Newsletter 11

Welcome to the September 2008 issue of our occasional newsletter.

Latest Expedition

Somehow even the ‘slack’ period between finishing a book and seeing it published seems no less busy than at other times. Apart from correcting proofs and advising on illustrations, we have been writing articles and reviews for magazines and preparing lectures for various venues in readiness for the publication of Jack Tar. Consequently there has not been much time for expeditions – just as well because it seems to have rained all summer! We did, however, have a day out in Exmouth, not a million miles from where we live.

Exmouth is on the east side of the River Exe where it joins the sea and boasts the longest seafront in Devon and Cornwall. It also has the reputation as the oldest seaside town in Devon, since it was the playground of the people of the city of Exeter from the late 18th century – much like Brighton was for Londoners. This role as a holiday resort supplanted its earlier importance as a port close to Exeter. A few fishing boats still operate from Exmouth, but the docks have been transformed into a marina for small boats, while the river estuary is full of pleasure craft of various types and ages. In its heyday Exmouth was very fashionable, and both Lady Nelson and Lady Byron had houses here. Torquay eclipsed Exmouth as a resort, particularly from 1848 when the railway provided easy access – Exmouth’s railway came over a decade later.

Low tide on the River Exe at Exmouth
Low tide on the River Exe at Exmouth.

Just outside Exmouth is a unique 16-sided house built in the 1790’s called A la Ronde. Two cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter, went on an extensive Grand Tour of Europe in 1784, returning to England ten years later. Jane designed and built the house to contain the relics they had accumulated on their travels, and they both lived here. Although eccentric in design, it was probably a pleasant place to live because at least one room receives the best of the sunshine at any given time of day. Today, the house is owned by the National Trust and is open to the public. It contains much of the original decoration, furniture and mementoes from the Grand Tour. The house also contains a small library. The National Trust claims to own 130 historic libraries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, amounting to 400,000 volumes, and these tend to be treated as decorative objects, just another facet of the lives of the people who once occupied the houses, and not as a resource for researchers. The books can be consulted by appointment, but there are as yet no catalogues available for public use, so it is impossible to know what each library contains except by scrutinising the spines on the shelves – we saw some fascinating volumes at A La Ronde that we would have loved to consult. The libraries held by the National Trust are a huge untapped resource, and we just hope that sufficient funds will become available to allow not just a proper computer-based catalogue of the books, but also digitisation of the books, so that they can be viewed online by anyone in the world – without any damage to the books themselves!

Brean Down

Another popular tourist resort is Weston-super-Mare on the north Somerset coast, and nearby is Brean Down. On a map, Brean Down juts out into the sea like a finger pointing at the little island of Steep Holm in the Bristol Channel. Look inland from Brean Down, and the maps show this is no coincidence, because Brean is the last fragment on the mainland of the ridge of limestone called the Mendip Hills, and Steep Holm is another fragment of that ridge. Nowadays Brean Down is a pleasant place to walk, but its steep sides and the fact that it reaches so far out into the sea has made it, at various times, a place of refuge, a religious centre and an important part of coastal defences. The earliest occupation of this promontory dates to the Early Bronze Age, over 3,000 years ago, evidence for which comes from the excavation of an oval building and associated artifacts. People continued to live on Brean Down right through until the Early Iron Age, but probably intermittently, with many years when the place was deserted. It has the obvious attractions of a safe camping ground with seafood readily available nearby, but with no source of fresh water it is unlikely that there was ever a large settlement here. By the Roman period it was probably regarded as marginal land because a small temple was built here, and from then until the 19th century, a gap of 1,400 years, virtually nothing is known about Brean Down apart from some Dark Age burials and evidence of activity, including a house, in the early post-medieval period.

Brean Down from the west
Brean Down from the west.

What is fascinating is the effect that the railway could have had on Brean Down like it did on Torquay and Exmouth. In 1860 an ambitious scheme was launched to build a deep water harbour on the north (Weston-super-Mare) side of Brean Down, by the mouth of the River Axe. This harbour was to be connected to London by rail, cutting nearly a day off the London to New York journey as compared to the existing route via Liverpool. If the scheme had succeeded there would probably be a town the size of Liverpool at Brean, which would have swallowed up nearby Weston. It was not to be, however, for storms swept away the first harbour walls to be built, and the plan was abandoned. A little later, in 1867, a fort was built at the tip of the promontory as part of the
extensive coastal defences that were set up against possible invasion threats from France during the reign of the Emperor Napoleon III. This fort was later adapted for coastal guns and anti-aircraft defences in World War II, and the beaches to the north were used to test experimental weapons. A rocket launching ramp was built on Brean as part of these experiments, and a submarine cable was laid to connect various gun batteries.

