Newmarket: The home of English horse racing

There’s nothing quite like a day at the races – particularly if you happen to go to Newmarket, otherwise known as the home of English horse racing and birthplace of the ‘Sport of Kings’.

 

So to continue the ‘great British tradition’ theme that seems to have permeated my 50th birthday celebrations so far  (although that will change somewhat when we go off on our road trip to the American Southwest and the stunning state of Arizona), my Beloved and I took ourselves off by train to the pleasant rural county of Suffolk.

 

Once at Newmarket itself, we recklessly upgraded the free tickets he’d managed to blag and sashayed elegantly from the Grandstand and Paddock to the Premier Enclosure  – with more than a pang of regret on my part for failing to dress up a bit more, it must be said.

 

Drinks at the Premier Enclosure
Drinks at the Premier Enclosure

But as the action started and our luck kicked in, the smart-casual state of my attire was the last thing on my mind. Three straight wins off the bat, followed by second or third placements in the final four races – and most of them outsiders. Incredible. Certainly a good bit of birthday fortune there. Literally.

 

In fact, we made a tidy £70 profit for our trouble – not bad for a minimum bet each way of £2, which I’d misunderstood in the first place anyway, thinking it would cost me £2 rather than the £4 it actually did. Duh.

 

And the secret to our success? Instinct – or certainly more luck than judgement anyway. So unlike many of the serious race-goers there, it was all about going for the names we liked, or at least had some connection with. None of this studying-the-form-and-being-guided-by-the-odds nonsense. But it obviously worked, which is quite something if you’re as rubbish at racing as we are.

 

Before one of races, for example, after exclaiming about the greyness of the horses and how pretty they were, we found it was actually the ‘Pantile Stud Grey Horse Handicap’. At another, we were so busy looking for my Beloved’s horse which we felt had to be at the back of the pack that we completely missed the fact it had won – until it was announced, that is, and we nearly collapsed.

 

First horse racing meetings

 

We didn’t even choose our bookie based on the odds, but more on the fact she was a woman – a relatively rare entity in such a male-dominated world even today – whose queue looked smaller than the others but who seemed nice. So we thought we’d give her a go – and again it paid off. Despite having to fork out each time we returned, she was gracious in defeat, limiting herself to a wry smile and an “Oh, it’s you two again, is it?” through gritted teeth.

 

As for Newmarket racecourse itself, it was much more expansive than we’d expected, with not just one but two racetracks: the Adnams July course that we were at, and the Rowley Mile. But the importance of the sport to the town shouldn’t be too surprising perhaps as it turns out to be the place where the UK’s first horse racing meetings ever were held – as we’d know them today anyway.

 

Newmarket's July race course
Newmarket’s July race course

While it was the Romans who first brought the idea of horse racing to our hallowed shores, for hundreds of years it was a mainly informal pursuit that tended to occur on public holidays at big, local fairs and festivals.

 

The first recorded race gatherings didn’t actually take place until the reign of King Henry II when in the latter half of the 1100s, knights, earls, barons and other assorted nobility would apparently gather at Smithfield in London for a bit of bartering at the annual St Bartholomew’s horse fair to the sound of young men galloping around the open spaces of the square and park.

 

Although racing remained a favourite royal sport for another 400 years or so, it was James I who really started it on the path to what it is today, after interest had waned during the reign of his predecessor, Elizabeth I. In 1605, he happened to be out hawking when he came across the then small village of Newmarket and decided it was the perfect spot for a bit of racing fun.

 

In fact, James spent so much time at his new amusement that Parliament petitioned him on more than one occasion to get himself back down to London to do a bit of ruling rather than playing about with his horses  – the reason perhaps that the town is still known as the sport’s true home. In fact, the Rowley Mile, which as previously mentioned is one of its racecourses, still bears his name to this day. James was, it seems, given the nickname ‘Old Rowley” after his favourite nag.

