birds of prey, British folklore, conservation, environment, history, leisure, tourism, UK, wildlife

Peregrine-spotting at Norwich Cathedral

My Beloved’s favourite birds are peregrines – and for a man who loves raptors of all descriptions as much as he does, that’s quite a statement.

 

So he was delighted when we got to see a couple of them in all their unadulterated glory the other weekend. While these lovely, majestic birds once nested predominantly on mountains and coastal cliff ledges, they can now also be found dwelling in urban edifices of all kinds – including cathedrals such as Norwich, which is where we spotted them on our little jaunt there.

 

In fact, for a few weeks now, we’ve actually been watching a pair of chicks grow, develop and get fluffier via a webcam strategically placed by the Hawk and Owl Trust, which is based in nearby Fakenham of thoroughbred horseracing fame. The chicks belong to a couple of peregrines, which incidentally mate for life, but first took up residence in 2011 on the Cathedral spire using a special platform put up by the Trust a knee-wobbling 75 metres above the ground.

 

Peregrine roosting spot at Norwich Cathedral
Peregrine roosting spot at Norwich Cathedral

And like similar breeding programmes elsewhere, the move seems to have been very successful. Which is just as well really seeing as last century, peregrines actually became an endangered species, with numbers falling to only 400 or so breeding pairs.

 

The population had initially started declining about 100 years ago during World War I when lots were killed off to stop them attacking carrier pigeons bringing home important intelligence from the front. Despite the fact that they don’t tend to munch on game birds such as pheasant or grouse much, preferring more medium-sized prey such pigeons and doves, peregrines were also a favourite target of gamekeepers too.

 

But the worst offenders of all were farmers using organo-chlorine pesticides, and especially the now infamous DDT, from the 1950s until it was banned in the 1980s. The problem was that the chemicals caused the shells of the birds’ eggs to thin, which meant that fewer survived through to the hatching stage. And when you have a situation where between 70% and 80% of all fledged youngsters die in their first year anyway, it’s not hard to see how disastrous such environmental pollution was to the peregrines’ wellbeing.

 

But populations have now recovered to such an extent that there are a much healthier 1,500 pairs across the UK, a scenario helped at least in part by the birds’ highly protected status. And so they should be – not only are these magnificent creatures our largest native falcon, but they are also intimately tied into our history due to their important role in the art of falconry.

 

Bird of choice

 

Although falconry is believed to have begun in Mesopotamia, with the earliest accounts dating the activity to approximately 2000 BC, it was apparently introduced to Europe around AD400 when the Huns and Alans invaded from the East. By 875AD, falconry was widely practised in Saxon England, but following the Norman conquest in 1066 it was restricted to the upper classes, and peasants could find themselves hanged for keeping hawks, which does seem a bit harsh.

 

While yeomen were assigned the privilege of using short-winged birds such as goshawks and sparrowhawks to hunt for food, it was only the King and his nobles who were allowed to own long-winged falcons such as peregrines and merlins.

 

But it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that falconry really took off as a sport, becoming a veritable status symbol among the nobility. They trained their raptors to hunt small prey such as rabbits and other birds and, as the activity did not involve face-to-face encounters with potentially dangerous creatures such as boar and stags, women were allowed to play too.

 

Interestingly though, it was peregrines with their keen intellect that became their birds of choice. Being relatively small, they are also relatively light to hold on the fist and particularly graceful in the air. They are also the fastest bird on the planet.

Peregine diving
Peregine diving

Attacking their prey by making spectacularly accurate dives of more than 200 miles per hour, peregrines opt to break its bones and knock it out of the sky rather than sully their talons in a bloody fight to the death, thus sanitising the whole macabre process.

 

What all of this means in a symbolic sense though is that falcons in general, and peregrines in particular, are all about focus. So if you believe in auguries and a peregrine comes into your sights, they are apparently reminding you to concentrate on your desires and goals, and do whatever it takes to realise them. To do so successfully, however, you’ll need to act in as methodical and strategic a fashion as any self-respecting peregrine would when out on a hunting trip.

 

But these beautiful birds also represent a visionary power that, if tuned into, can help you solve on-going dilemmas, or even discover your life’s purpose. And as such, their appearance implies a time of transition and change and the need to rise above your current situation.

 

So next time you happen to spot a peregrine, it might repay you to ponder on just what it is they’re trying to tell you. It certainly can’t do any harm anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

countryside, culture, history, leisure, lifestyle, regeneration, tourism, UK

Buxton: A town that keeps on surprising

Buxton in Derbyshire isn’t necessarily entirely what you’d expect. In fact, I didn’t know what to expect at all really when we went there on a weekend jaunt a few weeks ago to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday. But then I can’t say I’d ever particularly explored the Peak District before, of which this charming old market and spa town sits at the heart.

 

In all honesty it’s probably a bit regionalist of me, but I’d always seen the area as a bit of a poor relation of the Highlands of Scotland, the Lake District and even my own personal favourite – but probably least well-known of the lot – Northumberland. But shame on me.

 

It’s actually a fascinating place, packed full of quirky surprises, and cast in a truly lovely setting. Not so very dissimilar to the Yorkshire Dales, in fact, only somewhat less tourist-y. As a for instance, lots of the hills surrounding Buxton carry the word ‘low’ somewhere in their name, Arbor Low or Grin Low being cases in point. Coming from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hlaw’, it actually means ‘burial mound’ and the town is apparently surrounded by lots of such bronze age sites.

 

But just to add to its mystery, Buxton also boasts quite a few firsts. On the one hand, at 1,000 or so feet above sea level, it is said to be the highest market town in England – although Alston in Cumbria also lays claim to the title too.

