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The Great Fire of London: 1666

I’ve always loved history. I think it stems from being curious how people lived their lives under different circumstances. Looking at the past is like unravelling a mystery. I peer into other worlds and wonder how I would cope. Working as a costume designer meant being involved in how the past was interpreted by other people but I’ve never held myself up as an expert, just someone who loves history.

So I wasn’t sure what to say when my daughter asked me to come into school and help the infants develop their studies on The Great Fire of London. I knew my two grandsons felt inspired by the project-work and already understood the most significant facts, such as where the fire began, and how. They’d even told me all about the diarist Samuel Pepys burying his precious cheese, just in case his house was engulfed by flames. What more could I add?

Women's work

I printed a selection of pertinent primary sources and gathered together a few books and maps to illustrate the topics I thought might be of interest. Then I discovered an animated film by a company called Pudding Lane Productions made by computer gaming students in response to a competition run by the British Library. The film lasts barely two minutes but gives a better visual description of Restoration London on the eve of the Great Fire than I could ever hope to reveal with books and papers. Beginning near Pudding Lane the animation sweeps through the city’s narrow streets and alleys, briefly gazing into houses to show the minutiae of everyday life; washing hung out to dry, braziers burning and candles lit – it’s packed with well-researched detail yet nothing nasty that could spark nightmares (the oldest child was seven).

Classroom technology being what it is we were able to start by showing the film. Then we asked what item they would save if they had to abandon their home in an emergency. While most opted to rescue their pets one little voice piped up to say he would take his iPad. When we pointed out that he wouldn’t have an iPad he persisted that indeed he ‘did have one’. This led to a discussion about what a seventeenth century home would or wouldn’t have, and of course it didn’t take long before we got to sanitary arrangements.

– Very few buildings had an indoor toilet, only bigger buildings like palaces and castles.

– Did people have to go to the castle when they needed a wee?

– No they would have to use something like a potty or, if they had a garden, a dirt-box.

– It must have been very smelly in London.

cheapsidehoard

I’d taken along some pictures of the Cheapside Hoard, jewels buried around this period, to illustrate the sort of things that might be buried for safe keeping. Almost as an afterthought I asked my husband if he could lend an item of jewellery to show the class and the ring he produced was actually made in the 17th century. It was very delicate, a fancy gold band mounted with two tiny, white enamel, love-birds set with minuscule emeralds, rubies and diamonds. However as the ring was handed carefully around the class the children became unusually quiet and I worried that they didn’t find it interesting enough to warrant any discussion.

Today I received twenty-three ‘thank-you’ letters, hand-written and beautifully illustrated. The only item mentioned, and illustrated, in almost every letter was the ring. It’s a mute point that history lies in an imagined world but being able to handle an object from that world somehow brings it to life. And I do think my grandsons are blessed to go to a school which believes that the class-room is just a beginning.

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Filed under Education, Family, History, Research

Momentous Times

In the King household the year 2015 is going to be marked by ‘milestone’ birthdays and ‘special’ anniversaries. I should probably be anticipating these occasions with great joy but I wish it was possible to slow the pace down, just a little.

When my daughter was at university, studying psychology, a professor suggested she should write her obituary – To make you aware of what you want to be remembered for.  I thought that was very dark indeed – almost like tempting fate but, for me, birthdays have exactly the same effect. Inevitably I wonder how many more ‘milestone’ birthdays will there be? I’ve tried to ignore the fact that 2015 has already begun but before we get close to celebrating I want to reflect on my reasons for having reservations.

Twenty years ago, with another ‘milestone’ birthday looming, I decided it was time to take a break from pushing my academic boundaries. I’d spent four years studying with the Open University and absolutely enjoyed the challenge but was finding it increasingly difficult to find a balance between my goals and those of my husband and two children. I wasn’t good at half measures and every spare minute was dedicated to reading and research, especially at weekends. At the time we lived ‘over the shop’ and our bespoke craft business had been expanding steadily. With an increased clientele came the need for me to be more available, more hands-on. And our children were growing up, they would soon both be teenagers and I wanted more time for us to do ‘things’ together. In short I felt guilty.

Then, during the first week of that year, life was sent into turmoil when my son fell ill with pneumonia. He’d been suffering from tonsillitis for weeks but the morning I opened the door to his bedroom and found him too sick to respond my instincts went into overdrive. I rang our GP immediately, telling him I was coming to the surgery whether there was an available appointment or not. I scooped my ten year old into my arms, laid him in the back of the car wrapped in a blanket, and drove like a fury into town. David was prescribed three different antibiotics for the next month, but he recovered. And just to help his recovery we took him ice skating.

44

Ten years later another ‘momentous’ year loomed. Our business had expanded, everything seemed rosy. We rented a villa in Spain and invited my sister-in-law and her family to join us. The idea was to celebrate together in the sun (except our son couldn’t make it because he was training in Poland) prior to the ‘occassions’ in November. Without trawling over particulars the effective event was that one day my husband nearly drowned while helping to save two little boys and their father from drowning. A vicious rip-tide nearly wiped away our future. Thankfully everyone survived with only minor injuries (and twenty-four hours in a Spanish hospital) but the drama of that day sits in my memory as clearly as any movie and our lives were changed in the knowledge that everything could so easily have turned out differently.