 

But where royalty goes, everyone else inevitably follows and so regular race meetings started taking place up and down the country, and silver bells began to be offered as prizes. The fact that it was de rigueur for nobility and a royal must-do also led to the moniker, the “sport of kings” being adopted, which is still used to this day.

 

A great British tradition

 

The first racing thoroughbreds didn’t appear for another 100 years or so though. Interestingly, they are all descended from three Arabian stallions imported to the UK in the early 1700s called Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian and most famous of all Godolphin Barb, which happens to be buried quite close to my home town of Saffron Walden in the tranquil setting of Wandlebury Country Park in Cambridgeshire.

Wandlebury Country Park
Wandlebury Country Park

Anyway, these stallions, which were known for their long necks, large frames and high tails, were mated with British mares to create a perfect combination of speed and endurance, henceforth making them the racing standard all over the world.

 

And by the middle of the 1700s century, horse racing had upped its game to such an extent that it had become a professional sport. Which led to various assorted aristocrats getting together in 1750 in the now-deceased Star & Garter pub on London’s Pall Mall to set up The Jockey Club in order to regulate it.

 

Their meetings moved to Newmarket a couple of years later, however, and it was from there that the Club set and administered the rules of British horse racing until 2006 when its responsibilities were passed on to the British Horseracing Authority. It still owns a good number of iconic British courses to this day though, including Newmarket, Aintree, Epsom and Cheltenham, all of which are important fixtures on the domestic and international sporting calendar.

 

Due to Britain’s former empire, which stretched its tentacles into so many corners of the world, meanwhile, horse racing proliferated around the globe. But while it transmuted into many forms based on different distances and track types, most of the breeds and regulations that control the sport are still based on our originals to this day.

 

And it’s still a hugely popular pastime here too. Worth around £3.4 billion per annum both directly and indirectly to the British economy, it is in fact the country’s second most popular spectator sport after our collective national obsession in the shape of football.

 

In fact, some would even go so far as to say that horse racing is an intrinsic part of our national identity – which truly would make it a great British tradition indeed.

 

 

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Essex mysteries: Mazes and labyrinths

A Maze Festival isn’t necessarily something you come across every day. But Saffron Walden, the market town in North Essex where I live, has had three of them so far, the latest one of which took place only last weekend.

 

But there is some foundation for choosing such an apparently obscure theme to titillate tourists and locals alike – Saffron Walden, it seems, is alone in the UK in having two historic mazes within the town’s reaches.

 

The first is a turf labyrinth – even though it’s known locally as “The Maze” – located on the east side of its extensive Common, only a hop, skip and a jump from the centre of town. Built in 1699, it was apparently based on an even older version formerly sited nearby and, at an impressive 132 feet (40 metres) across, is said to be the largest structure of its kind in England.

 

The path, which is inlaid with bricks, is made up of a huge 17 circuits that visit each of the four small mounds at the labyrinth’s corners before winding itself into a higher central mound that used to be home to an ash tree – or World Tree according to the cosmic world view of the ancient Celts and Vikings.

 

The second maze, meanwhile, is a Victorian yew-hedge-based creation on the north side of town that was laid out in Italian Renaissance style during the 1840s in the lovely Bridge End Gardens – which, incidentally, were never actually attached to or designed around a house as is usually the case. So it’s a bit strange really.

Saffron Walden hedge maze
Saffron Walden hedge maze

But Saffron Walden now also boasts a third maze, newly located at the entrance to Swan Meadow car park and a stone’s throw from the local duck pond. Spelling out “Saffron Walden Amazes’ in box hedging, it includes eight finger labyrinths and mazes positioned carefully on plinths. And this new attraction was opened to great fanfare last Saturday by no less an individual than international maze guru, Jeff Saward himself, who designs, builds, researches and writes about labyrinths with his equally expert wife, Kimberley.