 

On the other, the town’s oldest building, the Old Hall Hotel, is believed to be the UK’s first ever hotel. It was allegedly built to house Mary Queen of Scots who stayed there at sporadic intervals between 1548 and 1573, after being taken into custody by local dignitary, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I. And it still does a mean pan-fried sea bream to this day, a fact to which I can personally attest after partaking of a lovely meal there with my family.

 

Old Hall Hotel
Old Hall Hotel

Mary was quite keen on the place too allegedly as the warm waters of the nearby natural thermal spring, which emerges from the ground at a constant 82 degrees Fahrenheit, helped keep her rheumatism in check. And it is spring water, at least in bottled form, for which Buxton is probably most famous. You’d certainly be hard-pressed not to find the odd bottle or two in most supermarkets or motorway service stations in the UK these days anyway.

 

But to get back to the Earl of Shrewsbury for a moment. He just happened to be married to Elizabeth Talbot, otherwise known as Bess of Hardwick, who by virtue of a few smart marriages scaled the heights of 16th century English society to become fabulously wealthy, helped along in such matters by her own shrewd business sense.

 

Bess of Hardwick’s legacy

 

Anyway, Bess built herself, among other things, nearby Chatsworth House, which must be among the most lavish and flamboyant stately homes that I’ve ever set eyes upon. In fact, as an emblem of its if truth-be-known somewhat vulgar over-the-top-ness, all of its window frames are even covered in gold paint. Perhaps unsurprisingly given its sumptuousness, the 126-room country pile has also starred in loads of films from “The Duchess” to “The Wolfman”.

 

Although I must confess that I wasn’t particularly taken with its interior, which I found a bit oppressive, what really did grab my fancy was the 105-acre gardens, landscaped in the 1760s by no less a personage than Lancelot “Capability” Brown himself. There’s a maze, kitchen garden, water garden, rose garden, gravity-fed Emperor Fountain and even a display greenhouse, divided into three climactic zones – Temperate, Mediterranean and Tropical. And there are, of course, also the breathtakingly elegant landscaped vistas for which Brown is so renowned and which still seem so quintessentially English 300 years after his birth.

 

Chatsworth House
Chatsworth House

Anyway, all of this is rather more pertinent to Buxton than it might appear at first glance. This is because Chatsworth just happens to be the official seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, who are in fact the progeny of Bess of Hardwick’s second marriage to courtier, Sir William Cavendish.

 

And it is this family, which made pots of money mining copper at Ecton Hill in Staffordshire that is responsible for shaping (lower) Buxton in all of its Georgian splendour to make it into the UK’s premier spa town of the seventeenth century. In fact, you’ll still see the Cavendish name all over town on everything from street names to buildings and even the odd shopping arcade.

 

But intriguingly, there’s also a Higher Buxton too should you happen to stumble up the steeper-than-it-looks Hall Bank. While you could easily miss it, it’s actually an independent village that formed the original settlement and which still houses the town hall and marketplace to this day. And as such, it’s rather more down-to-earth than its somewhat showier neighbour.

 

Because, perhaps surprisingly for a town of its size, (lower) Buxton boasts more than a few iconic buildings, created mainly out of the local area’s warm-coloured limestone. For instance, there’s the Grade I-listed Crescent, which was designed by the York architect John Carr in 1784 to rival the much more famous Royal Crescent in Bath. Including two hotels, apartments, shops, coffee and card rooms and an Assembly Room, it was funded by the 5th Duke of Devonshire to provide accommodation for spa-goers and any friends of his keen on a health-giving sojourn there.

 

Important British site

 

Even more intriguingly, the Crescent was actually built on the site of a Roman Baths. The Romans called their spa “Aquae Arnemetiae”, which translates as ‘the waters of the goddess who lives in a sacred grove’. Arnemetia was a river goddess worshipped by the local Celtic Corieltauvi tribe and it was believed that drinking from her waters would cure you of sickness and wasting disease.

 

Moreover, as groves were where the Druids conducted their ceremonies, it gives you some idea of just how important a religious centre this place must have been. It was certainly significant enough for the Romans to apply the term “Aquae” to it anyway, an honour accorded to only one other British town – that of Bath, which was known as “Aquae Sulis”. Sulis was a local water goddess there too and the Romans equated her with Minerva, their own goddess of wisdom and knowledge.

 

Anyway, redeveloped in the mid-1800s, the Roman Baths morphed into the so-called Natural Baths and it is they that will form the centrepiece of a new 79-bedroom five-star spa hotel due to be opened next year. This heritage regeneration project is expected to cost £70 million or so, but is intended to help revive the town’s fortunes and stimulate a new wave of tourism in its role as Peak District capital.

 

The Devonshire Dome
The Devonshire Dome

But there’s also the Devonshire Dome. Originally built in 1882 for the Royal Devonshire Hospital, it is now part of the University of Derby and dominates the town’s skyline. With a diameter of 46 metres, it is also the largest unsupported dome in Europe.

 

Or there’s the 23-acre Pavilion Gardens on the banks of the River Wye. Laid out by Edward Milner, a successful Victorian landscape architect and designer who has since vanished into obscurity, this lovely site also includes the UK’s first Winter Gardens. They were created in the image and likeness of London’s Crystal Palace, a development in which Milner played a key role too.

 

His goal with the Winter Gardens though was to craft an environment where the upper crust could promenade in all weathers, enjoying displays of exotic foliage and flowers while listening to the light orchestral pleasures of palm court music. And the idea spread like wildfire across the country from Margate to Sunderland.

