Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Angels of St Helens - A Christmas Celebration

For the second year running the village of St Helens on the Isle of Wight is celebrating Christmas by hosting angels. The community has come together  to create angels as a means of raising money for local charities. So, without further procrastination meet the angels of St Helens. 
An angel in the garden of a house on Latimer Road
The bus shelter on the green is converted into a manger
A beer barrel angel outside the Vine public house
A tribute to World War I veterans
A painting on the village green
A choir of angels made from plastic milk cartons!
Wine bottle  angels outside a bistro
A bay window angel
Another front garden angel
An angelic neighbour
A giant angel
The driftwood angel on the green
Angelic shadows
And this one? I'm not so sure about this one...

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

St Albans in the Time of the Wars of the Roses

Last Saturday I had the great pleasure of meeting up with old friends who I hadn't seen for 18 years. What made the day even more special was that we discovered a mutual love of history that had grown over the years. As a result, we spent the first part of our reunion on a tour of the battlefields of St Albans.

What's that, I hear you say?

You didn't know there were battles at St Albans (psst, Don’t tell anyone but neither did I). The battles in question were the first and second battles of St Albans during the Wars of the Roses. Now the history of the conflict was fascinating and a steep learning curve as far as I was concerned. But what I found most intriguing was the snippets of information our guide, Peter, let slip about life in medieval St Albans.

The Six Bells public house -
and the site of the first hotel in England.
 We set out from the Verulamium Museum and made our way along St Michael's Street, to stop outside the Six Bells pub. There has been a hostelry on this site since the 15th century, and apparently what is now the car park has the reputation of being the site of the first hotel in England.  [In truth, I'm not convinced. A quick Google search came up with the Old Bell, Marmesbury - but heck, it's a nice story and they've both got "Bell" in the name.] 

A short walk away we enter Fishpool Street (see picture below)
Notice the deep brick wall separating the road from the pavement. Apparently,in medieval times there was once a fish pond where the road is now, maintained by St Albans Abbey. When the pond was drained, the difference in height between the ground and the pavement made it easier for ladies and gentlemen to alight from horse-drawn carriages. 

We didn't walk far at all before we came to another pub, this time The Red Lion.
Here Peter revealed some interesting titbits of information. Apparently the landlord of an Inn (as opposed to a tavern) was liable to cover the cost of any thefts that occurred on his premises - be it clothing, a purse, or even a horse. He was also obliged to find a bed for the night for any visiting nobleman, regardless of whether the accommodation was already full or not. The idea, it appears, was to raise the standard of clients at an Inn by providing a superior service. However, tavern keepers were under no such obligation and tended to attract an altogether more rowdy class of customer. 

The Abbey Gatehouse
Another short walk and on our right is the famous abbey of St Albans, with the gatehouse visible between the trees. It was from the roof of this same gatehouse that the then Abbot watched the first battle of St Albans unfold. 

The base of the Clock Tower
Entering St Albans itself, the battle started at the foot of the Clock Tower and the bell, Gabriel, tolled to mark the start of the Wars of the Roses. Incidentally, the black lampost slightly to the left of centre, marks the spot of the St Albans "Eleanor Cross". The original monument to the grief of a grieving king over his late wife was survived until the 1650s when it was accidentally demolished when a cart ran into it. 
The lampost marking the site of the original Eleanor Cross,
with the Clock Tower in the background
Turning through 180 degrees with my back to the Clock Tower, you find yourself facing the Wax House Gate. This was were enterprising merchants sold candles to pilgrims as the last medieval "retail outlet" before the Abbey itself. 

The Wax House Gate
The last opportunity for pilgrims to buy candles
And the final nuggets of medieval history are to do with the churches of St Albans. Apparently, the church of St Peter (the tower of which is the highest point in St Albans) was built within line of sight of the Abbey, at what was considered the further distance permissible for a pilgrim to crawl in penance. 
In the photos below I'm standing in the market on the same spot, facing first towards the Abbey, then turning through 180 degrees to face the tower of St Peters church. I don't much fancy crawling that distance on my knees! 
Facing towards the Abbey (the church tower to the right of centre) 

Turning on the spot to face St Peter's church. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

A Short History of Wigs

What did you buy this Black Friday?
If you treated yourself, the chances are a wig was low on your list of must-have items. But in the 18th century a wig was very much on your wish list if you wanted to be in the "pink of fashion" (a Georgian expression meaning a trend-setter.)

For nearly 140 years, from 1660 to the late 1700s, wigs were all the rage. Also known as perukes or periwigs, they were introduced to England when Charles II was restored to the throne. From his time in French exile he adopted the fashions of King Louis XIII and XIV for long, shoulder length wigs.