 

As to what the difference between a labyrinth and a maze actually is, this was revealed by the Festival’s keynote speaker, Dr Jan Sellers. Although now retired, she used to lecture in education and guidance at the University of Kent at Canterbury, where she helped create the nearby medieval-style Canterbury Labyrinth in 2008.

 

Anyway, to get to the point, it turns out that mazes have high walls and many paths to their centre, which means that their walkers often get lost. Labyrinths, on the other hand, have no walls at all and offer only one path that weaves, albeit by the most circuitous of routes, to the heart and then back again.

 

The idea, among other things, is that the twists and turns symbolise life’s journey but also require concentration to stay on the path. As a result, they help the walker to stay focused and in the present, quieting the mind and generating a kind of meditative state within, which nurtures the spirit in the process.

 

Dr Donna Zucker, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US, is in fact currently researching whether labyrinth-walking can help to reduce stress levels among offenders, and whether indoor or outdoor labyrinth-walking actually proves more beneficial.

 

Labyrinth-walking

But I must say that, whatever the truth of it, labyrinth-walking certainly did something for me. I’d never tried it before, but I thought I’d give it a go when a canvas image of one was placed on the floor in the middle of the Town Hall’s Assembly Room for anyone showing an interest.

 

After taking a few deep breaths to let go of tension and forget feeling a bit foolish, I took my initial steps at the entrance point, putting one foot slowly in front of the other, heel to toe. And it was strange – as I travelled inwards towards the middle, it felt like I was leaving the everyday behind and moving inside myself.

 

In fact, by the time I reached the centre, I could feel wells of deep emotion that I’d previously not suspected. It was quite a revelation. But the journey back was no less symbolic as it represented (to me at least) the path back to the mundane, with my (rather turbulent) emotions easing as I went. An interesting experience, definitely, and one that I’d certainly like to try again.

 

Because I wonder if the labyrinth isn’t actually a Jungian-style archetype or universal mythic character found in the collective unconscious of people all over the world. The thing is that they’re symbols seen in faiths, cultures, countries and communities across the globe ranging from Europe to India and from Indonesia to the American Southwest.

 

The earliest one discovered was actually chipped into a rock face 4,000 years ago as a petroglyph in Mogor, Spain. But the Romans also used the design in their mosaic flooring, and it likewise popped up in many a European Gothic cathedral, including perhaps the most famous of all at Chartres in France, for pilgrims to wander prayerfully around.

Saffron Walden turf labyrinth
Saffron Walden turf labyrinth

By the late medieval period (1300 to 1500), however, the trusty labyrinth found itself morphing into the puzzle maze so familiar to us all today. In more recent times though, its use has expanded still further. Because labyrinths are often found to be calming, they’re increasingly being used for health and wellbeing purposes.

 

For example, labyrinth facilitator Kay Barrett and a team of helpers made a temporary structure of sand and LED tea lights for patients and staff to walk around during Mental Health Resilience Week at Addenbrookes, Cambridge, in both 2013 and 2014Pilgrim’s Hospices in Canterbury, Kent, also became the first such institution in the country to build a wheelchair-accessible, therapeutic labyrinth garden in order to benefit staff, carers and the terminally ill.

 

But for those without access to such facilities and who can’t walk one themselves, there are always finger labyrinths so you can trace the pathways using your digits as a means of meditation, prayer or just to relax.

 

In fact, Cambridge-based charity and arts centre Rowan specialises in manufacturing them to fund its activities. Its students, who all have learning difficulties, work under the direction of various artists and craftspeople to create these portable labyrinths out of wood, building up their artistic skills, confidence and self-esteem in the process.

 

And if that isn’t a great way to nurture the human spirit, then I don’t really know what is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking afternoon tea: A great British tradition

It’s difficult to think of anything more English than afternoon tea – or “low” tea as it’s also uncommonly known.

