Category Archives: Life-enhancing experiences

Home of polite literature

Portico Library, Manchester

Manchester is not only the home of the oldest free public reference library in the United Kingdom – Chetham’s – but boasts one of the thirty-odd surviving independent subscription libraries in the country, the Portico Library, founded by a consortium of Manchester businessmen in 1802 and opened on Mosley Street in 1806. 

Originally set in a fashionable part of town, the Portico Library provided an exclusive, politically neutral meeting-place for the professional and business communities, enabling members to read, research and keep up with the news in quiet, comfortable surroundings.

The architect Thomas Harrison of Chester provided an impressive entrance through an Ionic portico which led to a galleried newsroom lit by a glazed dome, “larger by 700 square feet than the coffee room of the Athenaeum in Liverpool”.  Bookcases lined the first-floor gallery.  The total cost of construction was £6,881 5s 3d.

By the 1830s the properties on Mosley Street were given over to trade, as the merchants moved out to such suburban developments as Victoria Park.  Members commuted into town for business and used the library mostly in the daytime.  By 1900 most of the members were described as “gentlemen”, though some were cotton manufacturers and merchants.

The Portico Library is rightly proud of its distinguished members.  Paul Roget (1779-1869), a physician at the Infirmary and the author of the famous Thesaurus, was the first Secretary.  The scientist John Dalton (1766-1844), a lecturer in a Manchester dissenting academy, was accorded honorary membership in return for “superintend[ing] the going of the clock”.  The Rev William Gaskell (1805-1844), minister at Cross Street Chapel and a noted academic, was Chairman for thirty years and is commemorated in the library by a portrait and a bust.

Others included the engineer Sir Joseph Whitworth Bt (1803-1887), the cotton manufacturer, merchant John Rylands (1801-1888) whose widow founded the Library that bears his name on Deansgate, and the industrialist and politician Ernest Simon (latterly Baron Simon of Wythemshawe, 1879-1960).

Members’ families visited the Library from the outset.  An irritable notice of 1817 declared “Children should not on any account be suffered to…touch the prints, or to turn over the leaves”.  “Ladies of the respective families of the Subscribers” were allowed to use the Library, and one of them, Mrs Ann Frost, was allowed membership in 1853, though limited formal membership for women was only introduced in 1873. 

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the social and cultural environment in which the Library operated changed increasingly rapidly.  Though the cotton trade remained robust, Manchester’s prominence in national politics had shifted to the Chamberlains’ Birmingham.  Municipal free libraries, scattered across the city, reduced the need for the Portico’s book collection.  The Proprietors debated at length amalgamating with the Athenaeum, selling the book-collection, or selling the entire building.

A practical solution was found after the end of the Great War.  In 1920 the ground floor and basement was leased to the Bank of Athens, which paid for an internal glazed dome to allow the library to occupy the first-floor level with an independent entrance on Charlotte Street.  The Manchester Evening News commented that if the Portico “cannot claim to be rolling in money, it may claim that there will be plenty of money rolling beneath it”.

The building was listed in 1952, which both ensured its survival and limited the scope for adaptation.

Eventually, after Lloyds’ Bank, successors to the Bank of Athens, moved out, the internal dome was replaced by a solid floor, separating first-floor library from the area below, which became a public house called The Bank

This transformed library was inaugurated in 1987, and its flexibility led to a rebirth of the institution, which in addition to offering books, periodicals and light refreshments as it always did, mounts exhibitions, hosts performance events, hosts weddings, awards literary prizes and welcomes outside visitors.

A visit to the Portico Library forms part of the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour.  For further details, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.


Montecatini Alto

Monticatini Terme, Italy: Funicolare

Monticatini Terme, Italy: Funicolare

The town clustering round the Montecatini Terme spa is relatively modern:  until the eighteenth century the area on which it is built was a swamp.

The old town is a small, perfect Tuscan hill town, Montecatini Alto, strongly suggestive of the better known San Gimignano, with towers, churches and a market place perched at an altitude of 1,000 feet above the valley floor. Of the twenty-five medieval towers built in Montecatini, six survive.

The easy way to Montecatini Alto is by the Funicolare connecting the historic hill-town with the baths in the valley bottom.  This one-kilometre line opened in 1898, in the presence of local resident Giuseppe Verdi.  The track was blown up in 1944 and restored in 1949.  There was a further closure for upgrading between 1977 and 1982.

