Lincolnshire – a land apart

Crowland Abbey. Photo: Derek Turner
Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire
Derek Turner, Hurst & Co., 2022, hb., 446pps, 32 col. Illus. & map, £20
PAUL GARNER enjoys a survey of an oddly little-known county

Edge of England is a rich tapestry woven of many threads—history, nature, industry, geography, religion and folklore—all intertwining to create a picture full of interest. It tells the story, or rather multiplexity of stories, of the author’s adopted county of Lincolnshire, an unjustly overlooked and unfashionable part of England, one that is often, as the author reminds us in his opening chapter, the butt of snide jokes and liberal disdain. Turner’s book challenges this snobbery and prejudice, revealing “a county like no other … an England time half-forgot, where you can still find an unabashed past inside an unpretentious present—and freedom and space on a little offshore island”.

Turner delights the reader with captivating tales of eccentric characters, atmospheric places and intriguing events, his wide reading and breadth of knowledge apparent on every page. A thousand and one rabbit trails are laid by the author, any one of which could profitably be followed by an inquisitive reader. We learn about the lives and times of many sons and daughters of the shire, some well-known, others less so. Among the colourful characters that we meet are parliamentarians, scientists, explorers, military men, poets and writers, and religious figures.

The more familiar include John Wesley, the evangelical clergyman whose spirited preaching was the fountainhead of the emerging Methodist movement, Sir Isaac Newton, the scientific prodigy who developed differential calculus while sheltering from the plague at Woolsthorpe in 1665, and Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, whose land reclamation work met with fierce opposition from locals, who feared dispossession. But we are also introduced to less familiar personalities, such as the cantankerous nineteenth-century contrarian, Sir Charles Sibthorp, who, as MP for the city of Lincoln, vehemently opposed steam railways, water closets and barrel organs, the polymathic Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook aboard HMS Endeavour, and amassed important collections of botanical specimens, and the demon-afflicted Saint Guthlac, who, at the end of the seventh century, established a hermitage at Crowland, destined, after his death, to become a monastic centre and place of Christian pilgrimage.

Turner writes with affection of the ordinary people of Lincolnshire. They are kind, practical, helpful and courteous, even to outsiders, and when they get to know you “accord you the ultimate sign of acceptance—telling you about the idiocy of London”. He describes, with wistful melancholia, Lincolnshire’s lost villages, decaying industries and disappearing ways of life, but does not rub salt into the wounds in the fashion of some unkind commentators. Grimsby may be down-at-heel today, with “a depressed town centre, and too much bad housing”, but Turner writes movingly of the skill and bravery of its sailors and fishermen, and the fortitude of their families, ensuring that the reader knows of the town’s epic origins, regal connections, and dogged “tough pride.”

Many absorbing stories are related, ranging from the whimsical and quirky to the ghoulish and macabre. There is the curious tale of the “Stamford Schism”, an ill-fated attempt by a cadre of unhappy students and tutors from Oxford to establish a rival institution at Stamford in 1333. It was a short-lived venture, the brass door knocker the students took with them when they left Oxford now proudly displayed above high table at Brasenose, in the manner of a spoil of war. The Haxey Hood is another oddity, a game played every January in the town of Haxey, during which enthusiastic locals chase a group of costumed “Boggins” around the town in pursuit of a leather bolster, ostensibly re-enacting an incident with a riding hood said to have taken place almost 700 years ago.

Grisly crimes, pogroms and witch trials are also part of the county’s story. For instance, Turner tells of the tragic death of poor Mary Kirkham in 1806, and the execution of her murderer and erstwhile suitor, Tom Otter, whose skull was said to have provided a home for nesting blue tits when he was gibbeted at Saxilby. However, one of the darkest episodes in the county’s history took place in 1255, when an antisemitic rumour began to circulate in Lincoln that a young boy named Hugh had been murdered by a local Jewish man. This led not only to the arrest, torture and execution of the suspect, but the imprisonment of ninety-one others, eighteen of whom were also executed. The boy’s burial place became a shrine, and “Little Saint Hugh” acquired legendary status, becoming the subject of ballads and folk songs.

