Newsletter 27

Welcome to the June 2012 issue of our occasional newsletter.



The Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II is in 2012, with the main celebrations taking place in June. She has been on the throne since February 1952, on the death of her father, George VI. Her coronation took place the following year, at Westminster Abbey in London, on 2 June 1953. In the past 60 years there have been tremendous changes, not least for Britain. At the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, just 55 years before Elizabeth’s accession, Britain had a worldwide empire. But by the time Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, large parts of that empire were already autonomous dominions within a British Commonwealth. Now the last vestiges of the empire have been dismantled and the Commonwealth itself is a loose association of countries that are anything but dominated by Great Britain.

In 1952 Cyprus was, on the surface at least, a peaceful part of the Commonwealth, happy to mark the Queen’s accession with monuments such as a water trough at Ayios Photios, a village located in the mountains about 9 miles north-east of the town of Paphos.

Water trough at Ayios Photios, Cyprus, marked ‘ER 1952’
Water trough at Ayios Photios, Cyprus, marked ‘ER 1952’

Troubled Cyprus

Even in 1952 trouble was brewing because the population of the island consisted of two main groups – a majority of Greek Cypriots and a minority of Turkish Cypriots. Most of them had lived together in harmony for decades, but periodically some Greek Cypriots would press for making Cyprus part of Greece. After the Second World War, the idea surfaced again, and priests of the Greek Orthodox Church, most notably Archbishop Makarios, began preaching union with Greece. This was not acceptable to the Turkish Cypriots nor to the British government which still had military bases on the island. A campaign against the British was carried on for many years by the terrorist group EOKA and several hundred British servicemen lost their lives.

Eventually by a combination of military strength and diplomatic manoeuvring by the British, Makarios and his supporters and the EOKA movement were forced to accept a compromise, whereby the future of the island had to be decided by an agreement between Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. An uneasy peace held until 1974 when leaders of the Greek Cypriots tried once again to put the island under Greek control. This time Britain did not intervene to stop Turkey, who invaded and imposed a partition on the island. The Turkish Cypriots gravitated to the north-east and the Greek Cypriots gathered in the south and west, and so it has remained. Tensions between the two sides gradually eased, and it is now possible to pass between the Greek and Turkish areas. However, not many years have passed since any tourist trying to buy Turkish Delight, on sale in so many shops in the Greek area, would be firmly told such a thing did not exist – but anyone was welcome to buy some Greek Delight!

Part of the deserted village of Ayios Photios
Part of the deserted village of Ayios Photios

Deserted villages

When Cyprus was divided and the two main ethnic groups moved to what became their own parts of the island, some villages were deserted. Left to decay, these settlements can still be seen in parts of Cyprus. The buildings are crumbling away and being submerged under vegetation. The village of Ayios Photios (or Ayios Fotios), though, was not deserted for this reason. In the second half of the 1960s heavy rainfall caused a number of landslides here and at another village in the locality called Statos. After a geological survey showed that these problems could not easily be solved, it was decided to amalgamate the two villages in a new one on stable ground to the north-east of Ayios Photios. The new village is called Statos Ayios Photios. The old villages were abandoned, and now the crumbling water trough, once proudly set up to mark Queen Elizabeth’s accession in 1952, is seldom seen except by a handful of shepherds tending their flocks in the area and a few passing tourists.


Charming stones

A prehistoric standing stone in England with a royal name, the King stone, forms part of the Rollright Stones situated between the villages of Great Rollright and Little Rollright in Oxfordshire. The stones consist of this standing stone, a stone circle and upright stones from a ruined chambered tomb, and they are the focus of one of the largest collections of legends attached to any ancient monument in Britain. Like some of the other large stone circles, the stones are said to be countless, and an addition to this belief is that anyone who succeeds in counting the stones and arriving at the same total three times can have any wish granted. Another belief is that the stones are powerful charms, and so many visitors over the centuries have chipped off pieces as talismans to ward off the devil. The standing stone, known as the King stone, particularly suffered, and it owes its unusual shape to to this slow-motion sculpting. Another legend relates how at a certain time of year, often cited as midnight on New Year’s Eve, the stones go down to a brook to drink. It is tempting to see the latter legend originating from the imaginations of New Year revellers.

