Tag Archives: history

Friars Carse

A twenty-four hour break seemed just enough to charge our memories because there was once a time, when my son was learning his trade, when we needed to drive along the A76 three or four times a month. Except I’m hardly a glutton for nostalgia and had almost forgotten the compelling beauty of this landscape, its low rolling hills and broadleaf forests, the few snatched glimpses of the glistening River Nith. The ancient road links Dumfries to Sanquhar and beyond, and its sense of history is compelling as it weaves through places that recall times past. And November is a time for remembrance.

Being Border Country the land was once dotted with castles. Proper castles, with sheer stone walls that fail to radiate warmth and hospitality. Castles undoubtedly occupied by ruthless nobles who jealously guarded their patch. Many were destroyed to fulfil a treaty with the English back in the 1300’s. Poor King David II was being held hostage in London and the price of his freedom was utter humiliation. But being Border Country the nobles were quick to rebuild.

After leaving Dumfries the first place of note is Thornhill, a perfect example of a traditional Scottish town. Neat stone houses line boulevard wide streets and shops provide essentials like oil lamps, hearth tools and treacle licks. There is a sense that time is marked differently in this corner of Scotland except yellow coated contractors are busy installing super-fast broadband cables beneath the sandstone slabbed pavements. Not even a mobile signal today!

The weather was becoming increasingly dreich so we dived inside a café for lunch. Soup of the Day was broth – just like my grandmother used to make, a thick kaleidoscope of root vegetables jewelled with beads of barley, inviting any spoon to take root. Soup that braves the elements. Except we didn’t.

Friars Carse, the hotel where we were staying, owns an exceptionally long history. On a small rise near the entrance archaeologists discovered the remains of an Iron Age Fort which was later occupied by Romans. Grey Friars brought their form of Christianity here but the ecclesiastical buildings they founded were enclosed inside a fortified building that was later extended to make a comfortable home. If I had my pick of the land I’d choose this very same plot because the stately sandstone house sits atop a raised peninsula overlooking the beautiful River Nith framed in majestic trees bright with autumn colour. Some native trees possess girths which suggest a very long lifespan, no doubt charmed by their setting.

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In 1809 the house became the home of Dr James Crichton, the Admirable Crichton, being renamed Friars Carse in 1895. In 1938 it became a hotel and attracts its regular clientele of anglers keen to nab salmon and trout. Our prize was to rest but first we’d anticipated taking a slow walk through the grounds before settling into our suite. Unfortunately the weather proved un-obliging and so we fell to appreciating the bottle of chilled champagne waiting in our room. The afternoon was spent reading and relaxing and dinner was divine, every morsel perfectly sumptuous. We retired entirely mollycoddled.

For me the most enigmatic attraction of Friars Carse is the tiny shed-like outbuilding called the Hermitage. Etched into one of the window panes are the following words:

Thou whom Chance may hither lead,

Be thou clad in russet weed

Be thou deckt in silken stole

Grave these counsels on thy soul.

Life is but a day at most

Sprung from night – in darkness lost;

Hope not sunshine every hour

Fear not clouds will always lour.

The person who scribed these famous lines lived less than a mile south of Friars Carse and should you follow the fast-flowing Nith for about half a mile you reach his former home, Ellisland Farm. Historians say he chose the site because he was particularly inspired by this stretch of river. However it cannot be denied the poet also enjoyed its proximity to Friars Carse. Robert Burns even wrote a poem called The Whistle to commemorate a drinking contest which took place there on 16th October 1789. Participants had to drink each other under the table. You might guess what form of trophy was awarded to the winner.