Those who, like me, appreciate tales of the strange and uncanny will enjoy reading about the ghostly goings-on at Epworth Rectory, home, in the eighteenth century, not only to the Wesleys, but also, it was said, to a noisy and disincarnate spirit called “Old Jeffrey”. We learn of the spectral “Green Lady” who haunts a tree-lined avenue near Thorpe Hall in Louth, and the “Black Lady” of Bradley Woods, still weeping for her lost children. The county also has tales of water sprites, wild men and mysterious big cats, and, although not mentioned by Turner, Black Shuck, the demonic hellhound that patrols the county’s byways, its red eyes flaming like coals through the fen mists.1 Anyone eager to explore the supernatural aspects of Lincolnshire further may want to consult a series of hair-raising articles by Rob Gandy in recent editions of Fortean Times.2

Turner says of the Lincolnshire-born antiquarian, William Stukeley, that he could see “the magic of words”. If so, Stukeley would have appreciated the spellbinding mellifluosity of Turner’s own writing. Almost every page yields memorable examples. Consider, for instance, Turner’s charming distillation of one village’s peculiarities and idiosyncrasies as “a little ampoule of English eccentricity” – his spinetingling description of old gateways as “unquiet, touched by the memories of everyone who has ever gone through them, especially if they never came back” – and his description of a carved stone man, high on the forlorn ruins of Barlings Abbey, abandoned at the time of the Dissolution, “stuck in eternal outrage, his mouth forever open as if howling at all this sacrilege and sky”. Turner sees poetry in the everyday, as when he recalls a dead carrion crow, “lying in a patch of sun beneath trees, intact and gleamingly black, studded with iridescent greenbottles, like a mislaid piece of Visigoth jewellery”, or when he waxes lyrical about the vistas that open up from the Humber bridge, “especially to the west on a warm evening when it has been raining, with the sun going down in splendour, and backlit air and water so full of each other that it is like being inside a pearl”.

The reader is also treated to some wonderfully dry asides, perhaps my favourite being an anecdote about a cringeworthy sermon given by the new Bishop of Lincoln at his enthronement, its low culture references jarring awkwardly with the high pomp of the ceremony that had preceded it. Turner concludes, somewhat archly, “The Order of Service read ‘After the sermon, silence is kept for a few moments,’ and it was, but not necessarily for the right reasons”.

Edge of England is a book to savour and is accompanied by thirty-two colour plates and a rather beautiful, Tolkienesque map in which the Wolds take on something of the aspect of the “misty mountains”.


  • Ethel Rudkin, ‘The Black Dog,’ Folklore 49 no. 2, 111-131 (1938).
  • ‘The Ruskington horror,’ Fortean Times 401, 32-38 (January 2021); ‘The Ruskington horror: part 2,’ Fortean Times 402, 38-43 (February 2021); ‘The Ruskington goblin,’ Fortean Times 405, 48-38 (May 2021); ‘Weird wheels of the Wolds,’ Fortean Times 407, 48-51 (July 2021); ‘Scary stories from Scunthorpe,’ Fortean Times 411, 48-52 (November 2021); ‘Not the face,’ Fortean Times 414, 46-47 (January 2022); ‘Lincolnshire’s bevy of the bizarre,’ Fortean Times 416, 44-48 (March 2022); ‘A warning to the Fortean,’ Fortean Times 421, 42-45 (August 2022); ‘A grand fen-ale!’ Fortean Times 423, 42-45 (October 2022)

Blake’s 7: moral darkness in outer space

Gareth Thomas as Roj Blake

PAUL GARNER pays tribute to an innovative sci-fi series which gave grim glamour to late Seventies and early Eighties evenings

In the dark winter months at the beginning of 1978 I began to regret signing up as a cub scout. We met on Monday evenings in the school hall, and, thanks to the vagaries of BBC scheduling, that was also when episodes of the brand-new science fiction series, Blake’s 7, were being broadcast. I remember hurrying home from all the ‘dyb-dyb-dybbing’, anxious that I was going to miss the beginning of the latest instalment.

For Doctor Who fans like me, the new series would help to fill the gaps between Saturdays when the TARDIS would whisk us off on another adventure. But if we expected Blake’s 7 to emulate the fantastical whimsy that characterized late-1970s Doctor Who, we were in for a shock. The BBC’s new ‘space opera’ was tonally very different and about to subvert all our cosy assumptions.

Creator Terry Nation claims to have pitched the series to BBC executives as “The Dirty Dozen in space”. Blake’s 7 is set in a dystopian, post-atomic future in which the Terran Federation controls the human population with a combination of drugs, mind control techniques and old-fashioned thuggery. The earth and its colonies are police states, with Stasi-like informers everywhere. Citizens can trust no one and betrayal is the order of the day. In the opening episode, we are introduced to Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas), a man who has been brainwashed and can remember nothing of his previous life as a resistance leader. When his former compatriots help him to break his conditioning they are mercilessly eliminated, and Blake is subjected to a show trial with trumped-up accusations of child molestation. It is hard-edged stuff.

