but the vibrations are very apparent.
Great! Not a huge range either.
It didn't have the power, and that's what used to frustrate him.
Because it hasn't got a metal frame.
So, he wanted to make a lot of noise,
and he was deaf, so he couldn't really hear what he was playing.
This one is quite fun. This is quite a lot later.
Funnily enough, it's made by the same maker,
but that was this century, Broadwood.
But the great thing about this piano, it's what they call a transposing piano.
If you're like me and really bad at the piano and you like to play in C, so...
-HE PLAYS CHORDS
-No sharps or flats.
No sharps or flats.
So if you want to then make the same sound,
but in a different key, but play the same notes,
-you just move the keyboard.
-What a cheat!
Still no sharps or flats!
And the composer Berlin used to use this a lot when he was
doing his musicals, because he liked to play in C as well.
-But obviously, you can't play everything in C.
-No, true enough.
This is a strange-looking piano.
This is actually probably,
you'd probably call this the Les Dawson piano.
It's actually an upright... grand piano but it's upright.
So it's got all the length of a grand piano...
All the length of a grand piano, but it's an upright piano. And the sound is very honky tonk.
HE PLAYS "The Entertainer"
And also massively out of tune!
So even if I'm not trying to play like Les Dawson,
it actually sounds like Les Dawson. It actually needs tuning - it would sound better.
-I love that!
-That's rather splendid.
This one looks rather modern, over here.
This one is actually very modern.
This was made for the exhibition in 1939, in the States.
And actually, the two great things about the piano -
as you can see, it says, "As used by TRH Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose,"
which is the Queen and Princess Margaret.
-Royal fingers have touched this keyboard.
But the fun thing about it is...
it doesn't all work now, but the idea was, you turned on the radio here
and tuned into your favourite... The Home Service or whatever it was, or The Light Programme,
and then you would play along with it, and twiddle the dials here.
And play along! That's genius.
And then if there was nothing very good on the radio,
you could play along, you'd put your vinyl disc on
and then you would play along to that.
-Kind of karaoke for the piano.
-It's sort of karaoke, yes. Modern karaoke.
I've really enjoyed discovering the incredible history of Holdenby
and its quirky collection of pianos,
but it's time for me to head off and continue my journey through the county.
The Northamptonshire countryside is a patchwork landscape
of arable fields, ancient churches and pretty villages.
Like anywhere else, it has undergone changes, but walking through it
remains a simple way to connect with the past, and with nature.
Back in the early 19th century, one of Northamptonshire's most famous sons
celebrated the beauty of such scenery and traditional rural life in his poetry.
"The landscape laughs in spring and stretches on
"Its growing distance of refreshing dyes
"From pewit-haunted flats, the floods are gone
"And, like a carpet, the green meadow lies
"In merry hues and edged wi' yellow flowers
"The trickling brook veins sparkling to the sun
"Like to young may-flies dancing wi' the hours..."
That was The Landscape Laughs In Spring by John Clare,
and what I like about Clare's poetry is that he used words
that were only spoken locally, in Northamptonshire dialect.
Words like pooty for snail and pewit for lapwing,
and this one, which is brilliant, sounds like something Roald Dahl would have written,
which is, moldiwarp for mole.
Today, Clare is recognised by scholars as one of our greatest nature poets.
But his life was dogged by troubles
and he has remained comparatively unknown.
In 2004, his biographer, Jonathan Bate, told his story.
John Clare was born in the little Northamptonshire village of Helpston
in the year 1793.
It was a time of great agricultural hardship.
It was also during the early years of the French Revolution,
when there were serious concerns about war and social unrest.
So he was a war baby,
born in a time of poverty, in a community of great poverty.
Clare had a fantastic eye and a fantastic memory.
So he always remembered his childhood days,
in particular walking to the next village,
a village called Glinton, where he went to school.
And as he walked through the fields to school,
he just took in every impression around him.
There's a lot of noise in Clare's poetry.
You can hear the sounds of childhood, the sounds of boys shouting to each other.
And he seems to have been able to write about childhood
with an absolute freshness and a complete lack of sentimentality.
"Harken that happy shout
"The schoolhouse door is open thrown and out the younkers teem!
"Ah, happy boys!
