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.

Briitish industry, employment, regeneration, tourism, UK

Durham: An historical theme park in waiting?

Durham, the county in the North East of England where I grew up, is barely recognisable these days. Gone are the pits and the slag heaps and the steel works to be replaced with fecund sweeps of arable crops, fluffy, white sheep and trees – lots and lots of trees.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral

But even though most of the ugly scars that pitted the landscape are gone, that’s not to say the county has buried its industrial heritage in the same careful manner – in fact, it’s still very proud of it, and rightly so. Because without the coal riven from its mines by men who sweated, suffered and, in some instances, even died to produce it, the Industrial Revolution could never have taken place.

 

So, aptly, memories of the past are still held onto and treasured not only by individuals, but also by organisations such as Beamish. Beamish is an open air, working museum that provides fascinating insights into the daily life and employment of North Easteners during the early 1800s and 1900s, and one, it must be said, that gets bigger and better each year.

 

But a former pit village in East Durham called Horden is also doing its bit to honour its heritage. The Parish Council has just bought an iconic sculpture of a nine-foot tall miner for the princely sum of £19,000 in a bid to try and spark some interest in the place and promote regeneration – something that should also be helped by the tourism generated by Durham Heritage Coast Partnership’s attempts to conserve and enhance the nearby flora- and fauna-rich coastline.

 

Fittingly though the statue has been called “Marra”, an old pitmatic word for a good mate or member of a crew of miners who worked together and watched each other’s backs. Pitmatic, meanwhile, for those not in the know, is a local dialect that was used extensively in mining communities across Northumberland and Durham.

 

It’s based on the ancient, traditional language of the countryside, which the men were still using when they migrated to the pits to work in the 17th and 18th centuries, simply adapting it to their new requirements.

 

So this language of theirs was, and is, special in that it had retained lots of words from the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and the Old Norse of the Vikings – Durham, belonging as it did to the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria, had been part of the Danelaw.

 

Although pitmatic was predominantly a male dialect, the language of a working pitman in fact, lots of the more general-purpose rather than work-specific words were also employed by the rest of the community, and were certainly still in common parlance when I was a kid – people were still eating their “bait” (packed lunch), for instance, poking “spelks” (splinters) out of their fingers with a needle, and walking through fields of “claggy auld clarts” (sticky old mud) after the rain.

 

Marras

 

As the old miners continue to die off though, pitmatic’s usage is now, sadly, almost as defunct as the pits that shaped it, and you hear its descriptive, onomatopoeic phrases employed less and less these days, particularly by the young ones.

Banner at Miner's Gala, Durham
Banner at Miner’s Gala, Durham

But anyway to get back to the point, the Marra in question is particularly emotive because he has his heart ripped out. A telling metaphor to illustrate what the demise of mining meant to the North East, it is particularly poignant in a place like Horden.

 

Horden Colliery was one of the biggest mines in the country, employing 4,000 men at its peak before being closed in 1987, two years after the miners’ strike.

 

The statue itself, meanwhile, which was unveiled in Horden Welfare Park on Saturday 21 November, was the brainchild of local artist, Ray Lonsdale.

 

The idea behind the piece was apparently a news story revealing that a statue of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose regime was responsible for wiping out the British coal industry without putting any plans in place to support the communities dependent on it, was to be erected in Westminster to celebrate the good she had done for the country. But as Lonsdale drily put it: “That’s not the way it’s seen up here.”

 

Thankfully though, after years of neglect from Westminster by parties of all political stripes, Durham now seems to have got itself a champion in the shape of Jonathan Garnier Ruffer. On paper Ruffer, a financier who speaks the Queen’s English and made his millions in London, may not be an obvious advocate. But he was actually born in the North East in a village near Middlesbrough on Teesside and so was aware of the issues.

 

A committed evangelical Christian and member of the Church of England, he credits English merchant and philanthropist William Rathbone VI as the inspiration for his good deeds. But of what do such good deeds consist?