Should you be tempted: http://www.friarscarse.co.uk

 

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Filed under Autumn, Culture, Experience, fiction, Friendship, History, Life, Nostalgia, Past, Scotland, Wishes, Writing

Roaming

It’s good to be back. I’ve been away since mid-September and although I generally thrive on travel the last few weeks I’ve been homesick to such an extent I couldn’t bare to access the internet or even check my e-mails.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

It didn’t used to be such a wrench. I’ve been globe-trotting since child-hood. Dad was a civil engineer and most of his ‘projects’ were based overseas. We hardly lived anywhere longer than a couple of years so rarely put down roots. Home never meant belonging and I grew up believing that mine was a ‘gypsy’ soul. Friends were always few as I itched to move on, to discover just what lay beyond the next horizon. What ties I owned were weak and unsentimental. Yet I was always jealous of people who ‘belonged’ and wished I could claim one place as home. And I suppose that’s why I’ve always loved history. While the present world is always in flux there is a sense of permanence about things past. History exists in the mind’s eye and therefore can’t disappoint or betray expectations. Anyway, that’s my excuse, or perhaps it’s more an apology?

With that in mind our latest round of travels began in Italy, in the Bay of Naples to be exact, a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. We opted for an eight-day tour because we’ve learned from recent experience that popular sites are virtually impossible to enter without serious forward planning (of which we are incapable) and specialist companies secure priority tickets over individual tourists.

On first arrival I did begin to question that logic, especially when caught-up in rush-hour traffic along the Bay of Naples. Then we enter a series of tunnels culminating in a seven kilometre run which ejects us dramatically onto the rim of cliffs hovering above Sorrento and images of 1950’s movies starring Audrey Hepburn or Sophie Loren transpose my view. Azure seas lap beneath an undulating conurbation of white-washed villas clinging, rather haphazardly, to the cliff-tops; of course it’s entirely breath-taking.

Sorrento

It takes another airless hour to reach our hotel, crawling through narrow lanes packed with traffic, negotiating hair-pin bends not designed for cars never-mind tour buses. We drop fellow passengers at city-centre hotels and wish our destination was closer. However our choice of accommodation proves worth the wait, we have the best view in Sorrento, high above the bay and tucked amongst high-staked vines and olive groves. Our home for the next week is the traditional, family-run Hotel Vue d’Or, and within minutes of our arrival we are flopped, like jetsam, on the marble-tiled balcony, sipping cold beer and expiring in the heat like true Anglophiles.

Hotel Vue d'Or

Next morning, after a solid night’s sleep, our first day unwinds slowly. I sit on the balcony, writing down my thoughts and impressions. Although not yet nine o clock heat seeps down the mountains, crimping at the shade. Sunlight, unleashed, breaks with utter force, smothering, impaling, disturbing, discomforting. A distant mountain is ablaze. Soft grey smoke gathers, suspended like a balloon above the red glow of flames. The smoke sits slovenly and impassive. There isn’t a breath of wind.

Fire mountain

By mid-day the northern horizon hangs grey while small, bee-like planes skim across the smoke dropping buckets of water onto the flames. They seem an ineffectual nuisance. The sun’s brilliance filters through a smothering haze. But far below me sits a turquoise pool, shimmering invitingly. The hotel is clamped onto the mountain-side like a concrete rock, surrounded by red-tiled roofs poking through the dark green mantel of ancient olive groves. The air smells potently of charcoal smoke and hot-house herbs.

The week holds a fast-paced itinerary. There’s no more time to sit and stare as the bus arrives to take us to our first destination. Worse, except for one other day, we have to be ready to leave by 7am. No leisurely breakfasts, no sitting by the pool and wondering if the fires will be subdued, we have an agenda to pursue. I begrudge the means but this is modern tourism, I can’t afford the time, never mind the wider elements of a true ‘grand tour’.