Over the ensuing century the shape of wigs changed according to different fashions, with a gradual trend towards shorter wigs, such as those a barrister wears today. The exception of course was in the 1770s which was the heyday for the ladies to wear madly, impractical tall wigs.

Whilst wigs were in fashion, a whole new vocabulary arose to describe the different types. For instance, a queer flash was an old wig that had seen better days, a rum flash was a long haired wig, and the bulky wigs worn by clergymen were humorously known as cauliflowers.

During the 18th century, being a wig-maker was a highly skilled and lucrative profession. This was just as well because these craftsmen were nick-named skull-thatchers. (Mind you, being a hairdresser was much worse – they were known as nit squeezers.)

Wigs were powdered with ground flour, to give them the desired (?) white or grey-blue appearance. But by the 1780s people were falling out of love with wigs, and young men began to powder their natural hair and left wigs to the older generation. In 1795 the government taxed hair-powder, which all but did for the wig-wearing and it went out of fashion altogether.

So how do you feel about wigs: the answer to a bad hair day or a pain in the neck? 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Victorian Dog Veterinarian - Edward Mayhew

Today a paperback book landed on my doormat.It cost me £85 instead of £6. 

This happened as a result of some shady skulldugery by a major internet retail site which caused me to make a rather expensive mistake. However, being a half-full person I don't hold anything personal against the book and settled down to what I hoped to be an absorbing read.

The book isn't in the "humor" genre, and yet it raised several wry smiles. The reason? 
"I don't believe it! He did what?"
The book in question is a reprint by Forgotten Books of "The Dog: Their Management, Being a New Plan of Treating the Animal Based Upon a Consideration of their Nature", written by the Victorian veterinarian, Edward Mayhew.
An illustration by Edward Mayhew on how to drench a horse
Courtesy: RCVS Knowledge Library
Already a digression, but according to this article by the RCVS Knowledge Library blog, Mr Edward Mayhew was the brother of Henry Mayhew – the founding editor of Punch magazine. It seem Edward also inherited his brother's sense of humor as demonstrated by some charming watercolors poking fun at everyday life.

"Never mount a horse in a crowded place" by Edward Mayhew
Courtesy: RCVS Knowledge Library

 Mr Mayhew spent his early life working in the theatre and his veterinary career did not start until his 30s (quite late for a Victorian). In the February of 1845 he graduated from the London Veterinary College, and it nine years later in 1854 he published the book in question about the latest techniques for treating dogs. It is difficult to gauge how popular Mr Mayhew was, but a brief obituary in The Veterinarian (November 1868) could be interpreted as damning him with faint praise.
"He was well known as the author of several veterinary books."

So, what does Mr Mayhew have to say?
A quick dip in to the introduction reveals that Mr Mayhew was fully aware of the limitations of veterinary knowledge in the 1850s.
"Canine pathology is not fully comprehended, nor the action of the various medicines upon the poor beast yet clearly understood."
Also by Edward Mayhew, a glimpse into the groom's room.
RCVS Knowledge Library

However, he goes onto say that never was there a shortage of opinions on how to cure dogs.
"I seldom send a diseased dog into the Park for exercise, when my servant [My emphasis – I wonder, is the modern day equivalent a veterinary nurse?] does not return to me with messages which strangers have volunteered how to cure the animal."
People were nothing if not generous with their knowledge.
"I hear of medicines that never fail…Persons, often upper rank, honor me with secret communications which in their opinion are of inestimable value…sportsmen command me to do things which I am obliged to decline."
You understand I'm not bitter about the price of the book...right?
Another quick flick through the book and my eye lights on the chapter on "Operations". 
Perhaps mercifully for the dogs Mr Mayhew remarks there are very few operations that are performed on the dog. Bizarrely, he then goes onto a detailed account of how to amputate a toe (without anesthetic) for a severely ingrown claw. But let Mr Mayhew explain in his own words:
"There is no absolute necessity to muzzle the dog, provided the master is present and will undertake charge of the head …to keep the attention of the dog fixed on himself."
But apparently, the dog was not so much a problem as the owner.
"I have removed a joint or two from the leg without the animal uttering a single cry; although the master, unused to such sights, has been seized with sickness so as to require spirits for his restoration".
Well, that's quite enough of that for now, time for tea. Please come back next week for extra helpings. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

How did Piccadilly, London, Get its Name?

What links starch to Piccadilly and the Royal Exchange, London?

In the 16th century, starch – along with other fashion essentials such as silk and lace-  made its way from France to England. This is significant because starch was used to stiffen those stupendously impractical neck ruffles so strongly associated with the Tudor age. In a way, impracticality was the point, because wearing a ruff marked you out as someone who didn't work with his hands and could afford servants and a laundress, and generally had more money than sense.

The relevance to our story is that these exotic starched ruffs gave their name to one of the most famous streets in London, Piccadilly. This road runs from Hyde Park corner to Piccadilly Circus, and is one of the widest and straightest roads in London.

Until the 17th century the road was known as Portugal Street. A tailor, Robert Baker, in the late 16th and early 17th century, owned a shop in the Strand. He made a small fortune making stiff collars with scalloped edges. These starched pieces of neck wear where known by many names, mostly on a variation on piccadills, peckadills, picardillos, or pickadailles, from which the word Piccadilly arose.
It was exquisite lace collars like this that made
Robert Baker a rich man

In about 1612, Mr. Baker used some of his money to buy a tract of land where he built a mansion that become known as Piccadilly Hall. With the restoration, in 1660, this area took off as a place patronized by the fashionable elite, and Piccadilly was born.

However, one drawback of wearing starched piccadills is that the starch dissolved in the rain, turning into a sticky, wallpaper paste-like mess. Of course, no fashionable man wanted to look stupid in the rain and so had a keen eye on keeping out of the weather. Perhaps with this in mind Sir Thomas Gresham built the Royal Exchange, London.
The New Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange became one of the world's first shopping malls and contained around 150 small shops, and was a convenient place for City merchants (around 4,000 of them at the time) to congregate together and do business in the dry. (Gresham's building was destroyed by fire, and the current Royal Exchange was built in 1840.)

Funny isn't it, how starch from the humble potato has had such an influence on the City of London!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Welcome guest Regan Walker: The Longbow

The Longbow at the Time of the Norman Conquest 

by Regan Walker

Many know of the success of the longbow in the 14th and 15th centuries at the start of the Hundred Years War and at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, but was the longbow used in England before the Norman Conquest? While it’s a subject for debate, there is evidence it the longbow was in England long before William the Conqueror stepped his foot onto English soil. So I thought to share some of my research for The Red Wolf’s Prize, my new medieval romance.


Prior to the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the Welsh made use of the longbow in repelling English attacks. The Welsh made use of the bow against Ralph, Earl of Hereford in 1055. There is also a story about Welsh longbow men penetrating a four inch thick, solid oak door with their arrows at the siege of Abergavenny Castle.
The English quickly grasped the strategic power of a 6 foot longbow and it became known as the “English” longbow.

Traditionally, it was believed that prior to the beginning of the 14th century, the weapon was a self bow between four and five feet in length, known as the “shortbow.” This weapon was drawn to the chest rather than the ear, and was much weaker than the longbow. However, in 1985, Jim Bradbury reclassified this weapon as an ordinary wooden bow, reserving the term “shortbow” for short composite bows.

In 2005, Strickland and Hardy took this argument further, suggesting that the shortbow was a myth and all early English bows were a form of longbow. In 2012, Richard Wadge added to the debate with an extensive survey of iconographic and archaeological evidence, concluding that longbows co-existed with shorter self-wood bows in England in the period between the Norman Conquest and the reign of Edward III, but that powerful longbows shooting heavy arrows were a rarity until the later 13th century.

The Bayeux tapestry shows only one Saxon bowman with a short bow. The rest of Harold's forces use the shield and battle-axe. The Norman archers from Louviers and Evreux who, according to tradition, won William's victory for him, also used the short wooden bow.

It is believed by some that Southern Wales was the home of the longbow based on the historical writings of the late 12th century cleric Silvester Giraldus Cambrensis. Cambrensis was Archdeacon of Brecknock, servant of King Henry II and his son, Richard the Lion-Hearted, and co-adjutor in administration with the Bishop of Ely of Richard's realm during the Third Crusade. But the one accomplishment he is best remembered for is his chronicle, The Itinery Triugh Wales.

In his chronicle, Cambrensis describes the archery of the Southern Welsh. He notes that a tribe called the Venta were "more accustomed to war, more famous for valor, and more expert in archery, than those of any other part of Wales."

In The Red Wolf’s Prize, it is the Welshman Rhodri who brings the bow to Talisand and fashions smaller bows for the women, including my heroine, Serena.

But even before the Welsh had the bow, the longbow was in England. The earliest, found at Ashcott Heath in Somerset, dates to 2665 BC. There is also evidence that the longbow was introduced into England from the Scandinavian countries, though it is not clear when. The best answer is probably sometime during the many Danish invasions well before 1066.

E.G. Heath, author of The Grey Goose Wing and A history of Target Archery, notes that several well-preserved longbows were recovered from Saxon burial galleys found at Nydam Moor in Denmark in 1863 that have been dated to between 200 and 400 A.D.
Dr. Elizabeth Munksgaard has verified that the Nydam bows in the National Museum of Denmark number seven and are self-wooden D-shaped bows between 5 feet 7 inches and 6 feet long. One of the bows has a nock of horn.
The Longbow Challenge at Warwick Castle, England.

Thank you, Regan! 
What a treat. 
I remember visiting Warwick Castle and seeing a demonstration of period archery. The archer told us that the insulting gesture of holding up two fingers in a "V" shape, was an offshot of the skill of English archers. The gesture showcased the strength in their bow-drawing fingers and was effectively an insult to the French that they shot. 
Grace x

Anyhow, without further ado, here is an excerpt from Regan's latest release. 

Red Wolf Excerpt:
 The Red Wolf meets Serena, disguised as the servant, Sarah

Renaud lingered at the high table in the hall until he glimpsed the servant girl with the brown plait carry a pile of linen through the entry heading toward the stairs to the bedchambers. Slowly rising, he nodded to Geoff and followed after her.
Quietly, he stepped through the open door of his chamber. The girl had her back to him as she freshened the bed, the stack of clean linen resting on a nearby chest. He did not acknowledge her but went directly to the trestle table, poured a goblet of wine and sat, pretending to examine a drawing of the lands surrounding the manor. 
She turned. “I can come back later, my lord.” She spoke meekly, barely looking at him as she hurriedly finished with the bed and began a hasty retreat to the door.
He replied in the English tongue, as he did to all save his men. “Nay, you may stay. Your work will not disturb me.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her back stiffen. Slowly, she retraced her steps and resumed her work. Her movements were rushed as if she were trying to complete her assigned tasks in haste. Was she nervous at being alone with him? Even with that, Renaud thought she was graceful as she walked to the shelves near where he sat. She held her head high, unusual for a servant in the presence of her lord. Though her long plait was the dull color of country earth, her profile was refined and her features delicate. He rose and silently moved to stand behind her where she dusted a carved box.
She must have sensed his approach.
“My lord?” she said, turning to face him.
Blue-violet eyes held his gaze only a moment before looking down at the floor. Set in her ivory face they reminded him of violets in the snow. So mesmerized was he that, for a moment, he forgot his question.
“Your name is Sarah?”
Keeping her eyes focused on the floor, she said, “Yea, my lord.”
“How long have you been at Talisand?”
“All my life, my lord.” Her voice was soft, a low purr, and with her words a flowery scent drifted to his nose. He was captivated and wanted to touch her. How long had it been since he’d had a woman? And this one was causing his manhood to stir.  
Turing back to the shelf, she resumed dusting the carved box, as if to put an end to the conversation. His gaze shifted to her hand as she set down the box. Delicate fingers and ivory skin. It was not the hand of a kitchen wench.
“Let me see your hand.” She started at his request, and though he could see she wanted to resist, she did not fight him when he reached for her hand and brought it close to his body turning her palm upward.
It told him much.

Twitter: @RegansReview (
The Red Wolf’s Prize on Pinterest: The Red Wolf's Prize by Regan Walker

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Collective Term for Kittens?

That's easy! I hear you cry.
The collective term for a group of kittens is obvious. The answer is, "A litter of kittens."


The correct term is a "Kindle of kittens".
This name is much older than the word litter, and first appears in connection with those bundles of cuteness we call kittens in the The Book of St Albans.

The Book of St Albans was a sort of Middle Age gentleman's almanac. Printed in 1486 it was perhaps more accurately known as The Book of Hunting, Hawking, and Blasing of Arms, which gives you a glimpse into what the priorities were of a well-heeled gent in the 15th century.

It seems likely the word's derivation comes from a Middle English word, kindelen, meaning to give birth to. In turn, this word probably come from an even older Norse word with the same meaning, kynda.

These days the word kindle is used more as a verb, meaning to set light to or to grow excitement. (Or, depending on your generation your thoughts may skip straight to a reading device.)

So here's a little test.
What are the collective terms for the following: (Answers at the end – No peeking!)

A)     Buffalos
B)     Bears
C)     Ferrets
D)     Rhinoceroses
E)      Giraffes

A)     Not, it's not a herd of buffalos (that's what I would have said), but an obstinacy.
B)     Bears – I've never given this much thought before, but the answer is:- a sloth of bears
C)     Before you say firkin ferrets (think about it), the correct response is a business of ferrets
D)     The term for a group of rhinoceroses is very descriptive: a crash
E)      And last but not least, a tower of giraffes