Newsletter 4

The Occasional Newsletter

Welcome to our fourth occasional newsletter (February 2007).

Latest News

Writers in rural areas, who are more aware of weather and the changing seasons than urban ones, can find winter a good time for writing. If venturing outdoors proves cold and wet, this is a great incentive to get on with the work in the hopes that there will be time to enjoy good weather in the summer months – so that is what we have been doing. Work progresses on our next book, about the everyday lives of seamen in Nelson’s time, and now that the deadline for completing the manuscript is less than a year away, the pressure is already mounting!

We are continuing to do some work connected to our book The War for All the Oceans that was published in hardback in the UK five months ago (and will be published in the US this summer). We have agreed to give a talk at the exciting new book festival at Appledore in Devon, which runs 29 September to 7 October (full details in a later newsletter, or check our website under latest news). If you are looking for a late summer break, you could do worse than this part of the north Devon coast during the festival. The area is dotted with picturesque towns and villages that are steeped in history, with fewer hard-sell honeypots for tourists than along the coast of southern England. Appledore itself is (just) a working port, with one or two fishing boats still operating, but the famous shipyard has closed down and the harbour is more of a marina these days. However, with its characteristic narrow streets, some of them old rope walks, it has a wonderful atmosphere and is home to the North Devon Maritime Museum,which is well worth a visit.

Latest Expedition

With the short winter days we have not ventured far from Exeter – just a few miles south to Brixham, in fact. The excuse was to look at an unpublished logbook written by a midshipman who ended his life a full admiral in 1868, but the reason was that the sun was shining for once, and Brixham is another of those wonderful small Devon harbours that are always a pleasure to visit. Brixham was the main port in Torbay in Nelson’s time, and it was a centre for water, food and other supplies for the warships anchored in the bay. To appreciate the anchorage of Torbay, you really need to go to the end of Berry Head, the headland that adjoins Brixham, which gives fine views both east and west. Here are the remains of a Napoleonic era fort, whose guns protected the Torbay anchorage and acted as a look-out station. This fort has been excavated for several seasons by a team from Brixham Museum, led by the curator Philip Armitage. Apart from the views, the fort itself is well worth a visit, as is Brixham Museum, where some of the finds from the excavations are on display.

Brixham Harbour
Brixham harbour, south Devon

Brixham is still a working port with a small fishing fleet, but this is eclipsed by the huge number of boats in the outer harbour, which is now a marina. The breakwater of the harbour extends so far out that if you walk to the end, you have a good idea of the view Napoleon must have had when HMS Bellerophon anchored here with him on board in the summer of 1815. Despite his hopes, he was not allowed to go on shore and was soon moved to Plymouth after people flocked to the Bellerophon in small boats just to catch a glimpse of him. From Plymouth Napoleon was taken out to sea to rendezvous with the ship that would take him to exile on St Helena.

Torbay and Brixham in 1695
Part of a map of 1695 of Devonshire by Robert Morden showing Torbay.

It was around this time that Torquay began to overshadow nearby settlements such as Brixham. During the wars with the French, the population along this coast was swollen by the families of officers and men in the navy ships that regularly anchored in Torbay, and by some relatives of soldiers manning forts such as Berry Head. With the Continent closed to British travellers, many well-off people who might otherwise have spent the winter abroad in a milder climate, often on the advice of their physician, now looked for more viable alternatives. This included the Royal family, and while George III favoured Weymouth, the Princess of Wales toured the West Country in the spring of 1806, and one place she stayed at was Torquay. In an era before professional publicists, the resort could have no greater seal of approval, and Torquay never looked back. It soon found favour with medical men, and when the artist Joseph Farington visited just three years later it was recommended to him as ‘peculiarly favourable for nervous and consumptive complaints, the air being warm and dry’. Today Torquay is an urban sprawl, while Brixham still clings to its heritage as a small coastal town.

Monument of the Month

 Secklow Mound reconstructed, 1982
Secklow mound, Milton Keynes.