 

Today, the building houses sundry shops and cafes as well as the Pavilion Arts Centre, which plays a key role in Buxton’s Festival Fringe each July. Running parallel with the Buxton arts Festival, which focuses on opera, music and books, lots of artistes interestingly use it as a test bed for that much more famous counterpart, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest such event in the world.

 

So say what you like about Buxton, but to me, it’s really rather a special place that just keeps on charming and surprising.

 

 

 

 

 

British folklore, Britishness, conservation, countryside, environment, history, pagan, paganism, trees, UK

Saving our sacred trees: Oak, ash and hawthorn

I was horrified to learn last week that the iconic ash tree could well be wiped out across Europe over the next few years – and that includes the UK, despite the at least partial protection bestowed on us by being an island.

 

The problem, it seems, is not just the fungal disease ash dieback, which we’ve all heard about for a number of years now as it creeps its malignant way across the continent. The disease, which was first identified in England in 2012 in a consignment of imported trees 20 years after initially being discovered in Eastern Europe, has since spread from Norfolk and Suffolk to as far as South Wales. And, worst case scenario, it has the potential to destroy 95% of our native ash trees.

 

But as if that wasn’t enough, according to the latest research published in the Journal of Ecology, the poor ashes now have a double whammy to contend with in the shape of a deadly flying beetle called the emerald ash borer, which could well do for the rest.

 

The beetle in question is bright green and, like ash dieback, is an invasive species brought in from Asia. Although not yet in the UK, it is spreading west from Moscow at a rate of 25 miles per year and is already thought to have reached Sweden.

 

While the adult beetles feed on ash trees, they aren’t actually the ones that cause the damage. Instead it is their larvae that wreak havoc as they bore under the bark and into the wood, thus killing the tree in the process.

 

Not only is this situation a tragedy in its own right, of course, but if the ash were wiped out, it would undoubtedly change the face of the British countryside for ever. Ash is one of the UK’s most abundant trees – it is our most common hedgerow components, with a vast 60,000 miles of it up and down the country. It is also our second most prevalent woodland tree after the oak and is a popular fixture in most towns and cities.

 

Ash tree
Ash tree

So losing it would also have a severe impact on biodiversity. Some 1,000 or so native species rely on the ash as their habitat, including 12 types of birds, 55 mammals and more than 100 species of lichens, fungi and insects. This means that the affect of its disappearance would take on epic proportions – an even worse scenario than losing our 15 million or so elms in the 1970s to Dutch elm disease.

 

The tree of life

 

But just as epic would be the ash’s loss to the country in symbolic terms. In British/Celtic folklore, it is particularly associated with healing, protection and enchantment and, somewhat scarily in this context, it is actually known as the World Tree.

 

According to the Celtic world order, it vertically spans between worlds from the waters of Annwn (where spirits dwell before birth/rebirth), Abred (physical world), Gwynvid (Heaven/Nirvana) and into Ceugant (God/Goddess/Spirit).

 

In this way, it symbolises the Cosmic Axis of the universe or the central column of the Tree of Life, with its branches spreading into Otherworldly realms and its roots into the lower worlds – hence the ancient Druidic saying “Know yourself and you will know the world.”

 

In Viking mythology, meanwhile, the ash is known as Yggdrasil or the World Tree too. Standing at the centre of the Norse cosmos, its upper branches cradled Asgard, the home and fortress of the gods and goddesses of whom Odin was the supreme deity and All-Father, while its lower boughs spread across the countries of the world and its roots reached down into the Underworld.

 

Yggdrasil grew out of the Well of Urd, a pool holding many of the most powerful beings in the universe. These included three wise maidens known as the Norns who exerted more influence over the course of destiny than anyone else in the cosmos by carving runes into Yggdrasil’s trunk. These symbols then carried their intentions throughout the tree, affecting everything in the Nine Worlds.

 

But Odin envied their powers and wisdom and so in order to prove himself worthy, hung himself from a branch of Yggdrasil for nine days and nights until the secrets of the runes were revealed to him.

 

So given its apparently central role in the destiny of the universe and all its creatures, you tremble to think what it would signify if the ash were to die. In fact, it simply doesn’t bear thinking about, not least because, again in the Celtic world view, the ash was the all-embracing World Mother, the feminine counterpart to the All-Father tree, the oak – which just as worryingly appears to be in trouble too.

 

Oak tree
Oak tree

Again the oak, our national tree, is under attack on two fronts. Chronic oak dieback, a complex condition involving the interaction of damaging abiotic and abiotic factors such as high winds, recurrent drought and opportunistic assaults from insects and fungi on already weakened trees, has had a damaging impact for nearly a century now, with the worst outbreak taking place between 1989 and 1994.

 

Aboreal trinity

 

But since the 1980s, acute oak decline has also been taking its toll mostly across East Anglia, the Midlands and Southern England as far west as Somerset. You can tell an infected tree by the emergence of a dark fluid oozing from cracks in the bark caused by the so-called oak jewel beetle – and death occurs within a mere four or five years of symptoms first appearing.

 

But again the importance of the oak to this land in symbolic rather than pure biodiversity terms cannot be underestimated. Synonymous with courage, strength, endurance and steadfastness, oak trees were perceived to be protectors and guardians of the virtuous.

 

Being the tree of the Dagda, the father god also known as the good god because he protected the crops, the oak was considered the most sacred by the Celts and their Druid religious leaders. Considered a means of accessing spiritual wisdom, it was also seen as a portal to the Otherworld – and so unsurprisingly, oak groves or “nematons” were special places where Druids chose to hold their religious ceremonies.