Monument of the Month

It would have been good to see the major exhibition on the Roman Emperor Hadrian at the British Museum (on until 26 October), but we haven’t been to London for an age. Hadrian inherited an empire that had expanded to its greatest extent through Trajan’s military conquests, but many of the new frontier lines were insecure. Hadrian saw the dangers and did not shrink from pulling his forces back, including the area now called Iraq. In many other regions he withdrew to the frontier lines that had existed before Trajan’s conquests.

In Britain Hadrian is best known for the fortified wall across northern England known today as Hadrian’s Wall. This was an effort to consolidate the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire and keep the barbarians out. Nowadays it is not politically correct to talk in such terms, and many historians and archaeologists are at pains to consider the tribal cultures outside the Empire as ‘equal but different’ to the Romanised cultures within the frontiers – a case of baths versus bards. It was not an ethnic barrier, since the populations on either side of the frontiers were usually closely related, but it was a cultural division. Whether viewed with hindsight from a modern perspective, or through the eyes of the peoples of that time, few would disagree that being within the Empire and enjoying its benefits was preferable to living outside it. In his own lifetime, Hadrian’s policies were a success, but this was the turning point, the start of a long rearguard action to keep out the barbarians – barbarians who would finally destroy the civilisation they coveted. While history does not really repeat itself, the crude cycle of a civilised culture being destroyed by a stronger but less civilised one that envied its wealth and luxury is a theme that regularly recurs in the historical record worldwide.

Hadrian’s Wall near Housesteads Roman Fort
Hadrian’s Wall near Housesteads Roman Fort.

Hadrian spent many years touring the provinces, including the backwater of Britain in AD 122, when the Wall was started. It took seven years to complete and was 73 miles long, stretching from coast to coast. For a while it kept the northern barbarians at bay so that the inhabitants of the province of Britannia could live in peace. Today, it is a World Heritage Site, well worth visiting not just for the Wall and the surrounding landscape, but for the remains of the forts, fortlets, turrets, bridges and so on that made the Wall work as an effective barrier. The finds of writing tablets from Vindolanda also provide a vivid picture of life on the frontier for some of the thousands of men who were stationed there. Many of the monuments can be visited at any time of day, free-of-charge, while others have set opening times and admission charges. As these are mostly in the care of English Heritage, it is much cheaper to buy a season ticket. A good website link is

The Greeks in Egypt

Hadrian also visited Egypt in his tour of the provinces. Egypt had been a Roman imperial province since 30 BC when Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) annexed Egypt after the last queen, Cleopatra, and her allies were defeated. When people think of Cleopatra, they often assume that this Queen was a native Egyptian. She was in fact Cleopatra VII, born in Egypt in 69 BC but of Macedonian Greek descent. She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII and (probably) Cleopatra V, who was his wife and sister. The Ptolemies had ruled Egypt from 305 or 304 BC – Ptolemy I had been a general of Alexander the Great, the king of Macedonia who conquered Egypt in 332 BC to get rid of the Persians. The pharaoh who was ruling at that time, Nectanebo II, became the last Egyptian to rule the country for over 2,000 years. Cleopatra VII was to be the last of the Ptolemaic rulers – she had a son by Julius Caesar known as Caesarion and subsequently she entered into a political alliance with the Roman general Mark Antony. They both committed suicide at Alexandria after being defeated at the Battle of Actium.

Sculptures of Cleopatra and Caesarion on the Temple at Dendera
Sculptures of Cleopatra and Caesarion

on the Temple at Dendera.

The result of Greek rule in Egypt for a period of nearly three centuries was the gradual fusion of Greek culture with that of the native Egyptians. This period of Greek history is known as the Hellenistic, from the time of the conquests of Alexander the Great to the final conquest of the Greek world by the Romans in 30 BC. Today, the most visible reminder in Egypt is the Greek influences on the Late Egyptian architectural styles throughout the country. Alexander the Great marked out his territory by founding many cities known as Alexandria, and the Alexandria in Egypt was the greatest of them all. It was to this city that his body was brought for burial, and the city was also the last resting place of Cleopatra VII.