This month’s monument is a grassy mound set up eighteen years ago in Milton Keynes, where we once lived. Some 45 miles north-west of London, the new city was then in the early stages of development. Essentially it was still open countryside dotted with large construction sites. As part of the overall development, a small team of archaeologists was employed to identify, map and excavate or record the archaeological remains within the new city area. Right at the heart of the new development, in the plot planned for the future administrative civic buildings, a mound was discovered that was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 and later documents. Since it lay at the point where three parishes met, it was likely to have been used as a meeting mound for local communities in Saxon times. It had certainly given its name, Secklow, to one of the local ‘hundreds’, which were administrative areas dating back to Saxon times. Since the Saxons frequently re-used prehistoric or Roman round burial mounds for such purposes, it was decided to investigate the site. A trial excavation in 1977 was followed up by further investigation the following year. The site was approximately level when excavated, and not mound-like at all. No trace of a burial was found, and the mound had been constructed by digging a shallow circular ditch and heaping up the soil from this ditch into the middle of the circle. Turf was then stripped off the surrounding area and piled up on the low mound. Over the centuries, the shallow ditch silted up and the mound weathered so that it was almost flat. Despite documentary references to it as ‘Selly Hill’, the mound could never have been very high.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire
Silbury Hill

The site was not fully excavated, but as the building of the new city progressed, it was decided to recreate this ‘moot’ or meeting place. A low mound, approximately the height of the original, was landscaped over the site to protect the unexcavated area, and this was seeded with grass to make a small green space at the heart of the city, at the same time preserving some nearby mature trees. One reason for reconstructing the mound was that the idea of continuity of administration in the locality, stretching back several centuries, appealed to those in charge of the developing city. It was something that gave the city rather spurious ‘historic roots’, and just as the mound had given its name to Secklow Hundred, it was now commemorated in a nearby road name: Secklow Gate. Unfortunately at this point people’s imaginations began to run riot and since the mound was man-made, they began to look for other man-made mounds. One that sprang immediately to mind was Silbury Hill in Wiltshire. This is a huge man-made prehistoric mound 120 feet high with a flat summit about 95 feet in diameter. By comparison, Secklow Mound was never more than 6 feet high. However, those choosing names for the new city, perhaps influenced by the documentary references to ‘Selly Hill’, were impervious to the irony of making mountains out of molehills, so if you are ever in central Milton Keynes, spare a thought for how Silbury Boulevard came by its name. You might also spare five minutes to see whether the mound is still there or whether, like its predecessor, it has become flat and forgotten.

Songs for Spring and Summer

In the old Christian calendar 2 February was the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the recognition of Christ as Messiah by Simeon, whose words ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’ formed the excuse for the rituals of Candlemas. This was a feast of blessing and dedicating candles – churches were ablaze with candlelight, and resounded with singing. Like many other Christian festivals and rituals, this had been bolted on to an earlier pagan tradition, essentially a festival of light, to mark the passing seasons, for Candlemas was held to be the formal end of winter. In the centuries before electricity, gas, and paraffin lamps, domestic lighting relied on rush tapers, candles and light from the open fire in the hearth, so the dark days of winter were very dark and depressing indeed. By the beginning of February, daylight was visibly lengthening, the worst of winter was over, and there was a feeling of better days to come, even if the possibility of bad weather still lingered, as old weather-lore rhymes warned:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,

Come Winter, take another flight.

If Candlemas brings cold and rain,

Go Winter, and come not again.

Springtime, from Candlemas to May Day (regarded as the first day of summer), was a time of increasing activity for everything and everybody in the countryside. While wildlife entered the mating season and snowdrops gave way to daffodils, for farmers it was lambing season and time to finish tilling the fields and start sowing the summer crops. With increasing daylight hours, the working day lengthened, and the enforced idleness of mid-winter gave way to the start of a new agricultural cycle. Most of the seasonal songs look forward to the summer, but one of the songs related to the early months of the year is When Spring comes in, which was collected from a traditional singer in Wiltshire. The first verse is:

When spring comes in the birds will sing,

The lambs will play and bells will ring

And we shall enjoy the glorious charm

So lovely and so gay.

St Valentines Day, on 14 February, was another early festival which the Christian church obscured with a Saint’s day, and in many rural areas it was a time for children to go out begging, with traditional chants and rhymes. This one is from Eastleach in Gloucestershire:

Mornty, Mornty, Valentine!

Blow the oats against the wind,

We are ragged and you are fine,

So please to give us a Valentine.