"Well may ye turn and smile
"When joys are yours that never cost a sigh
"Might I have my choice of joy below,
"I'd only ask to be a boy again."
Once he left school, Clare got a variety of casual jobs,
maybe looking after horses in the field, ploughing.
He got a rather more permanent job at the pub next door to his cottage, called the Blue Bell,
where he was a pot boy, which basically meant cleaning all the pots in the kitchen.
He spent a lot of time in that pub, though, as did his father, Parker Clare -
loved to go to the pub and sing ballads and folksongs there.
But of course, spending all the time in the pub did mean
that from a fairly early age, Clare got quite keen on the beer.
Clare's whole mental landscape was shaped by the life of his village.
There's a wonderful passage in his autobiography
where he says he sets out one morning to walk towards the horizon.
And when he does get away from his village, he says, "I've gone out of my knowledge."
There's a real sense his whole identity is bound up with his place,
and that's one of the things which makes him our great poet of place.
For Clare, the open fields leading to the commons and the heath
symbolise an extraordinary sense of freedom,
whereas once the enclosure came,
there was a real sense of restriction.
At that point, fences would go up, no trespassing signs would go up,
ditches would be erected, hedgerows,
and you would even have streams being redirected in their course to mark out boundaries.
"Enclosure came and trampled on the grave of labour's rights
"and left the poor a slave.
"Fence now meets fence in owner's little bounds of fields and meadows large as garden grounds..."
Clair finally found his way into print in the year 1820.
His publisher was a very interesting man called John Taylor, who had been publishing Keats
without much success, but was on the lookout for a kind of rural equivalent of Keats,
a brilliant young poet with a new voice,
and he found such a poet in Clare.
It was very difficult for Clare that at precisely the time
that he was being taken up in the London literary world
was also the time that he was having a family.
And he felt deeply torn between his family and the need
to earn money for his family back home in his little village
and the London literary life, which in some ways he found incredibly exciting,
because he was among other poets,
but in other ways he always felt alienated from.
He began to have delusions, to see what he called blue devils.
His friends in London persuaded him to see
a famous doctor called Dr Darling, who was actually Keats's doctor.
But in many ways the trip to London made matters worse.
There was this profound sense of alienation,
and the more time went on, the more Clare seemed unable
to maintain any kind of mental stability.
He was deeply depressed and he may even have been violent.
He certainly had very violent mood swings
and his language could suddenly become very obscene.
His wife just couldn't cope with this, having a young family as well.
So he was committed to a lunatic asylum.
I think Clare was unfortunate in living for so long.
The thing about Keats and Shelley and Byron
is they had very glamorous early deaths so they were rapidly immortalised.
Clare carried on living in the asylum for over 20 years.
The last ten years or so of his life he was declining into senile dementia,
writing just occasionally but not in any way in the prolific way he did before.
Then he had a series of strokes.
His life was really rather a slow fade out.
After many troubled years, John Clare died in Northampton on 20th May 1864 in his 71st year.
It was during his final years at the asylum that he was in the habit of walking down here
to All Saints Church in the centre of Northampton
to sit under the portico and compose.
It's thought that while he was here
he penned his most famous poem of all, I Am.
"I am, yet what I am none cares or knows,
"My friends forsake me like a memory lost
"I am the self-consumer of my woes..."
"I long for scenes where man has never trod
"A place where woman never smiled or wept
"There to abide with my creator, God
"And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept
"Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
"The grass below, Above, the vaulted sky..."
Poor old soul, he clearly had the terrible blues
and found a great deal of comfort in his memories of the countryside.
Despite the sad end to his life,
John Clare is now placed in the company of Romantic poets
like Keats, Byron and Shelley -
an equal among some of England's greatest poets.
My Country Tracks journey through Northamptonshire
is now taking me just over the county border into Bedfordshire,
to a former US Air Force base near the village of Podington.
I'm at the most famous drag car racing track outside of America.
But before I get to grips with drag racing,
here's the Country Tracks weather for the week ahead.
I've been on a journey through Northamptonshire.
I started by exploring the county's tradition
for shoe making in Northampton
and then went north to Coton Manor Gardens
to meet some exotic feathered friends.
From there, I travelled south to Holdenby Palace,
to unearth the story of Charles I and the battle of Naseby.