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Coming into Pompeii for the first time it was mind-blowing to think this city was seven centuries old before the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Seven hundred years of trading with the known world, of ambitious families accumulating wealth and substance in a city perfectly situated for growth and expansion. Even though it now lies in ruins it still possesses an arrogant beauty. No wonder its citizens were reluctant to abandon their hopes when a series of earthquakes shook Pompeii’s foundations to the core ten years before the final destruction came.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

Of course those with real money were able to leave, to abandon their villas by the sea. There is evidence they packed up their riches and left slaves to guard their properties. In fact one of the earliest finds, during the excavations of 1748, were the skeletons of several men who’d been trying to tunnel into the city not long after its annihilation. More recent archaeology has proved they were attempting to recover a large chest containing the combined household silver of a wealthy aristocrat. Historians think it quite possible there was the offer of a generous ransom but poisonous gases still pervaded the site, sealing the treasure-hunters’ demise. And they probably weren’t the only victims because local legend proclaimed the site not merely dangerous but ‘damned’.

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

So Pompeii was largely forgotten. While boiling mud extinguished its existence, the massive eruption diverted the river which bound its wealth and subsequent lava-flows changed the lay of the land until the sea fell back from its harbours and the surrounding marshes became mosquito laden backlands where few dared to linger.

To be continued…

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Filed under aspirations, Culture, Disaster, History, Hopes, Rome, Travel

Maps and Mary, Queen of Scots

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Whether looking for the best means to travel from A to B or going in search of treasure you can’t do without a map. And I don’t mean some GPS enabled app, that just doesn’t have the same scope. I mean a large paper sheet that refuses to close down even when you want it to and has a satisfying radius that sets your position on the planet better than glaring at Google Earth. Maps are the key to an ‘otherworld’, they lead to somewhere else, facilitate journeying beyond familiar places to places where one may be inspired and astounded. Maps are really quite remarkable.

Over the last few months I’ve been trying to determine the most likely route Mary Queen of Scots followed after landing from a fishing boat on a beach near Workington during the evening of 16th May 1568. But the truth is proving elusive, not least because after her death she became something more than human, she became a figure of romance, a legend. Every Tom, Dick or Harry with an eye to a profit has claimed she came to call.

Mary-Queen-of-Scots

There is no question where she slept that very first night because the evidence is indisputable. Imagine the furore when the Queen of the neighbouring country unexpectedly comes a-calling? Unfortunately the Curwens who resided at Workington Hall were taking the waters in Bath but a servant recognised Mary because he was French and ‘knew her in better times’.  That evening letters were being dispatched to the four corners of the land (and beyond, Mary wrote a letter to France begging assistance). Just before dawn next day Richard Lowther, deputy keeper of Carlisle Castle, arrived with a company of men (between 200 to 800 depending on who composed the letter) to escort the unexpected visitor back to Carlisle Castle. The argument being this was for her own safety.

Lowther was right to worry about Mary’s situation. The Earl of Northumberland wanted Mary under his control, and with Lord Wharton, military governor of the region out of reach in London poor Richard had to make all the decisions. He obviously knew who he could trust and called on a wealthy merchant called Henry Fletcher. Now while most records agree that Fletcher was Mary’s host during her second night in England he owned several large houses in the region. The earliest written record I can find claims Mary stayed at Clea Hall but that didn’t seem to make sense because it’s so far off the beaten track…at least nowadays. Perhaps that’s why most modern tomes agree Mary stayed that critical night at Cockermouth Hall, another of Henry’s homes.

Then, while debating my next step, I happened to bump into John Higham, a retired history teacher who’s written several books on local history. When I told him of my dilemma he pointed me towards the Saxon map of Cumberland which was published in 1579. It came as a surprise to discover that the main road to Carlisle, in fact the only road which would accommodate a large party of men and women on horseback, skirted the hills and passed through the villages of Ireby and Dalston, a very different route from today. And this made it apparent that Clea Hall is in a much better position, especially if you want to ride in ceremonial triumph into Carlisle next day and not look too frazzled. The grounds of Clea Hall also offered space for the few hundred soldiers who needed a place to lay their heads, something far less feasible in Cockermouth town centre, especially with the Earl of Northumberland’s men breathing down your back (but that’s another story).

So my journey hasn’t ended. I have an inkling the records are wrong, but I do know for certain that Mary made the wrong choice in coming to England. But then, had she remained, as was most likely, under house arrest in Scotland, she would have faded into history rather than blazed.