 

They’re essentially about transforming Bishop Auckland, a pleasant, if somewhat deprived post-industrial market town 12 miles south west of Durham City, a Unesco World Heritage site, into a huge historical theme park to pull in tourists and help regenerate the area, not least by creating lots of jobs. And the latter is vital in a region where unemployment stubbornly remains the highest in the country at 8.1% compared to the UK national average of 5.6%.

 

Historical theme park

 

Although in 2012 Ruffer had never even visited Bishop Auckland before, he’d heard that the Church Commissioners, who manage the Anglican Church’s finances, were selling a dozen 17th century paintings by Spanish artist Francisco Zubaran. They hung in Auckland Castle, private home of successive Bishops of Durham for 900 years, who incidentally from 1071 until 1836 were unique in England for being Prince Bishops – and the county is still known as the “Land of the Prince Bishops” to this day.

Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland
Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland

Given the strategic position of the county, which acted as a buffer between England and its enemies in Scotland, the Prince Bishops were awarded secular powers that enabled them to raise their own armies, mint their own coins and levy their own taxes – as long as they stayed loyal to the king and diligently performed their role in protecting the country’s northern frontier, that is.

 

Anyway, Ruffer felt that the Zubaran paintings should stay in the region and so he bought them, and the castle they were hung in, for the tidy sum of £15 million. But he didn’t stop there.

 

He’s now not only restored the castle and opened it up to the public as a tourist attraction, but also purchased the site of the little-known but extremely important Roman fort of Vinovia or Binchester nearby, dubbed “The Pompeii of the North”. The aim is to make it into a major heritage destination too.

 

But Ruffer’s piece de resistance is his decision to set up a £100 million historical leisure park on a 115-acre site in the shadow of Auckland Castle. Also in the offing is a Night Show, inspired by the internationally renowned one at Puy du Fou in the Vendee region of the Loire in western France.

 

The open air light show, which will operate as a not-for-profit venture, will dramatise 2,000 years of North Eastern history and, with a cast of 600 volunteers, will apparently resemble the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony – except it’ll be about Viking invasions, Roman gladiators and the like.

 

As of spring 2016, the objective is to put on 30 Night Shows per year and to pull in 6,000 visitors with each one. While the complementary historical theme park itself won’t actually open until 2020, the Show is expected to create 10 full-time jobs initially, rising to 300 by 2024.

 

But plans also include the creation of an Eleven Arches Academy – Eleven Arches being the name of the former golf course, which is crossed by the Newton Cap railway viaduct complete with its eponymous number of archways – which will train 300 young volunteers annually between the ages of eight and 25 in the key skills required to put on the spectacular. These include sound, lighting, pyrotechnics and set construction.

 

So with all of this great work in mind, all I can say is that Ruffer seems to me to be a git canny gadge who’s done hees bit sel’ and hees new hyem proud. Champion.

 

 

 

 

 

countryside, leisure, tourism, UK

Saffron Walden: A little town making it big

There are a number of reasons why my charming, little home-town of Saffron Walden in North Essex is special, it seems, not least of which are its sausages.

Burtons Butchers’ King Street banger, which comprises 80% Blythburg free range pork as well as a few secret spices, has just been awarded a rare five-star rating by the Sausage Review website, whose members go around the country evaluating the nation’s best and worst.

Burtons Butchers, Saffron Walden
Burtons Butchers, Saffron Walden

But it doesn’t stop there. A further three varieties on top of the recent King Street celebrity have also been entered into that culturally vital event, the British Sausage Week competition, which will be judged by Michel Roux Jr, Michelin-starred chef and owner of London’s upmarket Le Gavroche restaurant, at the start of November.

But its superlative sausages aren’t the only reason that Saffron Walden has been hitting headlines lately. Another is its world-class concert hall, which was built from the ground up with state-of-the-art acoustics in mind and is already gaining a reputation for itself. Growing numbers of people from as far away as London are now making the hour-long train journey from Liverpool Street in order to park themselves on one of its 730 really quite comfy seats to listen to classical music – although some might argue it’s shame that its remit is so narrow given the quality of the space.