The Northamptonshire countryside and the poetry of John Clare
then brought me just over the county border with Bedfordshire
to the Santa Pod Raceway.
Santa Pod has earned the reputation as being the home of European drag car racing.
It hosts a number of events and races throughout the year,
featuring some of the largest car and bike engines in the world.
And yet relatively little is known about this motorsport,
which has a following all across the world.
Drag racing took off in the UK during the 1960s, when many old,
disused air bases around the country were converted to racing tracks.
I'm meeting up with former chief starter Stuart Bradbury,
known back in the '60s for his outfit and signature starting dance.
So you're going to have to forgive me,
I'm completely new to drag car racing - what's the basics?
Well, the basics is basically two cars starting from
a standing start, a full quarter-mile strip.
The first one to the end is the winner.
-They've just got a quarter-of-a-mile?
-That's not that long, actually.
-It's not that long, but in that period of time,
these guys will reach well over 300mph, from a standing start.
-Yeah. We need another quarter-of-a-mile to stop.
-So it's a longer track than the finishing line says.
-It is, yes.
-That must have G forces involved?
Yeah, you probably pull four or five Gs off a start line, with one of these big cars.
-So what's this strange-looking vehicle here?
-This is what we call a top fuel dragster.
This is the top end of the sport.
This car would produce something like 8,000 horsepower at the rear wheels.
So it's pretty powerful.
What about this one, it looks a touch more normal, though not completely...?
It's more like a conventional-bodied car, it's what we called a funny car.
-I can see why!
-Similar type of engine,
but the engine is in front of the driver,
which is a little bit more of a problem to control and drive.
-Oh, is it?
-Because the weight characteristics are different.
Also, you've got the engine in front of you, and if it does have a problem or explode
or blow up, then it's not very nice in there.
What sort of fuel do these cars use?
I'm assuming it's not just your standard down-the-garage stuff?
No, a mixture of nitromethane and methanol.
The big cars use probably around about 85% nitromethane
and the rest methanol fuel.
That sounds expensive apart from anything else.
It can be quite expensive.
You're probably looking at about £40 per gallon,
something like that, and they use about 15 gallons a run, so that gives you some idea.
-It can be quite...
-It's not a cheap sport.
But that gives you the horsepower as well.
Absolutely. Have there been any records broken on this very track?
The record now for a top fuel dragster here
is 4.57 seconds at 320mph,
which is the Lucas Oils top fuel dragster.
Andy Carter, who's a British guy.
And that's comparable with what they do in America.
One driver at the start of an already-impressive career is Paige Wheeler,
a local junior dragster who's only 12-years-old,
but already the winner of the FIA European finals.
-How are you doing, Paige, are you all right?
-I'm all right, thank you.
Fantastic. So how on earth did you get into this?
Well, when we moved up here, we saw that there was a racetrack,
and my dad wanted to show me what racing was all about, really.
So, Dad had the interest to begin with,
-but then you really decided you wanted to do it.
Did you have to persuade him quite hard?
I think it was about a year I had to persuade him, yeah.
What was it made you think you wanted to have a go? Didn't you think it was dangerous or...?
I did think it was a bit dangerous, but it just looked so fun to be able to go down there,
cos all of the big cars go down there, I wanted to do it as well.
My goodness. So what was it like the first time you got in and had a go?
Well, my dad told me to take it easy and slightly press the pedal,
but I pushed it right the way down and it felt amazing.
And this must be quite weird going to school as well,
having this other side to your life?
Yeah. At school I'm actually really quiet to everyone else.
And then here I'm just going down the track at 76mph!
So, what's your ultimate ambition?
When I'm 18 I want to be able to go into pro mod,
which is quite fast for an 18-year-old.
And then I would like to be a professional top fuel driver.
But I doubt I'll be able to do it,
cos my dad doesn't like me doing this already.
And I doubt he'll let me go into pro mod.
A protective dad, that's understandable, really.
-You've clearly got lots of ambition.
Now, you're going to have a little race today and show me how it's done, aren't you?
-Well, good luck.
My journey has come to an end just over the Northamptonshire border,
but I've plotted a fascinating course through this county.
Grand stately homes and gardens,
a tragic lost poet and a great traditional craft
have led me to a drag racing track built on a wartime airfield.
Look at the speed of that! She's disappeared!
What a way to end my journey!
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