The two cars, named Gigio and Gigia (also numbered 1 and 2 for the avoidance of ambiguity) are inclined, with three compartments and external balconies front and back.  Gradient markers towards the top indicate increasing gradients from 25% to 38.5%.  The views are spectacular and the experience didn’t feel vertiginous.  The line stops for lunch between 1.00pm and 2.30pm.  A round-trip, taking less than ten minutes, costs €7:  https://www.funicolare-montecatini.it/orari-e-prezzi/timetable-and-prices.

At the top I visited the quiet little Church of St Joseph & St Philip and, next to it, the Torre dell’Orologio, a clock tower with an unusual dial showing only six instead of twelve numbers.  The Torre dell’Orologio was fitted with a dial facing northwards across the town by 1552, and the existing mechanism dates from 1695.  It chimes “alla Romana”, the Roman striking system in which a low note represents five and a high note one.

At the opposite end of the main square, the Piazza Giuseppe Giusti, I climbed another hill to visit the Church of St Peter the Apostle, which has an odd little museum, including a disconcerting relic of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of Montecatini.

There’s an authoritative account of Montecatini Alto at https://experiencedtraveller.com/journal/2016-08-21-montecatini-alto-in-tuscany-medieval-meets-modern.

Montecatini Terme

Montecatini Terme, Italy: Tettuccio Spa

Montecatini Terme, Italy: Tettuccio Spa

I’d never have found my way to Monticatini Terme if I hadn’t booked a Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ holiday [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany] which was based in the excellent Hotel Francia & Quirinale [https://www.franciaequirinale.it/en], providing four-star quality with individuality and amenity, meticulously efficient service, an elegant lobby, a spacious lounge with many settees and a grand piano and an equally spacious restaurant with a separate area for private parties.

Two minutes’ walk from the hotel is the Parco delle Terme, which contains the spa from which the town takes its modern name, strongly reminiscent of Buxton or Harrogate and utterly enjoyable:  https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://www.termemontecatini.it/&prev=search.  Open courtyards with columned arcades open one into another, with fountains and an apsidal concert stage for music.

Baths on this site are documented back to 1201, and were reported by the Montecatini physician Ugolino Simoni in 1417.  In modern times the spa was developed by Grand Duke Peter Leopold, who sponsored the construction of the Bagno Regio (1773), the Terme Leopoldine (1775) and the Terme Tettuccio (1779).

The heyday of the resort was the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Though some parts are in need of restoration they evoke the time when the composer Verdi lived in the town, with such neighbours as Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Beniamino Gigli and Luigi Pirandello.

A series of elaborate marble counters offers a variety of waters through labelled taps:  Rinfresco, which “promotes the elimination of waste through the renal pathways and restores lost salts in sports training”, was the only water that was actually flowing and for lack of a cup I couldn’t drink any of it.  It wasn’t very warm.  Behind the counters a series of tiled pictures show the ages of man, voluptuously suggesting how water improves health at every age.

I had lunch – smoked salmon and remarkably tasty white bread accompanied by a litre of aqua naturale – in the high, domed, dignified Caffè Le Terme, far too grand to be called a café in any language but Italian.  On a very hot day the air conditioning was natural and effective – huge doors wide open on three sides of the high-ceilinged room.

Elsewhere in the park from the main complex are other spa buildings, the Terme Torretta (1904), the Terme Excelsior (1907) and the Terme Tamerici (1911).

At the edge of the park, I booked a table for dinner at the Profumo Garden Bistrot [https://www.thefork.it/ristorante/profumo-garden-bistrot/307299?cc=18174-54f] and later enjoyed a superlative five-course meal in an open-air setting, as the hot day cooled to warm and the sun dipped lower in the sky.  Perfect.

Opera on tap

Opera House, Royal Tunbridge Wells

Tunbridge Wells was a staid and respectable spa town, not over-supplied with theatres in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Mrs Sarah Baker’s Tunbridge Wells Theatre, opened in the Pantiles in 1802, was used as a theatre for about fifty years and then converted into a Corn Exchange which still exists.

In the decade when the borough became Royal Tunbridge Wells, thanks to the merry monarch, King Edward VII, the Opera House was promoted by Mr J Jarvis and opened in 1902.

It was designed by John Priestly Briggs (1869-1944) who among much else built the Grand Theatre, Doncaster (1899, with J W Chapman).

The splendid Baroque exterior includes a range of shops on three sides and a balcony above the entrance leading out of the dress circle bar.  The central dome was originally surmounted by a nude statue of Mercury which was removed after the First World War.

The intimate auditorium, originally seating 1,100, is lavishly decorated with a dress circle and  balcony , and a central saucer dome above the stalls.