Spain 2005 near disaster

Each of these events led to a tidal change in our lives, driving us towards new goals, new directions which were ultimately more demanding but immeasurably enriching. So forgive me if I approach this year tentatively. I have good reason. And I refuse to make any resolutions, but I’ve written the obituary, just in case.

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Filed under Changes, Family, Life, Travel, Wishes

Cruising

It’s easy to forget the true purpose of a cruise is to visit foreign parts – there are too many things to keep us entertained on board these modern ships (or do we call it a boat?). And it hardly looked inviting as we dropped anchor at the first port of call. The heavens darkened as torrents flooded the narrow streets of Cozumel. Apparently it was the first time they’d seen rain since April. We admitted it was our fault; being English we attract grey clouds, just like Winnie the Pooh.

Anyway by the time David and Stacey hired a jeep and we’d all piled inside the clouds had emptied and the far horizon looked temptingly bright. Driving out of town on the island’s single ring-road we used our basic map to hunt for the kind of beach anticipated by the prefix ‘Caribbean’ i.e. palm trees with white sands fringed by a turquoise sea. It took a couple of sorties before we found one that didn’t charge per-item (parking, toilets, shower facilities, loungers, being there) as private beach clubs monopolise much of the best coastline, but finally, after bumping down an unmettled  track through what can only be described as swampland (with resident tropical mosquitoes), we found what we were looking for. Picture-poster paradise!

Cozumel beach

We settled onto the ‘free’ sun-loungers and while everyone else went to change into swim-suits (only the timid call them costumes) the waiter brought a menu for the beach bar. No coffee? No tea? Now I love an ambitious cocktail but not before elevenses. The man seemed flummoxed by my abstinence – one rum mojito? It’s very tasty! Perhaps…given more time…I might have relented but I wanted to remember my day in Cozumel for all the right reasons.

We lazed on the beach and swam in crystal-clear water until the sun beat down so mercilessly we decided it was time to go exploring. We wanted to see the whole island – the ancient ruins, the exotic birdlife and even perhaps one of the native crocodiles (one would be enough).

Beach Bar, Cozumel

Cozumel beach 2

As we rounded the south-east tip the scenery changed dramatically as the road ran briefly beside the shore. But this wasn’t a gentle laze-in-the-sun beach, although an azure sea stretched out to a distant horizon, Atlantic-driven waves spurt over and through a plateau of craggy limestone, spouting metres into the air, illustrating one of the island’s best natural features – its blow-holes. For millions of years the sea has burrowed through these rocks and geologists have recently discovered this tiny island contains the fifth largest cave system in the world. But we didn’t come to Mexico to go caving.

Wave power

Time for lunch. We stopped at a rickety beach-bar (resting on twelve-foot high stilts) because it offered great views, and subsequently broke every ‘safe’ traveller’s rule by ordering fresh guacamole and salsa (the ‘kitchen’ proved to be a tin shed tucked behind the toilet block). The food was truly delicious but our enjoyment was shattered by a trio of hardy mariachis, two guitars and a percussionist, who’d trailed us from the capital (guitar strung to their backs and drum-kit across the knees) on an aging pair of mopeds. We’d all laughed when we sailed past them a third time not guessing they would track us down!

O sole mio

Escaping their enthusiastic rendition of ‘O Sole Mio’ (who requested a love song?) we set off for the temple ruins, our last port of call before re-boarding the ship. It’s believed the island had a population of 10,000 Mayan people before the Spanish arrived. By the late sixteenth century European diseases had decimated the native population and everyone forgot the Mayans. Although the Archaeological Institute of Mexico is responsible for maintaining the ruins they are in danger of remaining an enigma. A very inhospitable armed guard charged us a small fee for entering a concrete quadrangle which housed various souvenir shops and a bar-café full of uniformed guards. We were immediately steered to the opposite side of the square where we were charged a further fee and provided with day-glo-green wristbands which, it was explained, permitted entry to the Mayan complex. What the first fee covered was never divulged, and we were far too intimidated to enquire, but we had our suspicions – gazing at the officers at the bar.

I only wish I’d remembered the Deet. Before we reached the first set of temples we were consumed as ‘plat du jour’ by a vigorous insect population. Shorts and T-shirts proved an open invitation to hungry hoards who obviously relished Brit. At first we braved it out, running along some ancient track that kept our feet above swamp. We viewed the ruins in fast-forward mode – look…there’s a carving, look…that’s where they sacrificed people, look…there’s a giant iguana….crikey he’s real. Do they eat Brits? Rather than test the theory we raced back to the car – Indiana Jones eat your heart out.

Mayan bridge

David’s previous experience on Cozumel taught him to allow plenty of time to drive through the island’s capital. Although we had ‘the map’ roads weren’t numbered, or even classified as to size or quality, and negotiating what appeared a simple grid-system proved tricky. Our first choice was one-way – in the wrong way and the next option wasn’t wide enough for a four-wheeled vehicle wanting to retain both wing-mirrors so we felt blessed when we finally reached the harbour unscathed. David returned the jeep, leaving us to quickly browse a street market before making our way back to Navigator. Enough foreign parts for one day!

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Stone Four

Twenty-eight months of pure energy

Bursts through the door at breakfast.

What are you eating gran?

How about we have an adventure, read this book, blow bubbles?

Can we chase our shadows?

What’s in here?

 ImageSeeing the world through my grandsons’ eyes

I am blessed. 

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