The King Stone
The King Stone

The witch and the king

The main legend provides the names for the stones: the standing stone is the King, the remaining stones of the chambered tomb are the Whispering Knights, and the stone circle is the King’s Men, representing the soldiers of his army. The story goes that a king once set out with his army to conquer all of England, but when he had almost reached the crest of the ridge where the stones are now situated, he was confronted by a witch who owned the ground on which he stood. She told him he should take seven long strides and then,

‘If Long Compton thou canst see,
King of England thou shalt be.’

In other words, ‘If you can see Long Compton, you will be King of England’. Because Long Compton is a village in a valley on the other side of the ridge, the king took this as a good omen and cried out in expectation,

‘Stick, stock, stone,
As King of England I shall be known.’

He took seven strides, but could not see Long Compton, whereupon the witch cast her spell:

‘As Long Compton thou canst not see
King of England thou shalt not be.
Rise up stick, and stand still, stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none,
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be
And I myself an eldern-tree.’

The king and his army were then turned into the stones that can still be seen today. Several of the other legends, such as the stones going to drink, may have developed because they were thought of as people turned to stone, and one legend even reckons that the stones will one day come to life again and that the king will rule England.

William Camden

The story of the king and his army turned to stone is very old, first published by the Elizabethan historian and topographer William Camden (1551–1623) in his work Britannia:

‘The highest of them all, which without [outside] the circle looketh into the earth, they use to call the King, because hee should have beene King of England (forsooth) if hee had once seene Long Compton, a little towne so called lying beneath and which a man if he goe some few pases [paces] forward may see: other five standing on the other side, touching as it were one another, they imagine to have been knights mounted on horsebacke and the rest of the Army.’

Camden’s original text was written in Latin, customary for scholarly texts at that time. The extract above is from a later English translation by Philemon Holland.

William Camden
William Camden

This early record by Camden suggests that the legend may have originated in the earlier medieval period as an explanation for a group of stones that were obviously not a natural formation. Camden himself, struggling for a rational explanation, commented: ‘These would I verily thinke to have beene the Monument of some Victory and haply erected by Rollo the Dane who afterwards conquered Normandy.’ Even this explanation was, of course, wide of the mark. As is often the case, the archaeological explanation rather spoils the legend since the groups of stones are in fact of different dates! The Whispering Knights are stones from a prehistoric burial chamber built in the early 4th millennium BC; the King’s Men stone circle dates to the 3rd millennium BC; and the King Stone was a marker for a Bronze Age cemetery and dates to the 2nd millennium BC.


Wood of the witches?

The Rollright Stones with its witch legend are situated well within the area that became the Royal Forest of Wychwood in Oxfordshire. The name Wychwood is evocative of the archetypal dark, forbidding wood that is home to all sorts of mischievous and malevolent spirits and, of course, witches. Unfortunately for this romantic vision, the Wych part of the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon name Hwicce. Wychwood therefore may mean ‘the wood of the Hwicce people’, who are recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the original manuscripts of which were compiled in the 9th century. In the late 7th century the Hwicce had a kingdom that covered much of the modern counties of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, but apparently not Wychwood. This kingdom of theirs was absorbed by the larger, stronger kingdom of Mercia to the north, and there has always been a question over how Wychwood fits in. Originally it was thought that the name derived from when the Hwicce people travelled through the area before settling to the west, but a more recent theory is that the name means ‘wood on the boundary of the Hwicce’. There have been attempts to link the name Hwicce to the word ‘witch’, but the name of Wychwood does not have any provable connection to witches, even though it does have witchcraft legends.