The proscenium is 28 feet wide and the stage is 32 feet deep, with a grid 44 feet high.  The proscenium arch has brackets in the upper corners and is surmounted by relief figures representing Music and Drama.

The eccentric local landowner John Christie (1882-1962) reopened the Opera House as a cinema in 1925.  He had taken over the organ-builder William Hill & Son & Norman & Beard Ltd in 1923, and installed an ambitious five-manual organ with pipework located on stage and the console in the enlarged orchestra pit.

He produced a wide range of shows, including musical comedy and Gilbert & Sullivan, before he set up his own celebrated opera house on his nearby estate at Glyndebourne:  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opera/what-to-see/glyndebourne-the-love-story-that-started-it-all.

The organ was sold to a New Zealand buyer in 1929 but the stage remained in use for annual amateur operatic performances from 1932 to 1966.

The history of the building after John Christie’s time is conventional – refurbished in 1931, bomb-damaged but repaired and reopened in 1949, taken over by Essoldo in 1954.

In 1966 the local council refused a bingo licence and listed it Grade II.  After a couple of years of controversy, the final film-show (Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons) took place on February 3rd 1968, and the Opera House reopened as a bingo club in July the same year.

The bingo club, successively operated by Essoldo, Ladbrokes, Top Rank and Cascade, eventually closed in 1995, and after a public campaign to prevent demolition, the Opera House was taken over by the J D Wetherspoon chain in 1996 and adapted as a public house that can be used for opera one day each year.

J D Wetherspoon has an outstanding reputation for transforming redundant historic buildings into enjoyable places to eat and drink.  By combining business acumen with sensitivity to the localities in which it trades, the company enables heritage structures to earn their keep and bring enjoyment to customers.

At the Tunbridge Wells Opera House the seating remains in the dress circle and, unused, in the gallery.  The boxes are practical but cramped, and the stained glass panels in the doors to each box and the vestibule at the back of the dress circle are restored.  The stage house retains its fly floors and bridge, and the original lighting board and the counterweights for the house tabs remain in situ.

Though there’s nothing scheduled in the calendar at the time of writing, it’s easy to set up an alert for the next Tunbridge Wells opera experience:  https://www.ents24.com/tunbridge-wells-events/wetherspoon-opera-house-pub.

And in the meantime, any day of the week, breakfast to suppertime, anyone can walk in and enjoy a complete Edwardian auditorium with good pub food, beverages and a wide range of drinks at very reasonable prices.

A Bus Ride Round Attercliffe

Sheffield Corporation Leyland Titan 687 (RWB 67)

The first two Bus Ride Round Attercliffe trips in April and June 2019 have sold out, and we’re now taking bookings for a further follow-up trip on Sunday September 29th 2019, starting at the Penny Black pub, Pond Hill, across the road from the Sheffield Interchange at 2.00pm.

The idea came from the popular Walks Round Attercliffe that I’ve conducted as part of Heritage Open Days, which continue to be oversubscribed.

The Lower Don Valley – that is, the villages of Attercliffe, Carbrook and Darnall – was the powerhouse of Sheffield’s heavy steel industry and was where many of its workers lived.  

Even though some of the remaining historic buildings are inaccessible to visitors, and much has gone altogether, there’s still plenty to see.

Indeed, because the Heritage Open Day walk takes two hours to cover less than a mile of the Attercliffe Road, I looked for an appealing way of driving around to show people more of the valley’s rich heritage.

The star of the event is a 1954 Sheffield Corporation Leyland Titan double-deck bus – no 687 (RWB 87) – immaculately restored and part of the South Yorkshire Transport Museum fleet.

From a top-deck seat there’s a grandstand view, on and off the main roads – industrial sites, schools, pubs, places of worship and sites associated with crimes, riots and the Blitz.

There may be changes to the original itinerary for the September Bus Ride, because fresh historic sites might by then be available, but the trip will include visits to the Zion Graveyard (opened in 1805) and the English Institute of Sport (opened in 2003), along with other buildings from different periods of Attercliffe history.

Riding in the sort of vehicle that replaced the trams in the 1950s is itself an experience, because buses have changed so much in half a century.

Colin Morton, who will be the driver, says that driving 687 is much more physically demanding than its 21st-century successors.  There’s no power steering and the crash gearbox requires double-declutching, which was once normal procedure and is becoming a lost art.

Colin is a fully qualified PSV driver with decades of experience, and he tells me that the Museum is short of younger volunteers prepared to learn how to manage the heritage fleet for wedding hires and other events.