Anyway, the Saffron Hall, as it’s known, was opened in 2013 at the 2,000-learner-thronged County High School while my Beloved and I were away in South Africa. This momentous event occurred following a £10 million donation from the Yellow Car Charitable Trust on behalf of a rich, local benefactor, who apparently loves classical music and wanted the children and local community to do likewise by providing them with access to outstanding facilities.

A particular feather in the Hall’s cap though has been the fact it managed to snare the well-regarded Angela Dixon, former head of music at the Barbican Centre in London, as its chief executive. An Essex girl, having been brought up in Benfleet and having lived in the village of Whittlesford for years, she apparently had had enough of chasing around the world. And so when a local job came up, she jumped at it.

And her international connections have certainly helped in attracting world-class performers to what, in the early days at least, amounted to an untried and untested venue. Now though everyone from internationally-acclaimed Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in tow to top-flight violinists Maxim Vengerov and Nicola Benedetti have strutted their stuff there.

A lot to offer

Somewhat embarrassingly, however, it seems that the rest of the town hasn’t quite caught up with its new-found reputation as a destination for the glitterati. In a place that has never knowingly kept late hours, the rumour goes that when staying at a local boutique hotel complete with rather overpriced gastro-pub in the centre of town, Benedetti had to go to bed hungry after a concert when she was told the chef had upped sticks and gone home. So let’s hope they sort that particular little issue out before she comes back for a revisit in November.

Anyway, moving swiftly on, it seems that the Hall was lucky enough to receive three years of funding from Yellow Lorry to see it through until the end of the 2017 season – by which time it really needs to have become as self-sufficient as possible. Things appear to have got off to a good start though as the venue apparently generated £280,000 last season and so good luck to it – it certainly can’t do Saffron Walden any harm in tourism terms at the very least.

Because this lovely old town, which incidentally is constantly being named as one of the best places in the UK to live and swiftly becoming a commuter-belt haven for ex-Londoners, really does have quite a lot to offer in that department. If you’re into architecture, for instance, it’s a complete dream as much of the centre has been preserved in aspic.

The story goes that local grandee Lord Braybrook, whose family seat was the now English Heritage-run mansion Audley End House, wasn’t too keen on having the London-to-Cambridge train line coming into Saffron Walden and spoiling his nice agricultural idyll – and so the Industrial Revolution, and its concomitant modernisation, completely passed it by.

As a result, you’ll find genuine buildings that are everything from late Georgian to Victorian in origin, with a good few medieval ones thrown in for good measure. A further plus is the widespread presence of a particular kind of decorated plasterwork traditional to East Anglia known as pargeting.

The Sun Inn, Saffron Walden
The Sun Inn, Saffron Walden

Designs range from simple geometric surface patterns to elaborate sculptured flowers and figures of people and animals – fine examples of which can be seen at the Sun Inn where Oliver Cromwell is said to have resided during his 19-day stay in the town in May 1647. At the time of his sojourn at the heart of the English Civil War, he was in the middle of talks to try and reach a settlement between Parliament and his New Model Army apparently.

Ancient history

One of the town’s oldest buildings, however, is the imposing Church of St Mary the Virgin, which takes the crown for being the largest parish church in Essex. Dating mainly from the end of the 15th century and dominating the skyline, it was built using wool money – the area’s major trade for centuries – very patently to show off the wealth of this still well-heeled town.

In fact, even its name is linked to wool production. Originally know as Chepyng (an Anglo-Saxon word for Market) Walden when it was granted a charter around 1300, the town started growing saffron crocuses in the 16th and 17th centuries to dye its own wool and keep prices elevated. But it also made lots of money on the side selling this precious commodity as a condiment, an additive to medicines and perfumes – and even as an aphrodisiac.

Anyway, as the saffron industry started petering out by the end of the 18th century, it was replaced by malt and barley and Saffron Walden morphed into a Quaker town. The most influential family then were the Gibsons, who helped found Barclays Bank and contributed to building a number of iconic buildings in the shape of a distinctive town hall and museum.