Mornty was ‘Good morning to ye’ run together. Nowadays seasonal excuses for children to go begging are confined to Guy Fawkes Night and Hallowe’en, but originally such occasions were spread through the year, and May Day provided another. In Sussex the children covered hoops with wild flowers and carried them on their begging rounds chanting,

The First of May is Garland Day,

So please remember the garland

We don’t come here but once a year

So please remember the garland.

Of full songs rather than snatches of rhyme, that belong to this season, the earliest recorded one dates to the 13th century and is written in Middle English. It is known as ‘Summer is icumen in’, which can be loosely translated as ‘Spring is here’ or ‘Summer is on its way’, and a modern translation runs:

Summer is a-coming in,

Loudly sing, Cuckoo!

Seeds grow and meadows bloom,

And the forest springs anew,

Sing, Cuckoo!

The ewe bleats after the lamb

The cow lows after the calf.

The bullock jumps, the buck farts,

Merrily sing, Cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing,cuckoo;

Nor cease you ever now!

Sing cuckoo now, Sing cuckoo!

Sing cuckoo, Sing cuckoo now!

The cuckoo (tragically no longer heard where we live) was emblematic of spring and summer, and once it arrived the good weather was definitely on the way, as summed up in the first verse of the song The Cuckoo:

The cuckoo is a merry bird,

He sings as he flies,

He brings us glad tidings,

And tells us no lies.

With the coming of enclosures and then the spreading grip of industrialisation, the old customs and ceremonies to welcome the better weather virtually died out, helped on their way by well-meaning local clergymen intent on imposing Victorian ideals of propriety and piety. One of the few such ceremonies left, and that only revived in 1930, is the Furry Dance at Helston in Cornwall on May Day. The accompanying song is thought to be at least Elizabethan, if not earlier in date, and the chorus sums up the joys and rising hopes of the season:

Hal-an-Tow, jolly rumble-O!

For we are up as soon as any day-O!

And for to fetch the Summer home,

The Summer and the May-O!

For Summer is a come-O!

And Winter is a gone-O!

Competition Results

Last month we asked the name of the famous novelist and sister of the captain of the Canopus, who was disappointed at missing the Battle of Trafalgar. The answer was Jane Austen. She had two brothers in the navy: Francis Austen and Charles Austen, who both eventually became admirals. This family connection gave her inside knowledge of the navy, which is reflected in her novels, particularly Mansfield Park and Persuasion. For those who would like to find out more, take a look at the book Jane Austen and the Navy by Brian Southam. The two winners of the competition were Susan Lucas and Sue Gregory.

Competition [now closed]

The ancient Nabatean city of Petra, in modern Jordan, was rediscovered by Europeans in the early 19th century, though it was known to the medieval crusaders, who built a fort nearby. The distinctive temples and tombs of Petra, cut out of pink sandstone cliffs, inspired John William Burgon to say of it, ‘Match me such marvel in Eastern clime, a rose-red city – half as old as time’. This was no poetic exaggeration, because when the poem was written the accepted wisdom about the date of the building of Petra was just as inaccurate as the idea of the age of the planet, and it was quite literally thought that Petra was half as old as the age of the earth. For this competition we would like to know the answer to this question: At the time that Petra was rediscovered by western Europeans, what age was the planet earth thought to be? Was

A) 600 years old

B) 6000 years old

C) 60,000 years old

D) 600,000 years old

E) 6,000,000 years old

The first prize will be an original copy of The Times newspaper of London for Saturday May 1, 1830, and the second prize will be one for Tuesday February 21, 1832. They each have eight printed pages, and for their age are in reasonable condition. Like many newspapers of the time, they contain numerous advertisements, including these examples which give a flavour of the era:

A YOUTH WANTED.–– A young man WANTED, in a respectable counting-house. No salary for the first 2 years. One from Christ Church Hospital would be preferred. Apply by letter, post paid, to C.D., 9, Old Broad-street.

WASHING.––WANTED, a Family’s or Gentleman’s WASHING, by a person, on moderate terms, who will pay every attention, and has an excellent drying ground. Address, post paid, to Z.H., at 4, York-place, Portland-town.

In the Next Issue

Britain’s turnpike roads, regulars like Monument of the Month, and all our latest news.