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motorway-services-250x189

In the years since the first ones opened at Newport Pagnell and Watford Gap in 1959, they have become, for many travellers, a necessary evil. Yet despite being the butt of criticism and jokes - about the high prices of the food and drink in their cafes, the poor standards of service by their staff and the dull décor inside buildings that are frequently uninspiring and little different from one another - a recent survey has revealed that some of our motorway service stations are actually very good.

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I have been travelling a lot by bus lately, and rather like a naturalist who leaves his Land Rover behind and heads off to explore the local countryside and its flora and fauna, or a war reporter who forsakes the safety of his armoured vehicle in order to get closer to the action on the ground, it has given me an opportunity to encounter life up close on the front line: England’s front line.

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They have gone down in history as the Maastricht Rebels - the band of patriotic Conservative MPs who, in 1993, putting their country and the concerns of their constituents before their party and their own careers, voted against the government of Prime Minister John Major on the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty (Treaty on European Union). Although the Treaty was eventually incorporated into British law, passing even greater powers of national self-government to the EU and continuing the relentless drive towards a United States of Europe, having stuck their heads above the parapet and set an example that gave strength and encouragement to Eurosceptics across the land, the rebels continued their guerrilla war against further European integration. There were 26 Conservative MPs who voted against their own governing party in the House of Commons and a further 19 who withdrew their support from the government by abstaining in the vote. A year later, because of their opposition to the EC Finance Bill, eight of them had the Conservative whip withdrawn and were expelled from the parliamentary party.

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newspapers-250x189

…and here are a few items that caught my attention:

A survey by the Office for National Statistics revealed that the most popular boys’ names in the United Kingdom in 2016 were: 1. Oliver, 2. Harry, 3. George, 4. Jack, 5. Jacob, 6. Noah, 7. Charlie, 8 Muhammad, 9. Thomas, 10. Oscar. The most popular girls’ names were: 1. Olivia, 2. Amelia, 3. Emily, 4. Isla, 5. Ava, 6. Isabella, 7. Lily, 8. Jessica, 9. Ella, 10. Mia.

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te-annual-18-250x189

We have just received the first copies of our 2018 This England Annual, a 100-page treasure chest of articles, pictures and poems (with a quiz to test your knowledge of England and a page of jokes to test your English sense of humour!) that many readers of the magazine now regard as a welcome “fifth issue”. As Christmas approaches, a lot of people also find that the Annual makes an attractive, great-value stocking-filler for friends and relatives. At the centre of the Annual we have included an eight-page “Seasonal Journey Through England”, a selection of stunning colour photographs depicting the English countryside in spring, summer, autumn and winter. The rest of the Annual is packed with articles. Highlights include:

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When I was growing up in the 1960s they were often on television - in black and white, of course - on Saturday mornings. From memory, their films often started with drawings of the heads of Stan and Ollie in their familiar bowler hats, alongside intriguing titles such as “Block Heads”, “Hog Wild” and “Laughing Gravy”, while their instantly recognisable theme tune “The Dance of the Cuckoos” played. A special treat for me was being able to watch their films with my grandad when he came to stay. We both felt proud and proprietorial. After all, grandad lived in Ulverston in Lancashire, both my parents came from the town, and, as I was taught from an early age: Stan Laurel, whose real name was Arthur Stanley Jefferson, was born there (in 1890).

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train-of-thought-250x189

A recent trip north of the border (to Scotland rather than Herefordshire, Worcestershire or Warwickshire) entailed crossing the magnificent Forth Bridge near Edinburgh, when the rumbling of the rails and the splendid views from the carriage window brought back memories of “The 39 Nine Steps”, and in particular the 1959 film of John Buchan’s novel starring Kenneth More as Richard Hannay. Although the Alfred Hitchcock version of the story, made in 1935 and with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in the main roles, is usually cited as the best (Robert Powell also played Hannay in a 1978 remake) I think the Fifties film narrowly gets my vote. Mind you, the pre-war black-and-white version is worth watching just to see the wonderful John Laurie, who looks little different from how he appeared some 40 years later as the eye-rolling, doom-laden Private Frazer in television’s “Dad’s Army”!

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magnificent-midlands-250x189

The Midlands are well represented in the autumn issue of This England, with, among other items, details of how a tea room at Stone in Staffordshire has received one of our special awards for its “mouthwatering menu” and “very pleasant atmosphere”, and the revelation that Trentham Gardens - just down the road - is playing temporary host to one of England’s greatest and most “capable” landscape gardeners! The most prominent coverage, however, can be found in the “Literary Landscapes of England” feature, which highlights a book about the area that was written in the middle of the 19th century.

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festival-250x189

It was planned primarily as a means of celebrating British achievements in the fields of the arts, architecture, industry, science and technology, but also as a way of lifting the spirits of a nation that was still feeling the effects of the Second World War. The 1951 Festival of Britain, with its magnificent Dome of Discovery, Royal Festival Hall, futuristic Skylon and numerous pavilions with exhibitions on all sorts of subjects certainly achieved both of these aims, with over eight million people visiting the site on the south bank of the River Thames in London. Even more visitors flocked to the Festival Pleasure Gardens in Battersea Park, where families could enjoy numerous attractions including a fun fair, zoo, boating lake and the whimsical Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway. For those Britons who were unable to travel to the capital, there were complementary exhibitions in towns and cities across the country and even a Festival Ship, Campania, that took the celebrations to coastal venues around our island.

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Although I was aware that the 100th anniversary of the Third Battle of Ypres (better known as Passchendaele) fell at the end of July/beginning of August this year, when I was preparing the article about the battle that appears in our autumn issue it didn’t strike me just how closely the publication date of the magazine would coincide with all the commemorative events and remembrance services that have been taking place. In fact, if it hasn’t already been delivered to their doors, subscribers to This England will be receiving their copies during the next few days. I hope that they, and any readers who purchase the magazine from a newsagent, find the account by Tonie and Valmai Holt - renowned military historians and long-time battlefield tour guides - informative and thought-provoking.

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