Celebration woods

Woodland is perennially popular, and new woods often mark special occasions, as happened in the 2005 Trafalgar celebrations. For the Jubilee celebrations in 2012, the Jubilee Woods Project under its Patron HRH The Princess Royal is aiming to plant 6 million trees across the UK, with hundreds of new Jubilee woods and 60 Diamond Woods.

Royal forests and forest law

In England there used to be great expanses of woodland, vast royal forests and smaller forests ruled by local lords. The distinction between woodland and the forests was significant. Today we think of a forest as a particularly large area of woodland, but in fact these forests (such as the New Forest in Hampshire, still largely in the possession of the Crown) seldom had dense woodland. They were essentially hunting reserves, where trees, undergrowth and scrubland provided cover for the quarry (usually deer), with wide open spaces for the hunting to take place. One of the drastic changes that took place with the Norman occupation of England in 1066 was the introduction of such forests and the forest laws to control them. The Domesday Book of 1086 records around 25 forests, and the number continued to grow, with about 150 forests by the 13th century.

Part of the New Forest
Part of the New Forest

These hunting areas had special laws governing what could be done within them, which were enforced by a variety of officers with titles such as forester and verderer. The laws of the forest were generally harsher than those governing the rest of the land. One of the common forest crimes was ‘serious trespass’, which had a very fluid definition. In 1209 the head of a deer was found on land belonging to someone from the town of Maidford in Northamptonshire. This was interpreted as serious trespass, and because the person who had killed the deer could not be identified, the town itself, the profits of the traders and the farms and wealth of the inhabitants were seized and became the king’s property. Such abuses made the laws even more hated by ordinary people, which doubtless increased the popularity of songs, folklore and legends about Robin Hood and his band of outlaws. They were outlaws precisely because they broke the laws governing the royal hunting grounds of Sherwood Forest.

The importance of the royal forests for medieval kings was not just the large part that hunting played in the life of the royal court. The forests might be the source of venison for the king’s feasts, but they also provided timber for building and wood for fuel. Some was used by the court, while the rest could be sold, and lesser rights such as grazing for animals were rented out to provide extra cash. With changes in England’s economy and the way the royal court operated, the importance of the royal forests began to dwindle towards the end of the Middle Ages, and much of the land was given to, or encroached upon, by local lords and landowners. This was particularly the case with the royal forest of Wychwood. From its beginnings in the 11th century, Wychwood forest spread to over 200 square miles at its maximum extent in the late 12th century.


By the late 18th century, much of the forest area had been enclosed by large landowners. Jackson’s Oxford Journal for Saturday 5th February 1791 noted that, ‘Last Monday, William Souch of Ramsden, and James Bowerman, of Finstock, were committed to our Castle [at Oxford] under Convictions before the Hon. and Rev. Francis Knollis, for killing and Destroying Fallow Deer in the Forest of Whichwood in this County.’ This shows that Wychwood had passed from royal control to the despotism of local lords. In his View of the Agriculture of Oxfordshire published in 1809, the bigoted agricultural reformer Arthur Young pleaded fervently that the enclosure of the rest of Wychwood forest was essential because

‘the morals of the surrounding country demand it imperiously. The vicinity is filled with poachers, deer-stealers, thieves, and pilferers of every kind: offences of almost every description abound so much, that the offenders are a terror to all quiet and well-disposed persons, and Oxford gaol [in the castle] would be uninhabited, were it not for this fertile source of crimes.’

Just why enclosure should suddenly stop all crime and improve the morals of the local population was not explained by Young. It is unlikely to have worked at the time he was writing. This was in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, when food shortages and profiteering by farmers drove up prices beyond the reach of the poor. In such conditions, with a real threat of famine, it probably seemed worth the risk to poach game.