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Looking NW from a farm lane near Crosscanonby across farmland and the Solway Firth to the Galloway Hills.

  © Copyright ally McGurk and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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Filed under Cumberland, History, Research, Scotland, Sources, Writing

Love Affairs

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

History through the keyhole

The original copy which comprises newspapers bound into a book.

The original copy which comprises newspapers bound into a book.

Portable edition

Portable edition

For thirty years a strapping Victorian bible of a book has sat in the corner of my office unopened and unloved. It’s so ungainly it never fitted on any bookshelf and over the years has variously seen service as a flower press, a prop or a step (by shorter members of the family). It was given to me by my late brother-in-law as a gift when we first moved to Cumbria, in 1982, and I clearly remember how excited he was after discovering it in a second-hand shop in Carlisle. At the time I was knee-deep in knitting a new way of life having moved hundreds of miles from known friends and family so I’m ashamed to say I gave the tome a passing glance and a vacant ‘thank you’.

Last month, when the floor space in my office reached critical level, I decided I must de-clutter. What’s the point of having any book if it isn’t going to be read? Luckily I resolved to honour my brother-in-law and explore the contents of this heavyweight, prior to its being ejected.

Wilson’s ‘Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginative Tales of the Borders and of Scotland, Vol. IV’ isn’t bedtime reading. Apart from mammoth proportions its antique typeface and generally archaic form of writing requires an excellent light source and active attention span. But what treasures lie within.

Wilson collected these stories at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many are folk-tales and handed-down histories, but critically some are based on interviews with ‘interesting’ local characters and the author has a comforting, if not fully objective, style. Researching Wilson I discover he was born in 1804, in Berwick-on-Tweed, and became involved in publishing at the age of 11. The year was 1815, the Napoleonic wars had just come to an end and this tenderfoot decided to go out and interview some local veterans about their experiences. From that seed his quest to record the traditions, tales and history of the region grew.

The tales were first published in monthly instalments from 8th October 1834, by which time John Mackay Wilson had become editor of the “Berwick Advertiser”. They became a minor publishing sensation with an original run of 2,000 having to be raised to 30,000 within the year. Although Wilson died prematurely, on 3rd October 1835 at the age of 31, he’d already contributed 66 tales to the first collection and the success of his idea led his executors and family to continue the process of publication. They recruited a group of contributors to continue the work and a total of 299 were eventually published.

The roll-call of writers influenced by these works includes Sir Walter Scott (who published smaller, portable editions in 1869), RL Stephenson and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Each story radiates with the rich history, lore and legend of the Borders. They caught the imagination of their age and offer a rich social history covering some 500 years. I’ve copied out the opening paragraphs of one story which captured my attention. It recounts the exploits of a man called Bill Whyte as told by his gypsy brother.

‘I was born, master, in this very cave, some sixty years ago, and so am a Scotchman like yourself. My mother, however, belonged to the Debateable Land, my father was an Englishman, and of my five sisters, one first saw the light in Jersey, another in Guernsey, a third in Wales, a fourth in Ireland, and the fifth in the Isle of Man. But this is a trifle, master, to what occurs in some families.

It can’t be now much less than fifty years since my mother left us, one bright sunny day, on the English side of Kelso, and staid away about a week.  We thought we had lost her altogether; but back she came at last, and, when she did come, she brought with her a small sprig of a lad, of about three summers or thereby.  Father grumbled a little – we had got small fry enough already, he said, and bare enough and hungry enough they were at times; but mother shewed him a pouch of yellow pieces, and there was no more grumbling.  And so we called the little fellow, Bill Whyte, as if he had been one of ourselves, and he grew up among us, as pretty a fellow as e’er the sun looked upon.  I was a few years his senior; but he soon contrived to get half a foot a-head of me; and, when we quarrelled, as boys will at times, master, I always came off second-best.  I never knew a fellow of a higher spirit; he would rather starve than beg, a hundred times over, and never stole in his life; but then for gin-setting, and deer-stalking, and black-fishing, not a poacher in the country got beyond him; and when there was a smuggler in the Solway, who more active than Bill?