Blake is convicted and sent on a transporter to a prison planet, Cygnus Alpha, but en route organises a rebellion and manages to escape with two of his fellow convicts. Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) is a computer genius and embezzler and Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette) is a space pilot and smuggler. Commandeering an abandoned alien ship, the Liberator, with its master computer Zen (Peter Tuddenham), they mount a rescue bid, and on Cygnus Alpha recruit Olag Gan (David Jackson) and Vila Restal (Michael Keating). Vila is a thief and expert lock-breaker, Gan guilty of killing the Federation guard who had raped his girlfriend. Soon they are joined by Cally (Jan Chappell), a telepath from the planet Auron and lone survivor of an anti-Federation guerilla force. Pledging to destroy the Federation, the seven head off into space, hotly pursued by the leader of Space Command, Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce), and her psychopathic henchman, Travis (Stephen Greif in series one, Brian Croucher in series two).

Given this set-up, Blake’s 7 could easily have lapsed into two-dimensionality, but one of the most notable things about it is that nothing is cast in black and white. We are never entirely sure that the ‘good guys’ really are good guys. The Federation is ruthless and brutal, but the rebels are not averse to some ruthlessness and brutality of their own. The body count is unquestionably high whenever Blake’s crew are around, and not just on the Federation side. Blake himself seems fully prepared to risk the lives of others in pursuit of his political ideals, and his quarrelling followers often seem ready to abandon one another to save their own skins. They are at best anti-heroes. The most morally ambiguous of them all is Avon, whose obvious self-interest leads to some tense confrontations with Blake early in the series. Avon is not the kind of man on whom it would be wise to turn your back. Even Vila, for whom Avon shows some grudging affection, is not safe. In the episode Orbit, Avon is ready to throw Vila overboard so their shuttle can overcome the gravitational pull of the planet from which they are making their escape, and his stalking of Vila through the darkened corridors, while his companion cowers terrified in the shadows, is genuinely chilling. Avon’s callousness is also spotlighted in other episodes, such as Stardrive, in which he coldly sacrifices Dr Plaxton, and Rumours of Death, in which he seeks revenge against Shrinker, the man he suspects of murdering Anna Grant, the only woman he ever loved. Shrinker is soon reduced from sadistic torturer to quivering wreck, begging Avon for mercy, in a fantastic performance by guest actor John Bryans. But viewers are left wondering, with the crew of the Liberator, whether Avon is any less monstrous than the man he is punishing.

Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan, and Paul Darrow as Kerr Avon

Later episodes introduce changes to the regular line-up. At the end of series one, Orac, a flashing box of tricks with an irascible personality, is acquired by Blake and his companions from the computer genius Ensor. Midway through the second series Gan dies under falling masonry during a raid on Federation Central Control and at the end of the season Blake and Jenna go missing after bailing from the Liberator during an intergalactic conflict. With Blake’s departure, Avon appoints himself leader, and in the third series the crew is joined by Dayna Mellanby (Josette Simon), the daughter of a fugitive and revolutionary, and Del Tarrant (Steven Pacey), a defector from the Federation’s Space Academy.

At the end of the third series, Avon’s recklessness in the teeth of opposition from his fellow crewmembers leads to the destruction of the Liberator, along with Zen, and the unhappy survivors are trapped by Servalan on the planet Terminal. This was originally intended to be the climactic episode, but late in the day the decision was made to commission a fourth series. By this time the production office had already closed down and there was a scramble to reenlist cast and crew, and get a production line of scripts going, which accounts for much of the unevenness of the first half of series four.

The fourth and final series opens with Cally’s death in a booby trap left by Servalan. Then we are introduced to Soolin (Glynis Barber), an expert gunslinger whose parents had been murdered by hired mercenaries. The rebels acquire a new ship, Scorpio, along with its computer, Slave, and they establish a base from which to launch an offensive against the Federation. Meanwhile, Servalan, who by this time has been deposed as Federation president, takes on a new identity as Commissioner Sleer and resumes her vendetta against Avon and his crew.

Forty years on, Blake’s 7 remains loved by many, though it is difficult to regard it as high art. It has a reputation, not wholly undeserved, for looking cheap, though it must be remembered that it was made in the unionized days of the late 1970s, when budgets were stretched by rampant inflation and there was an ever-present threat of strike action bringing a halt to production. The clichés about dodgy special effects, wonky sets and quarries masquerading as alien worlds are clichés for a reason, and the constraints that faced the production team are often all too evident in what appeared on screen. Despite this, the series has a loyal fan following and conventions continue to be held annually, sadly with a dwindling number of original cast and crew as the years pass.