So if you have time to spare and the patience to learn the skills, driving a 1950s or 1960s bus will keep you fit as well as bring pleasure to passengers of all ages: https://sytm.co.uk/join/volunteer.html.

And if you’d like to explore Sheffield’s industrial and working-class heritage while travelling in style on September 29th, please book here.

Places are limited so that everyone can have a top-deck seat, yet people with mobility and other impairments are very welcome to use the lower deck.

For information about some of the historic buildings that survive in Attercliffe – and some that don’t – please click here.

Venus’ previous home

Rokeby Park, Co Durham

Rokeby Park, Co Durham

Rokeby Park, just outside Barnard Castle in what was once the North Riding of Yorkshire, is a delightful place to visit, though you have to pick the right afternoon to find it open.

It’s the home of Sir Andrew Morritt, whose family have owned the estate since 1769.

To describe it as a home is no cliché.

There’s a table with guide-books and postcards, and visitors are offered a commodious ground-floor convenience, but there’s no tea-shop, nor gift shop, no potpourri or potted plants.

You’re welcome to go through any door that is open, and to sit on any chair that isn’t taped.

The house-tour is free-flow, as are the guides, an affable and knowledgeable team who make guests feel at home.

The house was built by Sir Thomas Robinson (1703-1777), the amateur architect who was fond of telling his friends how to design their houses, and who is best known for adding the west wing to Sir John Vanburgh’s incomplete Castle Howard.

Rokeby Park is an almost perfect Palladian villa, never completed because Sir Thomas ran out of money.  Rather than leave it unfinished, Sir Thomas rounded it off and successive owners have tactfully extended it.

Sir Thomas sold the estate to John Sawrey Morritt, who commissioned John Carr of York to adapt the original stable wing to provide a spacious, elegant dining room with plasterwork by Joseph Rose the Elder (c1723-1780).

J S Morritt’s son, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt (1772?-1843) was a connoisseur and collector, whose Grand Tour extended into Asia Minor.  He was one of the founders of the Travellers’ Club (1819) and he was a close friend of Sir Walter Scott, whose poem ‘Rokeby’ is dedicated to him.

He bought the painting by Diego Velázquez of Venus and Cupid, now known as the ‘Rokeby Venus’, which he described as “my fine picture of Venus’s backside”.  He went to some trouble over its hanging:  “…by raising the said backside to a considerable height the ladies may avert their downcast eyes without difficulty, and connoisseurs steal a glance without drawing in the said posterior as part of the company”.

The Velázquez was sold by a cash-strapped descendant – it’s now in the National Gallery – and a 1906 copy by W A Menzies hangs in its place.

The park stands at the confluence of the River Greta and the River Wear, and the lawn ends at a spectacular drop into the Greta gorge – the sort of ha-ha no-one could emulate.

The walks through the gorge are comparable with the more contrived landscape at Hackfall, and more formal Yorkshire gardens at Studley Royal, Rievaulx and Duncombe Park.

Rokeby was at one time written as ‘Rookby’, which seems to be the preferred pronunciation.

It’s easy to miss.  Don’t miss it:  http://www.rokebypark.com.

Brief encounter

Carnforth Station, Lancashire

Carnforth station is most celebrated as “Milford Junction”, the location for the film Brief Encounter, that memorable celebration of British emotional reticence, the best record of Celia Johnson’s exceptional talent, captured by David Lean’s unique visual control.  It’s no accident that the film came to the public in 1945, at the end of a frightening war and the start of a scary peace.

In this cinematic adaptation of Noël Coward’s half-hour one-act stage play Still Life (1936), trains serve as a symbol of distance, change and urgency.

Lean needed a railway junction, so that trains could pass in the night and the characters could depart in different directions.  It had to be sufficiently far from south-east England for wartime blackout restrictions to be lifted for night-filming.

Only the shots of moving trains were actually filmed at Carnforth (where it seems that all the trains are hauled by the same locomotive – LMS no 2429).  The interior of the refreshment room and some of the platform scenes were shot at Denham Studios.

Of course, there was a refreshment room at Carnforth in the days of steam:  it was particularly heavily used by troops in the Second World War.  It’s now been lovingly recreated as a tribute to the film and as a memorable tourist experience by the Carnforth Station & Railway Trust Co Ltd.

If you visit the station nowadays it’s instantly recognisable, though the main line platforms have been cut back.  The original clock, by Joyce of Whitchurch, has been reinstated, having been rescued from an antique dealer who, so I’m told, put the price up when an ingenuous friend of Carnforth station revealed its provenance.