He was barely nineteen, poor fellow, when he made the country too hot to hold him.  I remember the night as well as if it were yesterday. The Cat-maran lugger was in the Frith, d’ye see, a little below Carlaverock; and father and Bill and some half-dozen more of our men, were busy in bumping the kegs ashore, and hiding them in the sand. It was a thick, smuggy night; we could hardly see fifty yards round us; and, on our last trip, master, when we were down in the water to the gunwale, who should come upon us, in the turning of a handspike, but the revenue lads from Kirkcudbright!  They hailed us to strike in the Devil’s name. Bill swore he wouldn’t. Flash went a musket, and the ball whistled through his bonnet. Well, he called on them to row up, and up they came; but no sooner were they within half-oar’s length, then, taking up a keg, and raising it just as he used to do the putting-stone, he made it spin through their bottom, as if the planks were of window-glass; and down went their cutter in half a jiffy.  They had wet powder that night, and fixed no more bullets.

Well, when they were gathering themselves up as they best could-and, goodness he praised! There were no drownings amongst them – we bumped our kegs ashore, hiding them with the others, and then fled up the country.  We knew there would be news of our night’s work; and so there was; for, before next evening, there were advertisements on every post for the apprehension of Bill, with an offered reward of twenty pounds.’

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

Apart from smuggling on the Solway shores this story vividly describes how the brothers fought the French (Napoleon) in Egypt, their encounters with Arabs (who they describe as being like gypsies of the desert) and subsequently their most dangerous adventure after they return to Cumberland. Bill’s real parentage is finally revealed and the story ends with this sentence: ‘I left him, and made the best of my way home; where, while the facts were fresh in my mind, I committed to paper (for the express purpose of having it inserted among the Border Tales) the gypsy’s story.’

Considering the Battle of the Nile took place in 1798 this ‘interview’ is with a man born in the late eighteenth century yet phrases like ‘small fry’ and ‘half a jiffy’ sound relatively modern. But it’s the stirring eye-witness accounts which make such stories relevant. Strip away Victorian sentimentality and the intimate, chatty style adds credence, just like Michael Parkinson interviewing a celebrity, I feel I’m listening to the past through a key-hole.

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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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Katherine Mansfield – Child of the Sun

The last time I visited New Zealand in 2011 I caught up with an old friend from college days. Remembering my intense passion for Katherine Mansfield he suggested we visit the house where she grew up. I didn’t like to admit I’d long forgotten Katherine. Forgotten she came from Wellington, forgotten the woman who once inspired me so profoundly. But I’m forever grateful to that friend for rekindling my passion. And subsequently re-reading KM’s ‘Letters and Journals’ took me back thirty years, to the time when I was young and eager and ambitious and totally convinced that one day, I too would fulfil my ambitions and become a writer.

 

‘How to be a writer – is everything……People have never explored the lovely medium of prose. It is a hidden country still – I feel that so profoundly.’ (July 1919)

 

 

Open to the public, Katherine's home in Wellington.

Open to the public, Katherine’s home in Wellington.

Born in October 1888 Kate was a disquieting and precocious child. Her parents decided to send her away, to the other side of the world, to study at Queen’s College, London. It was 1903. She was 14 years old. They probably expected the experience would tame her wild spirit, however, by the time she was ordered home following reports of ‘difficult’ behaviour, she had formulated a lifelong plan to ‘gain experience at all costs’.