 

With its dainty sandwiches, melt-in-the-mouth scones and multitude of pretty confections, it really is one of our most noble British institutions. So I feel it’s my duty to give heartfelt thanks to TV programmes such as The Great British Bake Off for rehabilitating the tradition and restoring it to national glory after so many years spent languishing quietly in the parlours of maiden aunts.

 

And in honour of this ritual, which has such a special place in our collective hearts these days, I decided to dedicate one of several 50th birthday celebrations to partaking of its delights. So following a recommendation from my Beloved, we plumped for a family afternoon out with both sets of parents at Luton Hoo. The former manor house in Bedfordshire was formerly owned by the Anglo-Norman de Hoo family, which a couple of generations after the name itself died out, spawned Anne Boleyn of King Henry VIII fame.

Luton Hoo gardens
Luton Hoo gardens

Anyway, not to be confused with Sutton Hoo, a renowned burial site of Anglo-Saxon royalty near Woodbridge in East Anglia, the mansion with its stunning vista, originally landscaped by none other than Lancelot Capability Brown himself, is now an 18-hole golf course and spa hotel. And the rather odd name ‘Hoo’ is less of a badly spelled question, it seems, and more of a Saxon word meaning “spur of a hill”.

 

As for afternoon tea itself, although very nice, the wealth of tiny, rich cakes made it somewhat sugar-rush-inducing, which lost it marks. As a result, it failed to make it into the global top three carefully devised by my parents and myself over several years. After jointly indulging during various trips both at home and abroad, the number one slot simply has to go to the exquisite repast provided by the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, which was only enhanced by its discrete and solicitous service.

 

Next by mutual agreement came the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, followed by Tea at the Ritz in London, which despite the cliché managed only a (very worthy) third.

 

High and low tea

 

But it all set me to wondering just where this glorious convention came from in the first place. Interestingly, while the name itself obviously refers to the beverage that sits at its heart, its application appears to be of rather more mixed heritage.

 

At the lower end of the social scale during the Industrial Revolution, when working class families came home after a wearying day at their looms and factories, they apparently sat down to a table set with all manner of cold cuts, bread, butter, pickles, cheese and, of course, the drink of the day, tea. Because the meal was partaken of at a high dining table rather than a low tea table near a sofa or chair in the drawing room like the aristocracy, however, it was known as “high tea” – a name with which afternoon tea, or low tea, is all too often distressingly confused. And as might be expected, “tea” is still the working class name assigned to one’s big evening meal to this day.

 

As to the original creator of afternoon tea as we think of it now, meanwhile, that is believed to be one Anna Maria Stanhope, Duchess of Bedford and one of the young Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. Because the upper class lunchtime meal was petite and the evening meal distinctly large and late, the Duchess proclaimed that she suffered from a “sinking feeling” at around four o’clock in the afternoon.

Afternoon tea at the Saxon, Johannesburg
Afternoon tea at the Saxon, Johannesburg

At first, she had her servants sneak her up a pot of tea and a few dainty morsels of bread to tide her over. But as time went on, she adopted the habit of inviting friends to her rooms in Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, during the summer months to indulge in a cup of tea and a bite to eat at five o’clock.

 

Her menu consisted of bread and butter sandwiches, small cakes and assorted sweets – and the practice proved so popular that she transported it to London when she returned for the Season. There she sent cards to friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking in the fields” and her quaint idiosyncrasy was quickly picked up and emulated by other society ladies, making it quite the thing to do.

 

At this point though, I feel I must inject and clarify the difference between afternoon tea and a cream tea, which is something different again and is actually thought to be a much older tradition. According to local historians, the dish was actually created by monks at the Benedictine Abbey in Tavistock, West Devon, around 1,000 or so AD.

 

Cream tea

 

They had suffered their home being plundered and wrecked by a band of marauding Vikings, but Ordulf, Earl of Devon, sent some workers to try and sort out the mess. They were lucky enough to be fed on plates of bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserves for their trouble – and so the Devon cream tea was born, although the bread eventually morphed into scones, of course.

