“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Britain's only Blue Post Box?

On a recent trip to Windsor I was surprised see my first blue Royal Mail post box, which is located near Windsor Castle where the High Street joins St Alban’s Street. Blue post boxes seem to be a very rare thing indeed and some sources suggest that this may be the last still to be found in the country. Blue post boxes began to be introduced into some British cities and other locations of note in 1930 and were used for postal airmail services to send and receive mail mainly to and from Europe. The blue post box at Windsor Castle, which is near the site of the old Windsor Post Office (1887 – 1966) commemorates the first United Kingdom airmail service. On the 9th September 1911, Gustav Hamel flew a Blériot monoplane (which looks a bit of a death-trap) from Hendon aerodrome in London and landed on the Long Walk behind Windsor Castle. This 19 mile flight took only 18 minutes and his cargo was a sack of mail celebrating the coronation of King George V. Following this first official airmail flight the use of airmail slowly increased and became firmly established in the 1920’s when improved post World War I aircraft and pilots became available to support the service.

The use of these bespoke blue post boxes was short lived however and by the end of 1938 they had fallen out of use. A number of reasons for their withdrawal are citied including: the rise of air travel; the build-up to the Second World War and the re-allocation of aircraft assets; and the cost associated with having bespoke post boxes solely for airmail. Whatever the true reason, come the end of 1938 it was acceptable for airmail to be posted in normal red post boxes and the only reference to the blue boxes remained in the blue airmail stickers that adorned the envelopes of airmail letters.

Gustav Hamel (25 June 1889 – 23 May 1914) who safely delivered the UK’s first airmail in 1911, sadly got “lost in the post” himself. Hamel disappeared on the 23rd May 1914 whilst returning from France in a Morane-Saulnier monoplane that he had just collected. Whilst his aircraft was never found a body was found on the 6th July 1914 by the crew of a fishing vessel in the English Channel near Boulogne. The crew did not retrieve the body, but their description of clothing on the corpse and the fact that one of the personnel effects of the deceased was a road map of southern England led some to conclude that the body was Hamel.

Windsor's commemorative blue airmail post box.

If unusual post boxes are of interest, then Windsor is home to another peculiar example. Located on the High Street next to the Guild Hall is a green hexagonal Penfold post box dating from around 1872. Between 1866 and 1879 green was the standard colour for all British post boxes, however from 1874 they were all re-painted to the now traditional post box red to enable them to be more easily seen.

Pictures: Berkshire (June 2016).

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Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The Shoes that Undertook the First "Grand Tour"

The Church of St Peter & St Paul in the village of Odcombe in Somerset is home to an usual monument. The monument in question can be found inside the church, attached to one of the walls is a stone carving of a pair of old shoes. This stone carving is actually a replacement for a real pair of shoes that were lost in the 1860’s when work was carried out on the church. So whose old shoes are worthy enough of being immortalised in a village church?

The original shoes belonged to a man from Odcombe called Thomas Coryat (circa 1577 – 1617) who was a wanderer and early travel writer, who documented his journeys in an era where traveling the world was an extremely challenging pursuit.

The Oxford educated Coryat considered himself a witty and intellectual person, and he spent an early part of his adult life (1603 to 1607) employed in the court of the eldest son of James I (Prince Henry). Sadly for Coryat he was described as being “some form of court jester”, and presumably chose to undertake an impressive feat to prove himself to his contemporaries. In May 1608 Coryat set off on his first trip, a tour of Europe, which saw him visit France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands before returning to England. This 1,975 mile journey took Coryat until October 1608 and saw him walk around half of the distance (nearly 1000 miles) over the course of 5 months.

On his return from Europe, Coryat published an account of his travels entitled “Coryat's crudities : hastily gobled up in five moneths travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia commonly called the Grisons country, Helvetia alias Switzerland, some parts of high Germany and the Netherlands : newly digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe in the county of Somerset, and now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling members of this kingdome”.

Coryat’s first journey is said to have resulted in a number of changes to English culture.  Firstly Coryat is credited with the introduction of the table fork to England - the table fork having become part of Italian etiquette in 16th century. Coryat is also said to have introduced the word “umbrella” into the English language, which apparently arose from his description of how Italians shielded themselves from the sun! Coryat’s journey is also said to have been the first Grand Tour of Europe, and his travel writing is said to have inspired wealthy upper-class young men to follow in his footsteps. The custom of the Grand Tour became popular from the 1660's onwards and remained a rite of passage for wealthy upper-class young men well into the 19th Century.

In 1612 Coryat set off again on another journey, this one taking him to Greece, through the Mediterranean to Constantinople and onwards to Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, Coryat decided to walk to  Moghul India, a mere 2,700 miles, and he arrived in the court of Emperor Jahangir in Ajmer, Rajasthan in 1615.  Coryat’s second travelogue entitled “Thomas Coriate traueller for the English vvits: greeting. From the court of the Great Mogvl, resident at the towne of Asmere, in easterne India“ was published in 1616 and was an account of his adventures which included seeing the Great Mogul’s pet unicorns!

Coryat’s travels are not just amazing for the distances that he walked, but for the way in which he undertook his travels. Coryat did not seek to make arrangements in advance, but instead he took things as they came and relied on the kindness of the people he encountered to get him through. This approach saw him get in trouble more than once, with him having to flee from angry farmers whose vineyards he snacked on, and having to dodge an angry Rabbi who wanted to circumcise him.

Unsurprisingly for such an avid wanderer, Coryat did not die at home in his own bed. Instead Coryat died of dysentery while traveling in India in December 1617.

The Church of St Peter & St Paul.

A stone carving of Thomas Coryat's shoes.

The front piece of Coryat's crudities. The illustrations labeled A to N depict some of his experiences on his travels. Note the women in the centre being sick on his head! She apparently represents the German people and their love of boozing.

Somerset (March 2016).

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