 

The Anglo-Saxons, meanwhile, dedicated their oak groves to Thunor, otherwise known as Thor, the god of thunder, in the south and east of England, with the village of Thundersley in Essex being a case in point. Like the ash, oaks were said to “court the lightening flash” and are still commonly believed to be hit more than any other tree.

 

The final one to complete the trio, however, which thankfully has remained disease-free to date, is the hawthorn. If found growing beside the oak and ash, it was said to be part of a “fairy triad”, which attracted the Fae or spirits of nature who would dance at twilight to celebrate Mother Earth’s abundant beauty.

 

If standing by a sacred spring or holy well, however, the hawthorn acted as a threshold to the Otherworld, and had links to the Welsh goddess, Olwen. Known as the White Goddess of the Hawthorn, it was her white track of hawthorn petals that became the Milky Way when she walked the empty universe, or so the myth goes anyway.

 

Hawthorn
Hawthorn

But at one time simply known as “May”, the tree was also closely associated with the eponymous month, which was the time for courtship and love-making after the cold of winter. All of which means that the hawthorn symbolised fertility, sacred union and the unity of male and female energies, thus forming the third branch of the arboreal Trinity. And so if we can manage to keep that one safe at least, there might just be hope for us yet.

 

 

British stereotypes, Britishness, education, employment, history, lifestyle, social class, UK

Is England really the most class-ridden country under the sun?

“England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.”

 

These immortal words were uttered by George Orwell, author of the iconic novel “1984” and one of the most influential British writers of the 20th century, in 1941. And they have, it must be said, contributed to one of the most enduring stereotypes of English life. But just how true are they today?

 

Before we even start, “social class” is, it seems to me, a bit of a loaded term these days. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair tried hard to persuade us all during his tenure (1997-2007) that such a thing no longer existed in modern Britain, siding instead with the US preference for money being the key differentiator between social groupings rather than the more traditional blood and background.

 

Tony Blair
Tony Blair

While this stance was underpinned by New Labour’s aims in moving the Party to the centre ground of politics and keeping the hard left in its place by positioning old ideas of “class war” as irrelevant and old-fashioned, that didn’t mean to say the notion of class disappeared completely. Instead it just appeared to morph in line with other changes in society, not least the progressive de-industrialisation of the UK economy which made traditional delineations less relevant.

 

So in order to get a better handle on what was happening, the BBC commissioned a massive survey in January 2011 – one of the largest ever studies on class in the UK, in fact. Some 160,000 members of the broadcaster’s audience took part in the questionnaire, the results of which were analysed by sociologists Mike Savage from the London School of Economics and Fiona Devine from the University of Manchester.

 

And their findings, which were published in the journal Sociology a couple of years later, were interesting. Responses to questions based on ‘economic capital’ (income, the value of home and savings), ‘cultural capital’ (cultural interests and activities) and ‘social capital’ (the number and status of people they knew) revealed that the three traditional social classes in Britain – upper, middle and working – had actually expanded to seven.

 

Even though people still tended to think they belonged to a certain class on the basis of their job or income, only 39% of participants truly fitted into traditional middle or working class stereotypes if cultural and social capital were also taken into consideration, indicating that, in category terms at least, things are much more fluid than they once were.

 

On the other hand though, the evidence still suggests that privilege will out. According to a study undertaken by a couple of economists, Professor Gregory Clark and Dr Neil Cummins, at the start of 2015, attempts to improve social mobility in the UK over the last 150 years have failed miserably.

 

In their research, they tracked 634 rare surnames such as Pepys, Bigge and Nottidge, to understand how wealth had been passed down through the generations since 1850, dividing 18,869 people into three categories in the process – rich, prosperous and poor. They discovered that not only were the descendants of the wealthy in 1850 still rich today, but they continued to live longer than average, were more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge, reside in expensive areas and join professions such as doctors or lawyers.

 

In spite of the introduction of wealth taxes in the early twentieth century, the advent of mass education and the opening up of universities and professions to those outside of the elite in a bid to even things up a bit, social mobility rates have changed not “one iota”, Clark and Cummins attest.

 

Inequality and static social mobility

 

“There is no more popular political programme than that which calls for enhanced social mobility,” they wrote. “Our data suggests there is also no programme more guaranteed to fail.”

 

As a result, in order to create a more equal society, the only answer was to “do it directly, by taxing the rich and subsidising the poor”, Clark says. There is no other remedy in his view.

 

Such findings would appear to be backed up by other studies too. Research by The Sutton Trust, a charity that supports projects providing educational opportunities to underprivileged children, revealed earlier this year that a privately educated elite continues to dominate the country’s professions. Whether we’re talking about law, politics, medicine or journalism, a public (confusingly for non-Brits, this is the term used elsewhere for private) school education undoubtedly makes you much more likely to reach the upper echelons of public life in Britain, it seems.

 

Eton College
Eton College

So although only 7% of the population attend fee-paying schools – compared with the 88% who go to comprehensives – just under three quarters of pre-eminent judges working in the high or appeal court today were privately educated. So were 71% of the top military brass, 61% of top doctors, 51% of leading print journalists and just under a third of politicians.

 

But as Sir Peter Lampl, chair of The Sutton Trust, aptly points out, sailing to the top is not just about having the money do so. “As well as academic achievement, an independent education tends to develop essential skills such as confidence, articulacy and teamwork, which are vital to career success,” he says.

 

As a result, Lampl recommends opening up private schools to all pupils based on merit rather than money as well as providing more support for very able pupils in state schools.

 

But sadly, it doesn’t seem as if the UK’s high levels of inequality are likely to change any time soon. In fact, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, for the first time in almost a decade, the situation is getting worse rather than better.