 

Anyway, so popular did the cream teas prove that the monks continued serving them to passing travellers, which saw their fame only grow and spread – although such idle talk is, of course, hotly disputed by arch-rival Cornwall, which also claims the cream tea as its own.

 

But there is, of course, a significant difference between the two varieties: After breaking (rather than cutting) their scone in two as is correct practice, the good people of Devon cover each half with thick clotted, (rather than whipped cream, God forbid) before putting strawberry jam on top. In Cornwall, however, it is de rigueur to butter your scone first, layer on your strawberry jam and then complete the whole pretty picture with the aforementioned cream dollop.

Cream tea
Cream tea

On a final note though, there is, unsurprisingly given its origins, a whole raft of etiquette associated with the afternoon tea tradition, which I learned by strange coincidence only the week before my Luton Hoo jaunt from a speaker at a Women’s Institute meeting. Although my pearls of wisdom were to fall on deaf ears on the day itself, I nonetheless did attempt to appraise my recalcitrant audience of the finer points. These include:

 

  • placing your napkin on your knee as soon as you sit down, ensuring it’s folded down the middle into a rectangle shape, with the fold facing your stomach. If you have to leave the table at any point (not recommended), be careful to fold the napkin up and place it on your chair rather than just dumping it down on the table, covering your fellow guests with crumbs in the process
  • putting sugar in your cup first, followed by tea. Last of all comes the milk – a sign in the old days that you were wealthy enough to afford porcelain rather than regular china, which would shatter with the heat if milk wasn’t poured in first to cool it
  • stirring your tea by placing your spoon at six o’clock and folding it towards the 12 o’clock position, being careful not to chink against the sides and set everyone’s teeth on edge.

 

So as you can see, although such great English habits may appear to have been invented quite arbitrarily to confuse the lower classes, there is some rhyme and reason to them, no matter how obscure.

 

 

 

Essex mysteries: The Dunmow Flitch Trials

Say what you like about Essex, but it is a county that knows how to celebrate its own, sometimes unusual history.

 

Take the Dunmow Flitch Trials, for example. Although they only take place once every four years in Great Dunmow, a small market town in north Essex, they apparently date back to the twelfth century, which makes them an astounding 900 or so years old.

 

And while I doubt the pantomime and light-hearted revelry of it all would have been particularly appreciated by peasants of yore, it certainly went down well with the present day audience last weekend, seated on plastic chairs in a marquee in Talberds Ley park.

 

The Trials are intended to establish the devotion of couples no matter where in the world they come from, who have been married for at least a year and a day. If, in the word of the Flitch Oath, they can persuade a judge and jury of six local maidens and six bachelors that they have “ne’er made nuptiall transgression”, indulged in “household brawls or contentious strife” and, most importantly of all “not wisht themselves unmarried agen,” they are awarded a flitch, or side, of bacon (basically, half a pig cut lengthways).

 

Dunmow Flitch
Dunmow Flitch

The Trials themselves, meanwhile, take the form of a court presided over by a Judge, in our case Dave Monk, who has been a radio presenter with BBC Essex for the last 30 years and played a slightly befuddled old soak. There were also four lawyers in full regalia, three of whom were actual real-life barristers and the other writer and witty stand-up comedian, Steve Bugeja.

 

Two of them were there to represent the couples or claimants, while the opposing counsel was employed on behalf of the Flitch, which stood demurely suspended from its wooden frame throughout the whole proceedings. The opposing counsel’s role was to test the claims of each couple and convince the jury not to grant them the bacon.

 

And so the entertainment began. It all kicked off with a lively procession of local majorettes, clog dancers, a town crier, the jury, barristers, a couple of big solid oak chairs and, of course, the Flitch, carried by burly local men or ‘simple folk’ in peasants’ smocks and straw hats from the Saracens Head Hotel in the middle of town to Talberds Ley.