The Ptolemaic period in Egypt is often overlooked in guidebooks and holiday brochures in favour of remains of older monuments such as the pyramids, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the temples at Abu Simbel. A good number of the other monuments visited today by tourists are, though, Ptolemaic in date, or were considerably altered at that time. Even the Rosetta Stone, one of the most famous Egyptian monuments, does not belong to the time of the pharaohs. It was a decree dating to 196 BC commemorating Ptolemy V Epiphanes who ruled from 204 to 180 BC. He was the son of Ptolemy IV who had married his sister Arsinoë III. Ptolemy V married the very first Cleopatra, who was the daughter of the Seleucid king Antiochus III.


The decree on the Rosetta Stone was in three scripts, ancient Greek, hieroglyphs and hieratic. Our book The Keys of Egypt describes how Jean-François Champollion deciphered hieroglyphs and how the Rosetta Stone was so important. Some time ago we were tipped off that there were mentions of Champollion in the novel Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, and that The Keys of Egypt was in the further reading list, but neither of us had read Labyrinth until recently. We were astonished to find (on p.100 of our copy) four lines of hieroglyphs alongside the following words:
In the beginning of time
In the land of Egypt
The master of secrets
Gave words and script
These tally with four of our chapter headings (and in our own book, we too give the hieroglyphs). The theme of Kate Mosse’s book is a search for the grail, and Egyptian hieroglyphs are one of the keys to that search. Also, one of the main characters is an old man who has done many things in his long life, including writing an acclaimed biography of Jean-François Champollion. We are, of course, thrilled that Kate Mosse used our biography of Champollion as a key element of Labyrinth, and it was thoughtful of her to acknowledge the works of non-fiction that helped to inspire her novel. We just hope that her character of the old man who wrote a biography of Champollion wasn’t based on us, as we are not (yet) that old – although some days we feel that way!

Our Publications – Latest News

Our book Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy will be published in hardcover by Little, Brown, price £20, in the UK, Canada and other Commonwealth countries on 2 October, three days after the 250th anniversary of the birth of Nelson. We have been asked by many of you when it is being published in the United States, because there tends to be a year-long time-lag with our books there. All we can say at the moment is ‘we don’t know’, but for the time being try the UK internet booksellers.

Talking of the US, we recently had an article called ‘Don’t Give up the Ship!’ (about the USS Chesapeake) published in the American Military History Quarterly, summer 2008 issue, and on 29 July the paperback version of our book The War for All the Oceans was published in the US by Penguin, price $17 – more than a year since it was published in paperback in the UK.

In the UK, the August issue of the BBC History Magazine had an article by us on the harsh life of the seamen in Nelson’s navy, and in the September issue of the magazine BBC Who Do You Think You Are? we have written an article on tracing your naval ancestors in Nelson’s navy. This is a family history magazine and is tied to a highly successful TV series of the same name, which traces the family history of various celebrities and shows how important such research is in bringing history to life.

At the end of September, a completely revised edition of our The Handbook of British Archaeology is being published by Constable & Robinson worldwide – it has been thoroughly overhauled by a team of experts, with new illustrations. This book was first published in 1981 and has been in print ever since. If you’re looking it up, then we’re cited as the authors along with Victoria Leitch.

We will give updates on our books in the Latest News section of our website and in our next newsletter.


When we worked as archaeologists in London, we were constantly asked to do talks, mainly to archaeological societies. We also used to give evening classes on archaeology for local authorities and university adult education departments. When we moved away from London in 1987, initially to Somerset, we laid low for well over a decade and a half! Nobody down there knew we gave talks, and as we were now self-employed, we weren’t too keen to do them again, because they can be so time-consuming. With the bicentenary of the battle of Trafalgar, though, there was a lot of demand for talks, and since then we have begun to do talks again, which meant resurrecting all our old slide projection equipment as most organisations prefer talks to be illustrated. Over this last year, though, we have gone digital with all our photography, which is both good and bad. It’s bad because we now have to cart around a laptop to give talks! It’s also bad because digital projectors are still so expensive.

Anyway, we are lined up to do one talk on Wednesday October 8th in the Music Room of Exeter Central Library, Castle Street, Exeter [this event has now taken place – many thanks to all of you who came along!]. We are also lined up to give a talk at Sheffield in The Showroom Cinema, Paternoster Row, Sheffield. This will be part of their ‘Off the Shelf’ literary festival. More on that and other talks in the next newsletter.


We are pleased to be able to offer a hardcover copy of the latest of Julian Stockwin’s ‘Kydd’ series of naval novels. This one is called Treachery, and is published on 2nd October, the same day as Jack Tar in fact. To enter the competition, please answer the following question. What is the URL of the website of the author Julian Stockwin? [This competition is now closed.]

In the Next Issue

Nelson’s 250th birthday, the ‘Kydd’ novels and regulars like Monument of the Month