 

I am full of a restless wonder but I have none of that glorious expectancy that I used to have so much. They are draining it out of me.’  (Nov 1906, returning home on board the SS Corinthic)

 

When I first discovered KM I was researching ‘Bohemian’ artists of the early 20th century for my final (graduation) project at Art College. Her writing sparkled with open-eyed honesty. Her letters and journals illustrated the minutiae of her life with sensual and acute observations. More particularly she described her emotional experiences; her passions and insecurities, her disappointments and fears. I was eighteen years old and found we had much in common. Her descriptive prose seemed to mirror the creative ideals of artists such as Matisse and Picasso but despite my enthusiasm for her work the tutor in charge of my course didn’t think she caused enough ‘creative impact’ to warrant further study. Yet I’d fallen under the spell of Kathleen, the rebel. Not merely did I sympathize with her rejection of middle-class conservatism I felt she knew what it was like to be me.

 

‘Damn my family! Oh heavens, what bores they are! ….I shall certainly not be here much longer.’ (Oct. 21, 1907)

 

Katherine’s letters and journals inspired me to explore my own talents and gave me the courage not to grasp at conformity. She grew up in a colonial villa in a street full of like-minded buildings set upon the only piece of flat land between Government House and the harbour. It was the heartland of colonial respectability. Wellington sprawls awkwardly over craggy outcrops and mountains, a scenic yet impractical city. Flat land remains at a premium; an airport was only possible after new land surfaced during an earthquake (it sits precariously across a major fault line). But whatever your social standing New Zealand was remote and plebeian, at least for a girl like Kate, who always dreamed of better things.

 

Botanic Gardens in summer, full of colour.

Wellington Botanic Gardens in summer, with plants imported from Europe.

Also lying between the Mansfield home and the harbour are large botanic gardens founded during the late Victorian era boasting elegant cast-iron conservatories and technicolour flower beds. In modern New Zealand they represent an unchanging past, cream teas and archways bowed with roses, but in Mansfield’s time it was a tangible reminder of England. She begged to be allowed to return to London and left New Zealand finally in 1908.

 

‘I feel that I do now realise, dimly, what women in the future will be capable of… They truly as yet have never had their chance…..we are firmly held with the same self-fashioned chains of slavery. Yes, now I see they are self-fashioned, and must be self-removed….Here then is a little summary of what I need – power, wealth and freedom.’ (May 1908)

 

I understand KM in a very different light since visiting her homeland. I believe that once she left New Zealand she never really belonged anywhere and what she had absorbed of her country, and its native peoples, inspired every single word she wrote. She arrived back in London just as expressionism was becoming fashionable amongst the rich and avant-garde. It must have seemed perfect timing for a woman who thrived on emotion. But life was never that easy, or that simple, for Kate. Her father finally settled her with an annual allowance that allowed her to exist without the need to work. She adopted a Bohemian life-style and wrote fitfully, her writerly ambitions constantly thwarted by her restless soul and a driving need to attain perfection.

 

‘I begin to wish to God I could destroy all that I have written and start again: it all seems like so many ‘false starts’. (July 1918)

 

It was the fact that this week marked the centenary of the beginning of the First World War that made me think of KM today. It should be noted that not one of her male friends returned from fighting in the Great War. Her young brother was amongst the first casualties. Her spirit declined and yet she became more restless. After being diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis she went to live in France, hoping the climate would offer a means of remission. She died at the Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleau. It was January 1923. Katherine was 34 years old.

 

What is this about the novel? Tell me, thou little eye among the blind……the more I read the more I feel all these novels will not do. ….And yet I feel one can lay down no rules. It’s not in the least a question of material or style or plot. ….I can’t imagine how after the war these men can pick up the old threads as though it had never been. Speaking to you I’d say we have died and live again. How can that be the same life?…..Now we know ourselves for what we are.’ (16 Nov 1919)

 

 

Cast-iron conservatories and afternoon tea.

Cast-iron conservatories and afternoon tea.

 

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Today my eldest grandson will have completed his first year at school. He is five years old. He came home yesterday armed with a handful of certificates and rewards and I think it’s safe to say he’s enjoyed attending classes. The worst hurdle was school dinners but that’s another story, his tastes buds are highly sensitive and some foods ‘scare’ him.