Forest fair

From the late 18th century a Forest Fair was held in a large clearing to the west of Charlbury. This became such a major, well-known event that in 1848 the new publican of the Bell Inn at Charlbury could advertise it as part of the attraction of staying at the inn: ‘The beautiful scenery of Wychwood Forest (where the annual fair is held by permission in September), with the gentle flowing Evenlode [river] skirting its borders, being within easy distance of one mile.’ This was not to last. By the mid-19th century, the forest had shrunk to a tiny fraction of its former glory, and what was left was ‘disafforested’ during the late 1850s – removed from the forest laws and control by the Crown. At the same time, the local landlord, Lord Churchill, closed the fair down on the grounds of curbing drunkenness and debauchery. With the loss of the fair various old traditions and customs seem to have disappeared, but in 2000 the fair was revived on a small scale and has grown in strength since then, often providing a showcase for rural and woodland crafts.



Since prehistoric times wood has provided fuel for fires to cook on and keep warm by, and the woodland wisdom of the different characteristics of burning various types of wood is centuries-old. It is summarised in this song:

Logs to burn, logs to burn;
Logs to save the coal a turn.
Here’s a word to make you wise
When you hear the wood-man’s cries;
Never heed his usual tale
That he has splendid logs for sale,
But read these lines and really learn
The proper kinds of logs to burn.

Oak logs will warm you well
If they’re old and dry;
Larch logs of pine woods smell,
But the sparks will fly.
Beech logs for Christmas-time,
Yew logs heat well;
‘Scotch’ logs it is a crime
For anyone to sell.
Birch logs will burn too fast,
Chestnut scarce at all;
Hawthorn logs are good to last
If cut in the Fall.

Holly logs will burn like wax,
You should burn them green;
Elm logs like smouldering flax,
No flame to be seen.
Pear logs and apple logs,
They will scent your room;
Cherry logs across the dogs
Smell like flowers in bloom.
But Ash logs, all smooth and grey,
Burn them green or old;
Buy up all that come your way,
They’re worth their weight in gold.


These verses are still sung by folk singers and are available in various recordings, but the song was first published as a poem as late as 1920, in the October issue of the humorous magazine Punch. Although it appears to be anonymous, the December issue of the magazine carried attributions for articles that appeared in the magazine throughout the year, and the author of the poem is named as Mrs H Goodhart. In the 1920s, an era when very few houses in Britain had central heating of any sort, open fires burning coal and wood were the main source of heating, and so this poem was very relevant.

Many thousands of years ago fuel was probably the first thing that wood was used for, but very quickly the versatility of this material ensured it was used for all kinds of purposes. Trees provide a range of materials, such as wood from branches and trunks, bark for tanning, nuts for human consumption, acorns and beech mast for animal fodder, saplings for hurdle work, withies for basket making and most of the tree for charcoal burning or simply firewood. Literally almost anything can be made from a tree, and different woods were selected for different purposes. For instance, wood from the ash tree is tough and will not splinter, so it was used for long handles for tools such as agricultural forks and shovels – and as its name implies, ash also makes the best firewood.


One very old woodland trade is that of the hurdle maker – remains of hurdles recovered from peat bogs in Somerset are over 4,000 years old. Hurdles are sections of lightweight fencing made from interwoven saplings, and to make a hurdle, a template or frame was used. This was simply a length of timber with holes a few inches apart. Saplings just over an inch in diameter were placed in these holes to provide a line of uprights around which smaller rods about ¾ inch in diameter were woven. Straight saplings from various trees were used, but the main ones were willow and hazel, while split ash saplings were also quite common. The resulting hurdles were usually 3½–4 feet high and about 6 feet long, so that they could be easily carried and set up in lines to form fences.

In the medieval period, when the economy depended on wool production, hurdles were in great demand because of their use in managing flocks of sheep, confining them to specific areas within large open fields. After farmland began to be enclosed, hurdles were used more for close control of sheep and other animals. The main market for hurdles has always come from livestock farmers, but hurdles have had various other uses – in both World Wars they were used to shore up trenches. Nowadays the role of hurdles in farming has largely been taken over by the electric fence, but hurdles are still made in the traditional way and sold as garden fencing.

Pole lathe

Smaller wooden objects, such as bowls and plates, could be carved from blocks of wood, but a much better finish was achieved by using a lathe. Various sorts of lathe are known to have been used in Europe since the Bronze Age, but good evidence for the most common type, the pole lathe, only survives from the 13th century when it is shown in illuminated manuscripts. As its name suggests, the pole lathe derived part of its power from a springy pole. The lathe was very simple, consisting of some kind of frame to hold the piece of wood to be shaped at a convenient height. Two stubby spindles were set in the frame immediately opposite each other, with some kind of metal spikes in the ends to secure the piece of wood between them. At least one of these spindles, usually called ‘poppets’, had to be adjustable in order to get the piece of wood on and off of the lathe. The way the frame and poppets of the lathe were set up varied considerably.

Diagram of a pole lathe
Diagram of a pole lathe

A cord was attached to a flexible pole, wound around a poppet or the piece of wood, and then attached to a foot treadle. When the treadle was pressed down by the foot of the operator, the poppets and piece of wood spun round, and when the treadle was released, the tension in the pole pulled the treadle upwards, spinning the piece of wood in the opposite direction. By operating the treadle and holding a cutting tool such as a chisel to the piece of wood, a curved object was cut to shape.


Although any type of wood could be turned on the lathe, some were more suitable than others, and beechwood was considered one of the best. Beech is a white wood, which cuts extremely easily when fresh and can be stained if the finished article is too pale. Beechwood was also a preferred raw material of the chair bodgers.

A bodger or botcher is now a term for an incompetent craftsman, but bodgers were actually skilled craftsmen making wooden chairs. Although they were often itinerant, working in woodlands all over the country, chair making was concentrated in the Chiltern hills to the west of London and was centred around High Wycombe. To supply the chairmakers, huge areas of beech trees were planted in the 18th and 19th centuries, altering the landscape, and these beech woods remain a distinctive feature of the area.

Bodgers specialised in particular parts of the chair, such as the legs, the stretchers that kept the legs apart and the upright rods that formed the back, all of which were made on the lathe. These were then sold to a chair factory which bought in other parts of the chair, such as the one-piece seat (usually carved from elm) from other craftsmen. The chairs, mostly of the style known as ‘Windsor Chairs’, were assembled in the factory and sold on to shops. The bodgers produced turned articles such as chair legs that were better quality than those produced on a factory machine, and so the craft survived well into the first half of the 20th century.

For these other woodland crafts such as making walking sticks and crooks, brooms and various types of basket, the men would live in or alongside the woods, often with their families, and work in the open air, sheds or small workshops. Depending on the particular craft, such establishments might be permanent or little better than temporary camps used until the local raw material was exhausted before moving to a different place. After completely disappearing during the 20th century, many of these crafts have been revived in recent years.


Charcoal was sometimes used as a domestic heating fuel, but it was more valuable where higher temperatures were needed in such processes as smelting metal ores and making glass. Charcoal burning has a long history stretching back to at least the Bronze Age, and the methods used have changed little over the centuries. First a shallow bowl-shaped depression or pit was dug in a clearing, and logs were cut and stacked to form a rough cone shape. Much of the skill is in the stacking in order to leave a central core or chimney where the fire is set. Around this the logs have to be placed so that they provide an even pressure inwards. If this is not done properly, the stack may collapse on one side, allowing in too much air so that the wood burns too quickly.