Film lovers can have tea and buns – or a lunch worth waiting for – at the Brief Encounter Refreshment Room, linger at the award-winning Visitor Centre exhibition and, if they’re so minded, feel wistful in the subway.

Only the trains are unromantic:  http://www.refreshmentroom.com.

Providential curry

Former Providence Place Congregational Chapel, Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire

Former Providence Place Congregational Chapel, Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire

When my curry-loving mate Richard and I go to Bradford to meet my friend Mohammed he usually takes us to one of the many curry houses in inner-city Bradford, but on our last meeting we set off on a mystery tour to Cleckheaton.

Our destination was Aakash, which claims to be the largest curry house in the world.

It occupies the former Providence Place Congregational Chapel of 1857-1859, a gigantic temple of nonconformity designed by the prestigious Bradford practice of Henry Francis Lockwood and William Mawson, who built much that is fine in the Bradford area in the mid-nineteenth century including St George’s Hall (1851-52), the Wool Exchange (1864-7), the City Hall (1869-73), and almost every building in Saltaire (1851-76).

Providence Chapel cost about £9,000, an impressive sum that sounds considerable until it’s compared with the £16,000 that Sir Titus Salt spent on the Congregational Church in Saltaire.  At the time you could get a modest but respectable Gothic parish church for around £4,000.

For their money, Cleckheaton Congregationalists were given seating for 1,500 and a grandeur that would flatter a municipal town hall.  Its ashlar façade has a giant portico of five unfluted Corinthian columns supporting a pediment containing a roundel, surrounded by carved foliage, with the inscription “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to all men”.  In front are cast-iron gates and lamp standards.

Listed Grade II*, the chapel was described in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England as “amazingly pompous for a religious building”.

It closed in 1991 when the remaining congregation combined with the amalgamated Spendborough Group of United Reformed Churches at Grove, Gomersal, and it became an Indian restaurant founded by a former taxi-rank owner, Mohammad Iqbal Tabassum.

It was named Aakash, the Urdu word for “sky”, and the coffered ceiling was painted with clouds.

The box pews inevitably went and the rake of the gallery floor was levelled, but the organ and the pulpit, described by a reviewer at the time as “skip-sized”, remained as a “lookout post” for the restaurant manager.

Sometime before 2008 it closed and reopened under new management.  Perhaps that was when the pulpit was replaced by a series of staircases linking the main floor with the gallery.  The organ pipes remain, heavily painted, but the organ has gone.

The buffet-style curry is as splendid as the surroundings:  http://aakashrestaurant.co.uk.

The simple life

Stoneywell, Ulverscroft, Leicestershire

Stoneywell, Ulverscroft, Leicestershire

I’ve known, ever since the days when I ran country-house tours for Nottingham University, that the people who manage National Trust property contribute to its atmosphere.

So, on my first visit to the recently acquired Stoneywell, just outside Leicester, the warmth of the welcome was striking even on a chilly autumn afternoon.

There’s literally nowhere to park at this property, so visitors are greeted with a minibus at the car-park down the lane.  There is a shop in the stables, and a modest café in the old laundry which is warmed by the original copper.

Strolling in the garden, a survival of the ancient Charnwood Forest, it’s difficult to remember that the outer suburbs of Leicester are only a couple of miles away to the east, and the M1 motorway is barely half a mile to the west.

The house itself is an overgrown cottage, hunched into the hillside rather like an upmarket hobbit house.  It’s built of local materials, and grows organically from the hillside on which it stands, so that its three floors in fact have six different levels on a zig-zag ground plan.

It’s a hugely significant building, commissioned by Sydney Gimson (1860-1938), son of the founder of a Leicester engineering company that built steam engines and other machinery.  It was completed in 1899.

Sydney Gimson bought enough land in Charnwood Forest to provide plots for his older half-brother, Mentor, and his younger sister, Margaret.

He commissioned his younger brother Ernest Gimson (1864-1919) to design Stoneywell, and employed the architect Detmar Blow (1867-1939) as clerk of works.

Both Gimson and Blow were devotees of the Arts & Crafts movement:  Detmar Blow believed that architects should get their hands dirty, which slowed things down and caused some irritation;  Ernest Gimson was closely associated with the Birmingham-born brothers Ernest and Sidney Barnsley, with whom he set up a workshop at Sapperton, Gloucestershire.