 

Our village school teaches fifty pupils who begin in reception, aged 4, and stay until they finally pass onto secondary school when they’ve turned eleven. It’s the same school my children attended and although the buildings have been extended to accommodate a pre-school nursery and a state of the art technology room, little seems to have changed in twenty years.

 

Last week parents and grandparents (and great grandparents) gathered to watch and encourage the competitors at the school’s annual Sport’s Day. Many families have lived in this community for generations and there was a big turnout, especially given a beautiful summer’s day and the promise of cream teas. The children were formed into teams of ten, drawn from every age group. My grandson Oscar was the smallest in his team, cheering enthusiastically as the others competed. During some events older team-members were allowed to help, events such as the wellie race which was difficult for little ones who could barely walk in ten gallon boots never mind run. Although I’d never met the young lady who held Oscar’s hand I recognized her mother and grandmother immediately as they waved and added their encouragement.

 

I feel very privileged to live in such a friendly community. When I was six years old my parents moved out of London to a small village in north Kent. It was the early 60’s and Upchurch was hardly bigger than Rosley but at that time the community was experiencing a period of great change. A faster rail network meant people could live in ‘picturesque’ Kentish villages and still work in London. This extension of the Commuter Belt meant new houses were going up wherever builders could get planning permission. Kent exploded with ‘estates’ which could house thousands of people, most of them earning higher wages in the city than they could ever earn in the small rural industries of Kent.

 

Unfortunately Kent’s education system wasn’t geared up for the sudden expansion and classrooms which had rarely contained more than a dozen children suddenly had to cater for thirty or more. This was certainly the case at Holywell Junior School, a two class-room building which finally closed the year after I left for secondary school. Many villagers resented the changes being brought about by this growth and there was a definite sense of division between ‘locals’ and ‘incomers’. As a child I wasn’t aware of what caused the rift but I sensed I was always an outsider. My sister, three and half years younger, never experienced the same isolation because by the time she began school the incomers outnumbered the locals. She still lives just a few miles from where we grew up whereas I never hesitated to leave. Community is a strong magnet, if you belong.

 

I’ve lived in Cumbria, in this same village, since 1982 and feel this is where I belong. I can never be a villager because I wasn’t born here, but with the third generation putting down roots we can almost claim to be locals.

 

 

 

 

 

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July 18, 2014 · 1:09 pm

Dust

I love this time of year. It’s late May and the weather is getting warmer, saplings burst forth beneath a cerulean sky and puffs of snow-white clouds hover upon the horizon. The days are getting longer but summer hasn’t quite arrived; the countryside radiates with wild flowers, with fresh, green-scented renewal. And that effervescent energy, that primeval life-force, seems to spill into our very being. Nature’s providence drives human motivation. But I suspect spring is also nature’s way of keeping women-kind indoors.

 

Maybe it’s the unique angle of sunlight as it beams through the windows, acting like a magnifying glass on every speck and filament of dust, but nobody would believe I ever took up arms with the Dyson. Glistening in the clarifying light is a finite veil of dust that mocks my frequent battles. I suspect this evidence proves that nothing is really taken away, just re-cycled. Like Superman, dust is virtually indestructible.

 

Anyway this got me thinking about the motivation behind spring cleaning. Were our iron-age sisters as concerned about dirt when spring cast her beams through the doorway? Because I suspect this impulse runs very deep. And how many battles might never have been fought if women-kind denied those instincts for a spring-cleaning splurge? Did the men-folk, lacking any impulse to defeat a foe as oblivious as dust, spur their energies into other (outdoor) activities…..such as hunting, and picking fights with the neighbours? And I was always taught the reason medieval wars generally launched in spring had something to do with the harvest. History could be told quite differently if dust was a perspective.