 

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

And there are still remnants of that legacy to this day in the shape of a Friends Meeting House in the High Street and a private Friends’ School, which has seen such luminaries as Russian dictator Josef Stalin‘s granddaughter Olga Peters and Tom Robinson of Tom Robinson Band fame pass through its doors.

Other novel things that the place is known for, and for which it is actually unique in the UK, meanwhile, are its two historic mazes – a restored Victorian yew hedge one in the Grade II listed Bridge End Gardens and an ancient turf maze on the still quite extensive Common.

Remarkably the turf maze is the largest example of its kind in the world and is one of only 11 to survive in Northern Europe – eight in England and three in Germany. And they’re important in social history terms because, since medieval times, they’ve been used for religious purposes and as part of community festivities such as village fairs.

According to the medieval Christian worldview, for instance, mazes represented the journey of the human soul, in which the goal was clear but the path to achieving it confusing. So it was considered an act of devotion to walk them in meditation and prayer – something that, in an unspoiled, rural idyll like Saffron Walden, it’s still perfectly feasible to do to this day.

Croatia, holiday, leisure, tourism

Dubrovnik: Britain’s latest holiday mecca

Dubrovnik in Croatia has these days become a favoured holiday destination for lots of Brits. And Americans. And Germans. And Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich, Russian oligarch and owner of English Premier League football team, Chelsea.

Worth a jaw-dropping $9.1 billion, which according to Forbes, makes him the 137th richest person in the world, his $1.5 billion, 557-feet, super-sleek super-yacht Eclipse can usually be spotted sailing around off the stunning Dalmatian coast for a couple of months towards the end of each summer – a ritual performed for the last three or four years apparently.

P1010752

Strangely though, he is said to never actually disembark and avail himself of the local delights, preferring instead to simply float around different parts of the bay and view things from a distance. Which seems a bit of a shame really. But maybe having all that money isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

Eclipse, which was custom-made to Abramovich’s own specs in 2010, is for example reportedly kitted out with a missile defence system, armour-plating around his master suite, bullet-proof windows and an anti-paparazzi system.

This laser-based system can allegedly detect the electronic light sensors of digital cameras, which it targets with a beam of bright light to overexpose any privacy-busting photos having the audacity to be taken – an ideal accessory for anyone who guards his persona as international man of mystery as jealously as Abramovich does.

But just in case you come away with the mistaken notion that the guy is all work and no pleasure, the yacht also boasts a dedicated disco hall, two swimming pools, two helicopter pads and a mini-submarine, doubtless so he can enjoy the local aquatic life without having to mix with the rest of the tourist hoy-polloi.

In fact, when first built, this extravagant plaything was apparently the largest private yacht in the world – although it has since been usurped by younger model, Azzam, thought to be owned by Shiekh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, emir of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates.

Not to be outdone though, there are now rumours that Abramovich is in the process of going one better and having the ship to beat all ships delivered into his tender care next year.

Boats of stature

Anyway, Eclipse isn’t the only boat of stature that can be seen sailing around Dubrovnik’s shores by any stretch of the imagination. Astoundingly for a small, essentially medieval-turned-Baroque town following its rebuilding after a devastating earthquake in 1667, half again of its entire population of 40,000 souls swarms in each day during tourist season, many being disgorged from gigantic cruise liners the size of small cities.

P1010880

Each of these extraordinary behemoths holds between 2,000 and 3,000 passengers and roughly the same number again of staff. Thankfully for everyone’s sanity after five or six years of madness however, a maximum of three are now allowed to dock per day, although no such limits have been imposed on smaller ships in the 1,000 or so passenger range.

Which all makes the Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage site known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, a bit of a crush to say the least – or between the hours of 10am and 6pm anyway. And we went there at the end of September so I’d hate to think what it was like in the peak months of July and August, especially now that Game of Thrones worshippers have added themselves to the throng.

Doubling as King’s Landing in Westeros, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, in the HBO epic fantasy series, the city has as a result become a mecca for avid fans who can even take a three hour walking tour to treat themselves to a unique modern take on traditional gems.

It’s all a far cry from the quiet backwater that I first visited in the mid-1980s when Croatia was still part of the post-war socialist state of Yugoslavia and Josip Broz Tito reigned supreme. Then it was all about women in long black dresses and headscarves selling oranges outside their homes and taking produce to market by donkey. How times have changed.

But the scrum that Dubrovnik can unfortunately become doesn’t ever seem to put people off – and in many ways you can see why. Surrounded by two spectacular if exposed kilometres of stone battlements that everyone walks around for the bargain basement price of 100 Croatian kuna (about £9.65), this exquisite city jutting into an azure Adriatic Sea with its terracotta-roofed Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, monasteries and palaces, truly is picture postcard fare.

Food and drink

And its seafood is equally magnificent. With everything from sea bass and gilt-head sea bream to squid and octopus on the menu, it’s all about fresh ingredients cooked simply and served with tasty side orders of salad, rice or French fries. Other traditional delicacies also worth trying include cevapcici, which is a kind of highly seasoned rissole, and chicken or lamb slow-cooked under a metal lid called a peka that is covered with hot embers.

Equally as ubiquitous, meanwhile, are the excellent pizzas, pasta dishes and ice cream in myriad flavours of a quality rarely experienced outside of Italy – a line-up that may at first glance seem rather odd. But given the proximity of its Mediterranean neighbour to northern Croatia and the powerful commercial relationship engaged in particularly during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries between the key maritime trading centres of Dubrovnik and Venice – which incidentally apparently tried to invade the former a huge 70 times – it’s possibly not quite as strange as it seems.

P1010674

Also not to be missed though are Croatian wines – and the reds in particular. Although a bit of an unknown quantity in the UK for many, the industry is, along with olive-growing and citrus fruit production, a traditional and well-established one. It’s just that the vast majority of its outcomes are drunk at home and the country’s export market is tiny, which means that the average European simply isn’t particularly familiar with its delights – or the tongue-twisting names assigned to its grape varietals and brands.

Because it must be said that words belonging to the Slavic Serbo-Croatian language, which is spoken in a mutually understandable way all over the Baltics, do seem to include an unreasonable number of consonants – a case in point being the white wine grape “Trbljan bijeli” or a red wine version “Grenas crni”. Which is all a bit daunting initially.

As is the apparent shamelessness of rotund, middle-aged, Croatian men wearing tiny, weeny little Speedos at the beach in our holiday retreat of Zaton, about eight kilometres out of Dubrovnik itself. But over time, I can only say that I truly got to admire the lack of body consciousness displayed by both Croatian genders – a state of being so far removed from the average set of constraining British inhibitions as to be deeply impressive.

Because when push comes to shove, the fairy tale exotica of Dubrovnik and Croatia really are best enjoyed if you simply take them as you find them.

Britishness, leisure, tourism

What does “Britishness” really mean?

Eight months or so after returning to the UK following my two-year-long South African adventure, I decided to give myself a birthday treat and go back to blogging.

I’ve missed it. There’s something about putting your thoughts down on paper that makes you look at the world through slightly different, more observational, and perhaps rather more emblematic eyes. And, as I’m now back to being a freelance journalist full-time, I do find it eminently satisfying to write about the things that fascinate and amuse me rather than the things that pay the bills.

So what better topic to light upon than that of life in the UK in all its mundanity, its drollery and its singularity? Having been born and brought up in these Hallowed Isles, I am, of course, far from being the dispassionate observer of society, culture and everyday experiences that I was in South Africa. How could I be when I’m imbued with it all to the core?

But there are many ways to skin a cat, as the rather gruesome proverb goes. So my aim is to portray life here, for good or bad, through the prism of my own experiences for anyone who may be interested.

And what better place to start such a venture than with the vexed idea of “Britishness” and what it actually means. It’s an issue that people appear to have been wrestling with since the identity crisis brought on by the collapse of that doubled-edge sword, “the Great British Empire”, and the upheaval provoked by the Second World War – and with no satisfactory outcome to date.

Sure, lots of tired, old clichés still abound regarding our collective stiff-upper lip, our notions of fair play and our propensity to drink lots of tea. But that would scarcely seem enough to sum up a nation.