For two generations, until the 1950s, Stoneywell was a country retreat for the summer and Christmas, a place of adventure for the children of the family and their friends, and an opportunity to live a simpler life far removed from their town house and the engineering factory in nearby Leicester.

This much-loved place was too good to give up, and so passed down the family, on Sidney’s death in 1938 to his son Basil (who taught at Bedales School, where his uncle Ernest designed the library).

A fire destroyed the thatched roof in 1937 but most of the cottage and its contents survived and were restored, with a roof of local Swithland slate, by Basil’s brother Humphrey Gimson (1890-1982).

When Basil died in 1953, the house passed to his son Donald (born 1924) who gently modernised it for year-round living:  he sold it to the National Trust in 2012 and continues to make periodic visits.

Continuity of ownership means that this exquisite dwelling retains most of its original contents, with tables, chairs, beds and fittings designed and made by Ernest Gimson and the Barnsley brothers.

It’s a testament to the Arts & Crafts values that William Morris promoted through the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings and the Art Workers’ Guild.

The simple life is all well and good.  Janet Ashbee, wife of the architect Charles Robert Ashbee, writes that the artist Roger Fry tried the simple life but found it too complicated and had to give it up.

The Gimsons made it work, shinning up narrow staircases and a ladder to bed well into old age.

And now its beauty is accessible to everyone – provided they book a timed ticket to prevent overcrowding.

One man, one mester

Stan Shaw, spring-knife cutler, Kelham Island Industrial Museum, Sheffield (October 2017)

Stan Shaw, spring-knife cutler, Kelham Island Industrial Museum, Sheffield (October 2017)

My Sheffield’s Heritage tour-group were honoured to be introduced, by Mike, our guide from the Ken Hawley Collection, to Stan Shaw BEM, who at ninety-one is not exactly the last of Sheffield’s little mesters, simply because in his lifetime he has picked up the craft skills of perhaps a dozen of the specialised traditional Sheffield tradesmen.

Technically, he’s a spring-knife cutler:  all his hand-crafted knives have retractable, spring-loaded blades.

Stan tells his own story in a Sheffield Telegraph article dated March 24th 2016 [https://www.sheffieldtelegraph.co.uk/news/life-is-still-at-the-sharp-end-for-expert-sheffield-craftsman-in-his-90th-year-1-7813981]:

“When I got to be 14 years of age I wondered – because I’d never done metalwork or woodwork – what am I going to do for a living?  I went on to Rockingham Street and saw Ibbersons and knocked on the door and said, ‘Can I have a job, Mr Ibberson?’

“I went upstairs to see him, in a little ante-room, and there were all the knives in glass cases.  I said, ‘I want to make them’.  I don’t know why I said it – I’d never used tools in my life – so he sent for his head cutler and said, ‘This lad wants to make knives.  Will you have him?’

“So I started with him the following morning.  I took to it like a duck to water, like it was made for me.”

 Over the decades he gained the expertise to make high-quality, decorative, practical knives that command premium prices, and since he went self-employed in 1987 he has never looked back.

The old hand-craft skills will die with Stan, because he’s consistently declined to take on the paperwork encumbrances that come with apprentices.  He explains in a 2006 interview [http://www.mylearning.org/metalwork-in-sheffield-/p-833] how modern machine-made knives lack the quality he achieves:

“I was taught the proper way with a skilled man.  You’ve got to have somebody teach the proper way and there are a lot of people trying to learn themselves but they can’t.  They try and make as good a job as they can but they’re limited so there is only one way to learn and that is with skilled people who’ve learnt it from his father and his father before him.”

To buy one of Stan’s knives, stamped “Stan Shaw, Sheffield”, you wouldn’t get much change out of £2,000, and you’d have to collect it – wherever in the world you live – because he doesn’t trust them to the post.

And he has a four-year waiting list.

The only clients who don’t have to wait are his grandchildren, to whom he gives knives on their birthdays and Christmas.

No doubt family members, like such other clients as HM Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of York and President George H W Bush, have to hand over a coin in return, to prevent the friendship being cut.

The best available account of Stan’s life and work is a downloadable illustrated booklet Stan Shaw and the Art of the Pocket Knife (2016) by the Sheffield industrial historian Geoffrey Tweedale [http://contrib2.wkfinetools.com/tweedaleG/stanShaw/0_img/TWEEDALE-Stan%20Shaw-(12-12-2016).pdf] – an example of a craftsman in words writing about a craftsman in steel, silver, brass, wood, bone, stag-horn, buffalo-horn, abalone, tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl.