Newsletter 6

Welcome to our sixth occasional newsletter (August 2007).

Latest News

The paperback version of The War for All the Oceans has just been published in the UK by Abacus. We are told that it will be in the Waterstones’s 3 for 2 paperback offer. You don’t have to choose three different books but can have three of ours, one for yourself and two to give away!

The book is about to be published for the first time in hardcover in the US, by Viking Penguin. It should be in the bookstores very soon. It has the same title but a completely new jacket design, and we have seen an advance copy. The dust jacket is very handsome, so it will be a very attractive Christmas gift (if you can bear to wait that long). It has received excellent pre-publication reviews from the well-respected trade press in the US, including Kirkus, Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly. A Polish translation of the book is also in hand.

We are very pleased that an audio version will be available in the US from early September. It is being produced by Tantor Media and is narrated by Patrick Girard Lawlor. There are two versions: an unabridged CD, and a MP3 CD. Happy listening!

Despite the cool and exceptionally wet summer, we are beginning to feel the heat as we continue the research for, and writing of, our next book, Jack Tar. It is about the everyday lives of the seamen in Nelson’s navy and will be published sometime next year, the momentous 250th anniversary of the birth of Nelson. Since the last newsletter we have come across more collections of manuscripts in private hands, but it is now time to change the emphasis from research to writing.

The Titles of Our Books

At some stage, everyone has read a book and thought that its title was not appropriate or was even misleading. For our own books, some reviewers have spent many column inches poring over the title instead of informing the reader about the contents, but the title is not always the fault of the author. Our very first book was (is! – it’s still in print) The Handbook of British Archaeology, but it was originally published in hardback as A Thesaurus of British Archaeology. We wanted to produce a reference work that was thematic, like an encyclopedia, but had an index so comprehensive that it could be used as a dictionary, and we also aimed to give alternative terms for archaeological artefacts, like a thesaurus. As is obvious from that last sentence, we were young, naive, ambitious and probably over-confident! However, the main problem was knowing what to call such a jack-of-all-trades book. Having looked at various dictionary definitions, and considered all sorts of possibilities, we found that ‘Thesaurus’ did actually fit the bill, with ‘Treasury’ a close second, so the title was born, the publisher thought it was fine, and away we went. After the first rash of reviews discussing the title, the publisher quietly changed ‘A Thesaurus’ to ‘The Handbook’ and it has been selling steadily ever since.

Other titles have a less happy ending. When we wrote a guidebook on the accessible archaeological sites of Somerset, we had in mind a title like Guidebook to Somerset’s Heritage, but the local publisher insisted on the soporific (and ungrammatical) A Field Guide to Somerset Archaeology. With this title and a turgid jacket design, it never sold very well, and yet we had much praise from those who did buy it. Some titles come before books – for Abandoned Places, the publisher said to us ‘we have this title, what sort of book could you write?’. It was then up to us to propose a book that fitted the title.

Sadly, sometimes the publisher insists on a title for all the wrong reasons. The story of the decipherment of the ancient cuneiform script by Henry Rawlinson had a number of working titles before the final one, Rawlinson’s Rock, was settled upon. The rock was not actually Rawlinson’s, but it might as well have been: it was a huge cuneiform inscription on a sheer cliff face in western Iran that could only be reached by an expert rock climber like Rawlinson. Day after day, over many months, he climbed up the rock to copy parts of the inscription that finally provided the key to decipherment, and for much of the time he was perched on a near-vertical ladder, set up on a narrow ledge, constantly in danger of falling to his death. The title would not satisfy the publisher, however, who decided that a sweeping word like ‘empire’ was needed, eventually choosing Empires of the Plain.

There is probably a small story with each of our book titles, but we’ll leave you with a classic story of editorial nit-picking. A few years ago our book on the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs was accepted by one London publisher, but the editor was not happy with our title The Keys to Egypt. We couldn’t think of anything better, and so suggested The Keys of Egypt, which was enthusiastically embraced, and that’s how it was published. It’s strange, though, because most readers refer to it as The Keys to Egypt. Perhaps we were right all along.

Latest Expedition

Back in April, when the sun was shining, when it was dry and warm, and when weather forecasters were warning of a long hot summer with widespread drought and hosepipe bans, we ventured east to London for a week. Mostly we were working in libraries and archives during the day, but we deliberately included a weekend in the middle of our trip because travelling by train is often easier on weekdays. This left us with Sunday as a day off, because the archives and libraries were closed. We had planned to go to Greenwich for pleasure (rather than simply hurrying to the National Maritime Museum archives there), but we had forgotten the London Marathon! Since the marathon started at Greenwich, the area was supposed to be clear by lunchtime, so we stuck with our plans.

The north bank of the Thames, with St Paul’s in the centre
View of St Paul’s in London from the River Thames

With warnings of overcrowded tube trains and buses, we decided to take a water bus down the River Thames from the Embankment. The boat was less than half full, the progress was stately, the sun was shining, and London looked much better from the river than from other viewpoints. Despite a leisurely trip, enhanced by an entertaining commentary of dubious factual content by the watermen in control of the boat, we were still in time to see the last marathoneers. Large crowds were cheering on walkers and joggers (the runners had long gone), who were hoping to cover the course in fancy dress, and consequently the National Maritime Museum, local shops and anything else worth seeing were closed.

We decided to try to find the East Greenwich Pleasaunce, a public garden on the site of a cemetery belonging to the old Greenwich Hospital. This is situated about a mile east of the National Maritime Museum, and as it happened, was also on the marathon route, so as we walked east we were entertained by the competitors heading west. The Pleasaunce itself is an oasis of green in a very urban area and contains memorials to various ex-seamen who died at Greenwich Hospital – see Monument of the Month.

By the time we returned to Greenwich, the National Maritime Museum was open, and after a tasty lunch in their cafe (the catering has vastly improved of late), we spent the afternoon in the Queen’s House, looking at the collection of maritime paintings. This is well worth a visit, as it holds the originals of many pictures that have been used to illustrate numerous books on naval history, from ships and battles to sailors carousing in Portsmouth pubs and portraits of seamen who served with Nelson. Overall it was a very enjoyable and productive day in the April sunshine.

Monument of the Month

The East Greenwich Pleasaunce is a public garden off Chevening Road, which itself leads off the Woolwich Road. From 1857 this land was the cemetery for Greenwich Hospital (full title, The Royal Hospital Greenwich, and now known as the Old Royal Naval College), which was a retirement home for naval seamen from 1705. Before 1857, the land adjacent to the present National Maritime Museum building was used as the cemetery, but this was closed when the Pleasaunce took over its role. In 1925 Devonport House, now a hotel, was built over a large part of the site next to the National Maritime Museum, and the thousands of disturbed human bones were reburied at the Pleasaunce. The garden now has a memorial to the seamen who ended their lives at Greenwich Hospital, as well as gravestones of several individual seamen.

Gravestone of Captain Sweny
Gravestone of Captain Sweny

This month’s monument is the gravestone of Captain Mark Halpen Sweny, which is in the Pleasaunce. He was born in 1785 and joined the navy in 1798. At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 he was acting lieutenant on board the Colossus and was severely wounded. He was wounded again when serving as lieutenant in the Africa in 1808. He survived to the end of the war and had the satisfaction of being the senior lieutenant in the Northumberland warship that took Napoleon to exile on St Helena. In 1838 he was eventually promoted to captain. He received a pension for his wounds and ended his days in Greenwich Hospital. He died in 1865 and the inscription on his gravestone reads: ‘Mark Halpen Sweny, Captain Royal Navy, Served in H.M.S. “Colossus” at Trafalgar, Died 25th. Novr 1865, Aged 82 Years’. There are one or two other gravestones of Trafalgar veterans here, but many more lie in unmarked graves within the Pleasaunce, having been moved from the earlier cemetery.