 

This scenario is, unfortunately, mainly due to rapidly increasing house prices, particularly in London and the South East, driven by the Bank of England’s attempts to prop up the British economy following the 2008 recession using policies such as low interest rates and quantitative easing.

 

In the years between July 2012 and June 2014 when the research was conducted, these policies led to the richest 20% of households having 117 times more assets than the poorest 20% compared with 97 times two years ago.

 

Moreover, it appears that wealth and income fault lines are increasingly running along generational lines. So while a quarter of people aged 55 to 64 live in households with more than £1 million worth of assets, the same is true of only 4% of 25 to 34 year olds – a fact that simply can’t bode well for the future, whichever way you look at it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

British cuisine entertainment, food, food and drink, history, lifestyle

Is the end nigh for our Great British staples?

I’m not entirely sure what it says about the Great British People, but the top  symbols of nationhood that make our chests swell with collective pride relate to food and drink.

 

First on the list of iconic delights is the inevitable Sunday roast, complete with meat and two veg, roast potatoes, and of course, Yorkshire pudding, said by many to be our national dish. Second is greasy takeaway staple fish and chips, followed by the BBC, the Union flag, Wimbledon and that most enduring of British cliches, the “nice cup of tea”.

 

So it was with shock that I learnt recently that sales of our national beverage are actually in decline – between 2010 and 2015, it seems, overall black tea volumes slumped by a huge 22% from 97 million kilograms to a mere 76 million. And according to market research agency Mintel, this outrage was attributable to one key thing – dwindling teabag purchases.

 

Sales of your bog-standard black teabag nosedived by 13% between 2012 and 2014 to £425 million as people such as myself forsook them with gay abandon for healthier, trendier – or, in my intolerance-scarred case, caffeine-free – alternatives ranging from green tea (sales up 50%), fruit and herb (up 31%) and speciality blends such as Earl Grey, Darjeeling and Assam (up 15%).

Nice cup of tea
Nice cup of tea

The increasing popularity of coffee, stimulated by premium-priced coffee shops springing up on every street corner – more than 20,000 such establishments now exist across the country, it seems – also didn’t help, of course, but did serve to create a market currently valued at more than £1 billion per annum.

 

Incidentally, coffee when first brought to Europe in the 16th century was apparently viewed with suspicion, being as it was the drink of choice in a Muslim world that Christendom had been at war with for centuries. On rather adventurously giving it a go though, Pope Clement VIII, under pressure from his advisors to declare it the “bitter invention of Satan”, is said to have stated: “This devil’s drink is so delicious…we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!”

 

And this ringing endorsement led to it it taking off all over the region pretty quickly after that. Europe’s first coffee house opened in Vienna in 1645, while the UK’s followed in Oxford seven years later – and still exists to this day under the name, The Grand Café.

 

Within as little as 25 years, some 3,000 or so such concerns had sprung up across the country, becoming popular places to meet and chat about the news, politics and gossip of the day – to such an extent, in fact, that Charles II tried unsuccessfully to get them banned in 1675 for being hotbeds of sedition. Unusually coffee shops were open to all men irrespective of their social status and so were associated with such dissolute notions as equality and republicanism, which obviously didn’t go down too well.

 

Anyway, even though the devil’s drink may once again be trying to assert its  fiendish grip on the nation, reassuringly according to the UK Tea and Infusions Association, black tea is still by far the country’s most popular hot drink. More than 165 million cups are imbibed every day compared to coffee’s mere 70 million.

In fact, more than half (54%) of the population drink at least one cup each day, with men aged between 16 and 44 being the biggest fans (four out of five indulge their vice on a daily basis). The only people that drink more of the stuff per head than us apparently are the Irish.

 

Great British bangers

 

Another staple that seems to be falling equally foul of the current migration to all things healthy, however, is the Great British Banger. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of sausages sold has slumped by more than a quarter – or a huge 260 million packs – since 2008 – although the value of those sales has dropped by a mere 2.1% to £820.7 million.

 

The problem seems to lie in the fact that shoppers are now moving to healthier, non-processed meats such as chicken and steak, put off by reports of sausages’ high fat and salt content as well as the inclusion of cheap fillers such as breadcrumbs or wheat rusks.

 

But people also didn’t appear too keen on reports last June that the superbug MRSA had been found in sausages and minced pork sold in UK supermarkets. Or on last October’s revelations from the World Health Organisation that processed meat was a major cause of cancer – all of which, when taken together, has unsurprisingly done a fine job of hammering sales.

 

But it’s a shame in a way because sausages are, apparently, one of our oldest processed foods. A culinary gift from the Romans, their name is derived from the Latin word “salsus”, which means something salted.

 

Sausages
Sausages

They gained their nickname of “bangers’ during the First World War though, when food shortages led to a big reduction in meat levels. As a result, they were packed with scraps, cereal and water, which made them pop, hiss and even explode when cooked over open fires in the trenches.

 

But despite the sausage’s demotion in status in the national diet, thankfully all is not lost – last month, we were able to stand proud once more when the humble black pudding was dubbed a “superfood” by online health retailer, MuscleFood.com – and the word seemed to spread like wildfire.

 

Packed with protein, practically carb-free and rich in iron and zinc, the (pig’s) blood sausage and staple of the ever-popular full English breakfast was ranked among black beans, sprouted grains and kohlrabi (the new kale) in terms of health-giving properties.

 

Although various spoilsports have since burst the bubble by indiscreetly mentioning its high fat and salt content and equally high calorie count, that doesn’t seem to have put off sales of the Stornoway Black Pudding, for one. This particular titbit was awarded Protected Geographical Indication status in 2013, putting it on a similar footing to champagne in France and tea in Darjeeling.

 

As a result, Charles Macleod Butchers in Scotland’s Western Isles told the Mail that it had seen postal demand for its iconic delicacy jump eight-fold in the days after the story broke, and the expectation is that sales will as much as treble over the next five years on the back of it.

 

So despite ongoing fears of obesity epidemics, endless food and drink fads and all too frequent food scares, it seems that at least some of our Great British staples could triumph yet.

Christmas, entertainment, history, theatre, Uncategorized

Discovering British pantomime

I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but I do love a good pantomime. Oh no you don’t, I hear you cry. But I do. I really do.

 

So it was with great delight that my Beloved and I took ourselves off to Saffron Walden town hall last weekend to view the annual festive season Spectacular in all its camp glory. And this year, it took the form of Beauty and the Beast – an esteemed work that I must confess I wasn’t previously familiar with. Dick Whittington, yes. Aladdin, yes. But Beauty and the Beast, no.

 

Saffron Walden market and town hall
Saffron Walden market and town hall

After swallowing the mild embarrassment of being more or less the only people there without young kids in tow, we quickly got into the swing of things and settled down to enjoy a fine selection of Carry On-style innuendo and the usual “he’s behind you” tomfoolery.

 

My favourite character wasn’t so much the hero and heroine of the piece though but the cocky but ultimately thwarted suitor of Beauty (or Belle) named Jean-Claude (it was all set in a French village, which might have been random or could also have been in honour of the French woman who originally wrote the fairytale down in the 18th century, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve – who knows?) who modelled himself on surreal TV comedy the IT Crowd’s Douglas Reynholm, boss of Reynholm Industries.

 

I was also quite taken with Madame Cruella, who seemed to have made a surprise appearance from 101 Dalmations and did a cracking job of being evil, keen as she was to get her sinister claws into young Prince Ferdinand aka the Beast. All very entertaining.

 

But, despite the consummate daftness, it turns out that pantos are actually a pretty old form of musical comedy theatre – and one that, as it happens, is unique to the UK, although it does make an imported appearance in former British colonies such as Ireland, Jamaica, and even Canada and Australia now and then, apparently.

 

Traditionally performed over the Christmas and New Year time, pantomimes are believed by some to have their roots in the so-called Mummers Plays of the 13th to 16th century. These consisted of a kind of processional dance and mime show, to which dialogue was added over time. They were performed during the festive season by troupes of amateurs known as ‘mummers’, a word thought to be derived from the eponymous old German term meaning ‘disguised person’.

 

Ancient traditions

 

The name was assigned to them as many of the performers wore hats or painted their faces red or black to obscure their features out of fear of being recognised (this custom is also associated with English Morris dancers). As mumming was a means for agricultural labourers to raise extra money for Christmas, they went from big house to big house in the area to do their thing. But they didn’t want to be associated with begging – hence the disguises.

 

Nonetheless it seems to have been a lucrative business – it was said that they could raise as much as a whole month’s wages by performing for as little as three evenings.

 

Mummers play
Mummers play

The performances themselves, meanwhile, were broadly-speaking short comic dramas with themes based on duality and resurrection. Generally involving a battle between a couple of characters who are believed to have represented good and evil, one would inevitably be killed and then brought back to life by a doctor wielding a magic potion – an activity that some believe has pagan symbolism relating to the death and rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice.

 

Others hotly dispute the notion, however, attesting that a lack of extant Mummers Play texts prior to the mid-18th century can only mean that they did not exist in drama form before then. They believe that while mummers may have cavorted around in masks, it was actually “guisers” who performed the traditional folk dramas, which were themselves actually influenced by early versions of English pantomime rather than the other way around.

 

Whatever the truth of the matter though, the plays seemed to contain a bunch of elements similar to today’s pantos such as stage fights, coarse humour and gender role reversal (the lead male role generally being performed by a young woman and the dame by an older man).

 

Incidentally, this role reversal, although a later Victorian addition after it went out of fashion for a time, actually reflects a tradition relating to Twelfth Night. It marked the end of a Medieval winter festival that started on All Hallows Day (now Halloween) and ended at the conclusion of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was presided over by the Lord of Misrule, who made his first recorded appearance at the end of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain and who symbolised the world turning upside down.

 

Samhain, which is celebrated today as Halloween took place from sunset on October 31 to sunset on 1 November. It was a period when the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds was said to be thin and the natural order of things reversed.

 

Pantomime history

 

Interestingly though, mumming and guising were also a key part of this festival too. People went from door-to-door dressed up in costumes or disguises as a way of hiding and protecting themselves against the spirits of the Other World, often reciting verses in exchange for food – all of which suggests to me that the whole symbolism of the thing could be much older than it is generally given credit for.

 

Anyway, it seems that during the 16th century, English folk drama, whatever name or form it took, began to be absorbed into a form of Italian travelling street theatre called the Commedia dell’arte. Productions, which had become really popular by the middle of the 17th century, included music, dancing, acrobatics and general buffoonery and were put on in fairgrounds and marketplaces around the country. They were based on a repertoire of comic, and often satirical, stories that contained moral lessons and also included a series of stock characters.

Harlequinade poster
Harlequinade poster

 

From the 1660s onwards, these stock characters began to appear more and more in English plays, until by the first couple of decades of the 1700s, actor-manager of the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre, John Rich, made one of them in the shape of Harlequin the star of his shows.

 

Rich, who has been dubbed the father of pantomime, was also the inspiration behind the chase scenes that became a key part of an early version of panto called a ‘Harlequinade’. These Harlequinades, which dominated the scene for the next 150 years, saw two eloping lovers, Harlequin and Columbine, being pursued by other adapted Commedia characters including her father Pantaloon and his comic servants, Clown and Pierrot. And the pantomine traditions of slapstick, chases and transformation are still based on Harlequinade antics to this day.