Logs built up into a heap at the heart of the stack
Logs built up into a heap at the heart of the stack

Whatever the method of stacking (and there were several methods used), the resulting heap of logs was covered by turf (often a double layer), with the grass side facing inwards. This turf was in turn covered with earth. By pulling out a log to gain access, the loose central core of brushwood and inflammable material was then set alight. The fire was kept smouldering by regulating the airflow through various holes in the outer covering of soil and turf, and occasionally quenching with water if the fire blazed too brightly.

small modern charcoal ovenLogs built up into a heap at the heart of the stack
A small modern charcoal oven (left) and a timber stack (right)

being covered with earth and turf before firing

The stack of wood took about four days to burn right through and needed constant attendance from the charcoal burner, who lived on the spot in a tent, makeshift hut or occasionally a caravan. Whether the result of the labour of cutting and stacking the logs and covering and tending the fire resulted in a heap of saleable charcoal or a heap of worthless ash was purely down to the experience and skill of the charcoal burner in regulating the smouldering heap. Nowadays most charcoal is made on a commercial scale in very large ovens.


Going from wood crafts and charcoal to the huge wooden warships of the Age of Sail, we have a miscellany of news:

Historic Naval Fiction

For those of you who enjoy fiction with a nautical theme, or are looking to catch up on such reading as summer holidays approach (for those of us in the northern hemisphere!), then we would recommend having a look at the Historic Naval Fiction website, run by ‘Astrodene’ (not currently active). This excellent website has news about all the latest fiction related to the Age of Sail and the transition to steam, with a section devoted to non-fiction of the same era as well.

US Jack Tar

There were problems getting hold of the paperback of Jack Tar in the US. Amazon, for example, had it and then it disappeared. We are pleased to say that it is definitely available now in the US, on Amazon and elsewhere, as a paperback and an e-book.


We’re also very pleased to see the return of Quarterdeck, a monthly email newsletter ‘celebrating nautical and historical fiction’. It is edited by George Jepson, and you can download the May issue and sign up for future issues.

The May issue includes an interview with Julian Stockwin, as he continues with his highly successful Kydd series of novels.

Bahamas Bound

We have featured the US nautical publisher Fireship Press before, but it’s all change with them, with new management. One of its authors is Linda Collison, and Fireship is about to reissue one of her earlier books that was first published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2006. Star-Crossed has now been revised under the title Bahamas Bound. Originally written as an adult novel, some passages were changed to make Star-Crossed a ‘children’s book’ to fit the Knopf imprint. The revisions to Bahamas Bound have reversed those changes, making it an adult novel once more.

The cover of Star-Crossed, soon to be republished as Bahamas Bound
The cover of Star-Crossed,

soon to be republished as Bahamas Bound

The book is the first in the series about Patricia MacPherson, who starts out as Patricia Kelley, teenage daughter of a plantation owner in the West Indies at a boarding school in England. Made destitute by her father’s sudden death, she stows away on board a merchant ship in a military convoy heading west with the idea of claiming her inheritance. This first book in the series is one of transitions for the heroine – from girl to woman, from gentry to working class, and from life as a young lady of leisure to a working life aboard a naval ship disguised as a young man. Two things make this book stand out: the realistic treatment of the women on board the ships of the time and the strong characterisation that brings the book to life. This is not just an action adventure story (although there is plenty of action) but a deeper look at how people lived and thought at that time. Linda is one of the speakers and workshop leaders at the Historic Novel Society’s conference in September 2012 in London (after the Olympics have run their course).

Jack Tar talk in Warminster

We have hardly given any talks recently as we are too busy writing our next book (which we’ll describe in the September newsletter when the manuscript will – hopefully! – have been submitted to the publisher).

We have, though, agreed to talk at the Warminster Festival, on Jack Tar. This will be an illustrated talk, at Warminster’s public library, Three Horseshoes Walk, Warminster, BA12 9BT. Warminster is in western Wiltshire, midway between Bath and Salisbury, and is very much a historic town, first settled in Saxon times. It became famous for its woollen trade, and today is closely associated with the military. The date of the talk is Tuesday 16th October 2012 at 7.30pm.