 

Which started me wondering what other traditionally ‘masculine’ sports are activated by spring? Perhaps it’s no coincidence May is the preferred month for elections? And what accolades might I have achieved if it wasn’t for an impulse to sweep the remains of winter out of the house? A quick run through Google confirms my suspicions, the activity of Spring-cleaning occurs world-wide, Wiki’ even proposes it was first ‘celebrated’ in ancient Persia! But I believe this urge is so instinctive, so primeval, it would hardly be recorded until some well-placed power-monger, realising the value of keeping women busy at home, timed the most iconic events and festivals to coincide with what was already a natural and well-known phenomenon. So the war against dirt became sacred and anyone trying to change things is still accused of ‘stirring up dust’.

 

I’m looking again at the dust spun patterns on my window-sill, at the silver-framed pictures of my family, at the pottery dancing figure my daughter made when she was twelve, and tucked in an old blue candlestick I see a Lego flower has been planted. It’s an alien, plastic creation and I know exactly which grandson is responsible. He’ll laugh when I show him! Tricked gran again, putting something where it’s not meant to be, messing up the tidy humdrum of life in wonderful creative chaos. Proof, as if I need it, that I don’t live in a laboratory, but a home. Dust is a by-product of contentment and the fact it remains in-situ merely evidence of a busy life. And what doesn’t get re-distributed can be described as enchanted, as fairy-dust waiting for action.   

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Boy Made Good

Did you know Master William Shakespeare was an astute businessman?

 

Only recently has light been thrown on the playwright’s business activities. And it seems William was a bit of a spendthrift; court records show his readiness to chase any debt owed, but also illustrate he was adept at moving out of digs just as his tax became due. Unlike fellow playwrights and actors he never bought a house in London but rather invested his hard-earned cash into land and property around Stratford-upon-Avon, his home town. There are even records showing he was active as a kind of Elizabethan commodities broker, buying grain during harvest-time and storing it so he could sell when the price was high.

 

So why haven’t we heard of Shakespeare & Co Ltd? Well the academics who recently unearthed this information say it was deliberately ‘buried’ in order to enhance his literary achievements. It seems certain academic snobs wanted to conceal the fact that our creative genius got his hands dirty with ‘trade’.

 

We English have a rather two-faced attitude towards ‘trade’. Napoleon Bonaparte called us a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ because he knew how deeply the insult cut. But we inherited the notion that business, the profitable act of buying and selling, is somehow less worthy (than merely pillaging?) from the Norman conquerors who invaded our shores in 1066. Once they became overlords they put their military prowess into coercing us natives, stealing local assets and sharing out the land gratis. Apparently it wasn’t their custom to pay the going rate for goods or services either. Thus, eventually, we had the Magna Carta.

 

When the Tudors took power (1485) they totally mistrusted the old nobility (particularly those with cherished Norman bloodlines) and actively promoted able men from any class to run the country. Henry VIII’s court was the first to appoint more ‘ordinary’ citizens than knights, and his daughter, Elizabeth I, never doubted the sense of engaging self-made men. And the new regime didn’t spurn trade, it absolutely embraced it.

 

So William Shakespeare was born at a time when England was a dynamic melting pot of change. And that change was fundamental to the creation of a new form of entertainment called theatre. London was thriving, a place where anyone willing to embrace opportunities could, and did, make a profit. And in contrast to other playwrights Shakespeare didn’t aim his work solely at the educated elite; his plays mirrored life; each multi-layered drama resonates with the full strata of society. And being a shareholder in this new venture was crucial to his creative acumen. He quickly realised that weaving stories which appealed to rich and poor (and just about everyone between) meant he couldn’t fail to fill his theatre, and thereby earn greater profits.

 

And like many budding entrepreneurs, as soon as he’d earned enough money he purchased a fine coat of arms (a fist shaking a spear) because it put his name firmly on the map of respectability. William didn’t anticipate fame; he just wanted his family to have better status. No doubt his father’s failings meant William never risked putting all his eggs into one basket. Shrewd, canny, ambitious, he understood the value of money because he worked hard for every penny. It was an asset, never a gift.  

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