 

Once in the marquee, my Beloved and I settled down to watch the two afternoon Trials (there are morning and evening ones too), one of which consisted of a couple who lived locally and had been together for 30 years, and another that hadn’t yet made their second year anniversary but who lived in Cambridge.

 

The older couple’s Trial was my favourite though. Soon after they’d first met, an event that he described as love at first sight although she wasn’t initially quite so keen, he’d been really eager to see her. So he tracked her down to one of several potential hospital sites (she’s a nurse) and left a pot plant for her outside the nursing station – his rationale being that cut flowers invariably got nicked.

 

But the defence for the Flitch construed that the real truth of the matter was that he’d stalked his poor Missus relentlessly until she eventually gave in and then got her hooked on drugs (pot plant – get it?). Needless to say, the couple lost and the Flitch won, but it was very amusing all the same.

 

Ancient tradition

 

On the way back to the Market Place though, it was their fate to make a walk of shame behind one of the two wooden Flitch Chairs – although they did seem remarkably cheery about it all. Luckily according to ancient custom, they were still entitled to a gammon (hind leg) of bacon, which actually seemed to morph into a bottle of champagne instead. But that was alright.

 

The second couple, however, who won their Trial in a well-matched contest of wits, were carried shoulder high through the streets on a Flitch Chair by the burly, local smock wearers. Once at the Market Place, they kneeled to take the Flitch Oath, resting somewhat uncomfortably on some stones, before the smock wearers all threw their hats in the air. And following the presentation of a certificate and bottle of champers to the winners, that was that – for another four years anyway.

 

Flitch winners
Flitch winners

Interestingly though, while Dunmow may not be the only place in Europe where the ancient tradition of rewarding marital harmony with a side of bacon exists, it is completely unique in still performing it – which it’s been doing on and off since 1104, it seems.

 

As to how the whole thing came about in the first place, however, the most popular story goes that Lord of the Manor in nearby Little Dunmow village, Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife decided to dress themselves up as humble peasants and beg for the blessing of the head of the local Augustinian Priory a year and a day after marrying. Impressed by their fervour, the Prior decided to reward them with a Flitch of Bacon.

 

On revealing his true identity though, Fitzwalter promised to bestow his land on the Priory on condition that a Flitch be awarded to any couple who could prove they lived a life of similar marital devotion and harmony. And by Geoffrey Chaucer’s day, the Trials had achieved such fame that he included mention of them in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ in his ‘The Canterbury Tales’, a collection of 24 stories that is deemed among the most important in English literature.

 

The tradition lapsed for a number of years during the 1830s, however, as it was considered “an idle custom bringing people of indifferent character into the neighbourhood”. But by 1855, it was happily revived by Victorian novelist and master of historical potboilers Harrison Ainsworth, following the publication of his popular novel ‘The Custom of Dunmow’. This recounts the efforts of a local publican to win the Flitch by marrying a succession of wives in a bid to find the perfect one for him. Which is certainly one way of going about it.

 

But as similar traditions are found across northern Europe, I’d be rather more inclined to side with British historian, Helene Adeline Guerber as to origins. Her theory goes that it can be traced back to an ancient Norse custom linked to the pagan Yule feast, which is celebrated today as Christmas.

 

Although Yule is mainly linked to Thor, the god of thunder, lightning, the protection of mankind and, interestingly, fertility, it is also important to the god Freyr. He was likewise a fertility god and often invoked by married couples for his ability to “bestow peace and pleasure on mortals”. Incidentally, he also rode about on a wild boar called Gullinbursti.

 

As a result of all this, a boar was eaten in Freyr’s honour at each Yule feast and could only be carved by a man of unstained reputation. This, in turn, led to the custom of rewarding married couples who managed to live in harmony with a piece of boar meat. So it’s not a huge jump to switch boar for bacon.

 

And with that particular little thought, I rest my case.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.