Inevitably, comparisons are made between Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who, though in reality the two programmes are very different. Blake’s 7 is darker, grittier and more clearly written for an older audience. There are references to sex, drugs and alcohol in Blake’s 7 that would never have been allowed in classic Who. Blake’s 7 is also much less reliant on aliens and monsters, preferring to concentrate on human drama and action. On the few occasions when Blake’s 7 does venture into monster territory the results are less than satisfying, object lessons in how ambition cannot always triumph over practicalities. Director Vere Lorrimer wisely keeps the Phibians lurking in the shadows in Orac, teasing the viewer with occasional glimpses of claw or tail, but on other occasions the programme makers are less circumspect, and, unfortunately, the giant insect in The Harvest of Kairos possesses all the menace of a pantomime horse and the climax of Moloch is rather spoiled by a laughable monocular glove puppet.

However, the play’s the thing, and the great strengths of Blake’s 7 are in characterization and story. The regulars turn in some magnificent performances, even if, at times, a certain amount of scenery-chewing is indulged. Paul Darrow’s Avon is beautifully crafted, dark, self-centred and cynical, with a nice line in sardonic asides, such as when he says of Tarrant that he “is brave, young and handsome; three reasons not to like him”. Michael Keating brings great humanity to his portrayal of Vila, whose cowardice and complaining could have been irritating in the hands of a lesser actor. Yes, Vila is often employed as comic relief (there are lighter moments, even in Blake’s 7), but he is not stupid, on one occasion feigning drunkenness so that he could pass on to his crewmates the solution to an intractable problem while making sure he didn’t have to endanger himself by dealing with it. From the outset, Jacqueline Pearce’s Servalan is deliciously sadistic and scheming, and one can’t help relishing her performance even when it goes over the top. Finally, special mention should be given to Peter Tuddenham, who manages to invest all the series’ computers with distinct personalities, from the detached logicality of Zen to the fussy obtuseness of Orac and the Uriah Heep-like obsequiousness of Slave.

There were some notable guest appearances too, including Roy Kinnear as the bumbling, avaricious security officer of a passenger liner in Gold, Aubrey Woods as a corrupt and flamboyant casino owner in Gambit, and Julian Glover as an unpleasant neurosurgeon and Federation informer in Breakdown. As in any long-running series, the scriptwriting hits highs and lows, but Blake’s 7 delivers many stand-out episodes and even the most mediocre often contain memorable lines.

Among my favourites are City at the Edge of the World, in which Vila almost gets the girl and we meet Bayban the Butcher (Colin Baker in pre-Doctor Who days), Terminal, a well-crafted and pacey episode, with a heartbeat soundtrack that sets a funereal tone, and Sand, in which Tarrant and Servalan are thrown together in unlikely fashion on a planet with a very strange and threatening lifeform. Nor are the scriptwriters above the shameless plundering of plotlines from classic fantasy literature, especially in the fourth series which gives us episodes based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (Rescue) and H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (Animals). Even Headhunter trespasses into the domain of Frankenstein, with its lumbering android grotesquely wearing the decapitated head of its creator.

Blake’s 7 ran from 1978 to 1981. Looking back now, one is struck by how unremittingly bleak it all was. Every series ended in some kind of catastrophe, and there was never any guarantee our heroes would even survive. In the final series, we witness Avon’s slow descent into paranoia and madness, culminating in the shocking denouement on the frontier planet of Gauda Prime. For more than two years, viewers had eagerly anticipated Blake’s return, but when he does finally reappear it is not the glad reunion for which we had hoped. Blake, battered and world-weary, stands once again face-to-face with Avon, only for his old comrade to shoot him in the stomach at point-blank range, under the tragic misapprehension that Blake has betrayed him. What follows is one of the most shocking endings to any television series, with all the Scorpio crew except Avon being gunned down in slow motion by jack-booted Federation soldiers. As Avon stands over the bloody corpse of Blake, with the guards closing in around him, he raises his gun and smiles. And that’s where the curtain falls, the closing credits breaking in with another volley of shots. There is no happy ending. The ‘good guys’ don’t always win.

Of course, fans of the programme have been endlessly inventive in coming up with scenarios in which their favourite characters survived or the story continued. Sequels have been written, new episodes recorded for radio, and there have been rumours for years about a television revival, although a reboot seems as far away as ever. But I can’t help feeling that the ending we got was the right one. The rebellion is ultimately a failure. The Federation is still in control, even expanding after the setback of the Andromedan war. And Servalan, who mysteriously makes no appearance in the finale, is presumably still out there and plotting her route back to power. It’s bleak, but anything more hopeful would rob Blake’s 7 of its soul.