 

By the 1870s though, the Harlequinades began to die a death and were replaced by dramas based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes such as ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ and ‘Babes in the Wood’. These productions became so popular and elaborate, in fact, that they sometimes lasted as long as five hours and boasted up to 600 performers.

 

The most extravagant were held at the still thriving Drury Lane Theatre in Covent Garden, London, which was responsible for adding many of the panto elements we still know and love today such as principal boys and pantomime dames, the appearance of celebrities and the use of popular tunes – in those days, Music Hall songs, but today pop ditties.

 

All of which appears to imply that what goes around does seem to end up coming around eventually too.

 

 

Essex, heritage skills, history, lifestyle, tourism

The hidden gems of Essex

Essex has got a bad reputation, unfortunately.

As soon as you mention to anyone that you live there, out come the unkind stereotypes about “Essex girls” and, should the perpetrator be of a certain age, their fake tan and white stilettos. Or if they happen to be a bit younger, vajazzling and TOWIE.

Which is all a bit unfair really. Because, although some of the more deprived areas that many people over-identify with the county such as Dagenham and Harlow leave a lot to be desired, the same could be said of any post-industrial or new town anywhere in the UK.

And I can’t say that the majority of people I’ve met since moving here are any louder, brasher or more promiscuous than anywhere else either – although I must confess that I’m not that taken with the local form of Estuary English, which, like the grey squirrel, has now more or less supplanted its more traditional rural counterpart in the more urbanised south of the county and is starting to wend its rather whiny way to the green and pleasant lands of the north.

Saffron Walden, North Essex
Saffron Walden, North Essex

Anyway, the problem with stereotypes is that they tend to mask the hidden charms of a place (or person for that matter) under layers of prejudice and misunderstanding – and that’s definitely the case here. But to fail to see Essex for what it really is means that you end up missing a trick, not least due to the diversity of its landscapes.

There’s little similarity, for example, between the nature reserve-protected salt marsh and mudflats of Wallasea Island near Southend-on-Sea, with its native oyster community; the ancient, former royal woodland of Epping Forest on the outskirts of London, and the charming, rural, rolling north, with its tiny, innumerable picture-postcard towns and villages.

But that’s Essex for you – ram-packed full of unknown, or underestimated, little gems. And I was lucky enough to discover one of them on a Sunday afternoon jaunt to Coggleshall, a pretty, antique little place between Braintree and Colchester –incidentally the oldest recorded town in Britain – in the company of my mam a few weekends ago.

Coggeshall lace

We’d decided to make a visit to Paycocke’s house and garden, a National Trust property that was built by wealthy clothing merchant, Thomas, in 1509. The aim of this sojourn was to observe a lace-making demonstration for Coggeshall Lace Week as we fancied seeing how it was done.

Paycocke's House
Paycocke’s House

But it wasn’t necessarily quite what we’d expected. For one thing, Coggeshall lace isn’t actually lace in the classic sense. Instead it’s net that’s been decorated in chain-stitched embroidery using cotton or silk threads, and even beads in some cases.

This style of “tambour lace” – so-called because workers in the Far East where it originated, used a round frame like a drum that they gripped with their knees to stretch the net in order to work it – was brought to Coggeshall by a French emigre called Monsieur Drago along with his two daughters in 1812.

They taught the craft to the good women of Coggeshall and surrounding villages, albeit on a rectangular rather than round frame, who in their turn sold it on to dealers and manufacturers as a cheaper alternative to the more traditional bobbin lace being made in places like Nottingham.

It was at the time used for everything from handkerchiefs; collars for blouses; frills and flounces for dresses, and even wedding veils – and in its heyday was stocked, among others, by the upmarket Liberty department store in London.

Interestingly though, the industry was given a bit of a boost by Derbyshire-born inventor and entrepreneur, John Heathcoat. He had pioneered the bobbinet tulle net-making process in 1808 and set up a factory seven years later in a converted mill in Loughborough, Leicestershire to mass-produce it.

Which was great for the Coggeshall lace ladies as not only was this kind of net a lot cheaper than the more traditional “pillow lace” – so-called because of the pillow used to create it – but its octagonal rather than round holes also made it much less likely to sheer when worked.

Unfortunately for the domestic workers of south Nottinghamshire though, this very same innovation massively undercut their hand-produced goods – and so the Luddites paid Heathcote a visit and wrecked his precious machines. At which point he scuttled off to Tiverton in Devon, taking what was left of his inventions with him and turning the town’s fortunes around in the process.

Strange but true

In fact, his factory still exists to this day in the form of Heathcoat Fabrics, which sells engineered textiles to industries such as transport, aerospace and the military and employs more than 400 people.

Anyway, after this little blip with Heathcoat, the market for machine-made Nottingham lace took off and continued to thrive until the First World War when global trade was hammered, a scenario that the industry never really recovered from.

Coggeshall lace production, on the other hand, had started suffering as early as the 1860s, when the first chain stitch sewing machines began appearing on the market. An already difficult situation was made even worse 20 years later, however, when the first of the Anglo-Boer Wars kicked off. The big problem here was that the fabric on which the lace was based ended up being used to manufacture mosquito nets and so became really scarce.

Old Lace Shop, Coggeshall
Old Lace Shop, Coggeshall

By the 1930s, things had got so dire for the lace makers that they made a last desperate attempt to secure royal patronage in a bid to revive their fortunes. This led to three handkerchiefs being specially created for Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark when she married Prince George, the Duke of Kent and fourth son of King George V, in 1934. Dresses were also made for their subsequent child, Princess Alexandra, as well as the current Queen and her sister Princess Margaret. But to no avail – the financial return was simply too meagre.