So it struck me as interesting when a friend of mine who’s into astrology informed me there’s a certain branch of the discipline that relates to countries. While astrology may not be everyone’s cup of tea, bear with me as the insights afforded are quite interesting – whether you hold any store by the influence of heavenly bodies or not.

Astrological_signs_by_J._D._Mylius

Apparently how it works is that, when drawing up a star chart, you plump for an historic date that could be seen as the birth of the nation. A common one for us Brits apparently is the coronation of William I in Westminster Abbey in London at noon on 25 December, 1066, following the Norman invasion.

Collective nature

This would mean that the UK has a Capricorn sun sign, with an Aries ascendant, the sun sign being the essence of who you are and the ascendant being how you present to other people.

Aries, so it’s said, is ruled by Mars, the planet of action, which means that people – or countries, for that matter – influenced by this sign tend to have a rather pioneering nature. They are also natural leaders, but can, on the downside, be aggressive, competitive and warlike. And they strive to be first in everything, sometimes to the point of ignoring the rights and feelings of others.

Sound familiar? Certainly notions of Empire would fit very nicely into many of the categories above, I’d have said, as would various ground-breaking events such as our creation of the first Parliament as well as sparking off the Industrial Revolution.

Capricorn-bonatti

The Capricorn side, meanwhile, is characterised by hard-working, practical, ambitious people (or countries) who are dedicated to achieving their goals and let nothing stand in their way. Responsible and methodical, they are often skilled administrators, hang onto established traditions and prefer slow, piecemeal reform to outright revolution.

So that’s where things like our cool British reserve and detachment would appear to come from as would the general focus on duty, and our apparently interminable love of Monarchy.

But my friend also believes that, given the liberal, eccentric and creative elements of our collective nature, the UK must likewise have a healthy dose of Aquarius thrown in there too – which I must confess is the bit that I’ve always tuned into most.

Along with just how feminine the energy of our country feels. I’d never noticed it before, but after going to Japan about 20 years ago for a dear friend’s wedding who is sadly no longer with us, it struck me just how immensely masculine that country was by way of contrast.

It wasn’t just the overt male domination going on all around or the seemingly diminuitive nature of the women, giggling behind their hands. It was just that the country felt so utterly and palpably male – I’d never experienced anything quite like it, and despite having an amazing time there, was really quite relieved to get back to our gentler, reassuringly female shores.

British birthdays

So anyway, just to tarry on the theme of Britishness a while longer, I had, due to the tender ministrations of my Beloved, a most appropriately British of birthdays.

Saffron_Walden_market_square

After indulging in that childhood classic of fishfinger sandwich, complete with very adult tartare sauce, at the Old English Gentleman pub in the charming, old market town of Saffron Walden in north Essex where we live, the next step was to take ourselves off to the historic city of Cambridge for a lovely roam around.

After working up a suitable appetite with our wanderings, we then treated ourselves to the traditional British fare on offer at The Cambridge Chop House opposite King’s College in the heart of town.

For those who aren’t familiar with chop houses, they, like coffee houses, alehouses and boarding houses, are essentially great British institutions of hundreds of years standing.

Originally, male-only establishments, they actually date back to the start of modern commercial trading in the country during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Businessmen would gather there to hatch deals over hearty plates of traditionally cooked meat such as the chops after which they’re named, all washed down with a fine selection of local ales.

Even in the face of the new-fangled European cuisine sweeping across from the continent at the apex of their popularity in the 19th century, the chop houses, it seems, still managed to cling to their resolutely British mores.

So in keeping with the spirit of the occasion and despite not being a huge red-meat fan, I opted for herb-encrusted lamb chops while my Beloved went for a 10oz Tail on Rib Eye steak – whatever that means. And excellent they were too – traditional British food at its best.

Our final and ultimate indulgence then was an evening watching Shakespeare’s Macbeth in pergola-bedecked gardens near King’s. So all in all, a more British birthday couldn’t have been had if we’d tried.

So good day UK – it’s great to be back.