As a result, the only person left in Coggeshall making lace these days is a lady called Sue Game. She still teaches the craft to anyone in the area who’s interested but, happily for tradition, it’s also possible to gain instruction as part of a City & Guilds vocational skills course in lace making apparently. It’s an art that’s also practised by a few members of the Lace Guild so it’s not quite over yet.

Anyway, a final thought on the wonders of Essex – or at least my top three favourite facts about the place:

1 The first crocodile was brought to the UK in 1701 by Richard Bradley who kept it in the lake at his home in Braintree

2 Paper Lace’s 1974 hit pop song “Billy don’t be a Hero” was written in the lounge bar of The Old Dog Inn, Herongate Tye near Brentwood

3 People living in Essex are 38% more likely to be hit by falling aeroplane parts than anywhere else in the UK.

What more can I say.

culture, genetics, history

Celtic myths: It’s all in the genes

I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a Celt. And being of mixed English-Irish heritage, I’d have said I was least partially entitled to lay claim to such a title.

So it seems a shame that, in some ways, the whole “Celtic” thing appears to be a bit of a romantic myth. Let me explain: according to the British Museum’s rather good latest exhibition entitled “Celts: art and identity”, which I popped along to see with my parents a couple of weekends ago, this ancient people were not so much a single group inhabiting broad swathes of Europe from the Atlantic to the Black Sea.

British Museum
British Museum

They were instead more a bunch of individual local communities and tribal clusters, connected by similar worldviews, values, languages and artwork, but also quite distinct from each other. As the Celtic culture was predominantly an oral one though, they left no written records to elucidate or explain themselves.

And so the vacuum was filled by others, notably the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus who has shaped our beliefs about these so-called “barbarians” ever since through the rather superior, “civilised” Mediterranean opinions that he espoused in the first century BC.

But he patently didn’t get them. Or their incredibly sophisticated, shape-shifting art forms, which, unlike classical, naturalist styles, hid animals and birds as well as multiple layers of symbolic meaning in their apparently simple abstract swirls. So it was a totally opposite way of looking at the world.

Interestingly though, Siculus, or any of the other Greeks or Romans knocking around at the time for that matter, didn’t ever explicitly refer to Britain or Ireland as the lands of the “Keltoi” or “Keltae”, roughly translated as the “hidden people” or “those who are different”.

The term seemed, in fact, to be applied mainly to the societies of central Europe and Gaul (France) – even though the “Celtic” moniker is now attributed exclusively to the indigenous cultures and traditions of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and, of course, Brittany in France as well as their various diasporas.

In fact, the name was only assigned to their collective languages as late as the 1700s in order to reflect their pre-Roman origins. But by the 19th century, the whole thing had morphed into a revival movement known as the “Celtic Twilight”, which drew on Celtic artistic and literary traditions and recast them in the form of a reimagined, romanticised Celtic past.

Over time, however, the word seems to have become increasingly true to its original meaning of “outsider”. And as such, it has been used widely as a tool to help the peoples it denoted affirm their difference to and independence from their dominant English and French neighbours, becoming in the process a hook to hang their increasingly confident national identities on. Which, depending on your viewpoint, is really no bad thing.

The power of genetics

Anyway, another area in which the Celtic myth comes into further question is in the field of genetics. According to a Wellcome Trust-funded study led by Oxford University over the course of 20 years and published in the journal Nature in March this year, there is simply no genetic basis for claiming the existence of a single “Celtic” group in the UK or Northern Ireland.

In fact, amazingly, inhabitants of the so-called Celtic regions are among the most genetically different from each other when compared with other groups from the British Isles. This is likely because people from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the like diverged over time to form separate genetic clusters – a finding that provides a scientific basis for the idea of regional identity for the first time.

And one which also appears to support the opinion that the Celtic thing these days really has more to do with traditions and culture than it has to do with DNA or race per se.

But that is not to say that certain genetic remnants don’t still remain. Take red hair, for example, which is definitely usually considered a Celtic trait. And interestingly, it is among the Irish that you’re more likely to find a redhead than anywhere else in the world – indeed they account for up to 30% of the population.

Red-haired girl
Red-haired girl

Next come the Scottish at up to 25%, followed by the Welsh at up to 15%. But because red locks are the product of a recessive gene, both parents need to bear it in order to produce a flame-haired baby. So lots more people carry it rather than show it.

Another much more unpleasant hereditary condition though, and one that is even nicknamed the “Celtic disease” is haemochromatosis. This disorder, also caused by a recessive gene, leads the body to store too much iron, which is then deposited on vital organs such as the heart, liver or pancreas and, over time, prevents them from working effectively.

Over the course of years, this situation leads to an iron overload, which can prove fatal. But in the interim, it generates symptoms that are unlikely to become apparent before middle age and that can make it tricky to see a direct link. These include low energy levels, stomach or abdominal pains, arthritis and depression. In reality though, the only reliable way to find out if you’ve got the condition really is to have a blood test.

Meanwhile, although, as its nickname suggests, haemochromatosis is most commonly found among people of the so-called Celtic nations, it is – rather unfortunately for me and my ilk – by far the most widespread among the Irish, and particularly those from the west of the country.

While across Europe as a whole, between one in 300 to 400 have the offending DNA, the figure jumps to a huge one in 83 in Ireland – with a horrendous one in five people being carriers. So when folk say to you ‘it’s all in the genes’, all you can do is hope to God that, in this case at least, it simply isn’t.