Britain’s Old Fields

Ridge and furrow in a field at Marston Magna, Somerset
Ridge and furrow in Somerset

Anyone who drives through Britain’s countryside, or gazes out of a train window at the view, probably only manages to glimpse the type of vegetation and any farming activity in progress. The landscape, though, is an open book that you can learn to read, and even the basic farmer’s field can reveal something of its history at a glance. As a rule of thumb, the larger and more regular in shape the field, the later in date it is likely to be, reflecting farming technology. Early fields were used to graze only a handful of animals, or were cultivated with a plough that was little more than a sharp piece of wood pulled by a couple of cattle. Boundaries followed handy landscape markers, and these fields were small and irregular. After the development of the horse collar (which allowed horses to pull a plough without the harness choking them) and more efficient iron ploughs, fields became larger and more regular. In order to make ploughing easier, stones and rocks were removed by hand to the edge of the field and were often used to build dividing walls or were incorporated in hedges.

With modern tractors capable of pulling huge ploughs, old hedges, ditches and stone walls have been ripped out to make cultivated areas more like prairies than fields. The removal of long-established boundaries often leaves ghostly marks in the larger, modern fields. These might be lines of wilted grass in parched summer fields, or lines of longer, greener grass where an old filled-in ditch holds more moisture and nutrients than the surrounding soil. In ploughed fields, old boundaries can appear as lines of different coloured soil. Particularly on sloping ground, former field boundaries sometimes survive as distinctive raised banks called lynchets. These formed when decades or centuries of ploughing caused the soil to creep downhill and come to rest against a hedge or wall that has itself long since disappeared.

It is often surprising to people that in the prehistoric period the climate was warmer in Britain, which meant that cultivation took place in what is today moorland – areas like Dartmoor. During the Iron Age, nearly 3,000 years ago, the weather became colder and wetter, leading to the formation of blanket peat in upland areas. Farms were abandoned, and old field boundaries and associated ritual monuments such as stone rows were left intact. Some of these are visible today, while others are buried in the peat, awaiting discovery through archaeological excavation.

The very surface of a field can give an indication of its age. For example, the most distinctive feature of medieval fields, known as ‘ridge and furrow’, is easy to spot when it is well preserved in pasture fields. Such fields have a surface of parallel ridges separated by furrows, like large-scale corduroy cloth. Some parts of the landscape have a number of such fields, with the ridges in one field at right-angles to those in adjacent fields, giving a patchwork quilt effect. These ridges and furrows were formed because medieval ploughs only turned the soil one way. The first plough furrow turned the soil to the right, and when the ploughman reached the end, he turned round and ploughed a parallel furrow. This also turned the soil to the right, piling it on top of the soil from the first furrow, creating a small ridge between the two furrows. Over the centuries the furrows grew deeper and the ridges higher, and once the advantages of the system were seen (good drainage in winter, when only the most severe flooding would cover the ridges as well as the furrows) the pattern of cultivation was deliberately maintained, even with new and more versatile ploughs. In some parts of Britain, fields continued in this kind of management right up to World War 1, including cider orchards, where the apple trees were planted along the ridges.

Meadows offer another type of field that can be quite distinctive. Many ordinary fields were called meadows, simply because they were regularly used for grazing. These meadows are indistinguishable from other fields, but water meadows are a special case. By the 17th century sheep farming was a major occupation in England, but the increase in sheep numbers put a strain on the available grazing land, and often fodder was in short supply during late winter and early spring. One solution was the formation of water meadows. In order to provide pasture early in the year, the water meadows were artificially irrigated from a reliable source such as a river or stream. Channels were dug from the river to feed smaller channels and gullies that were cut across the meadows, with the water flow being controlled by a series of sluices. The fields were irrigated through the winter to produce a grazing meadow in early spring, just when the sheep were running short of food. The system was carried on throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and many remains of water meadows, such as dams, sluices and channels, can still be seen, although difficult to identify instantly. If you are travelling though a river valley, though, and there seem to be a large number of ditches and grooves in the fields, it may well be one of the meadows that helped to make England a great sheep-rearing country before the industrial revolution.

Fields in themselves might be of limited interest, but by simple deduction they can tell you about other landscape features as well. If moorland stone boundaries respect a trackway and run up to it, the chances are that the trackway is older than the field boundaries. Similarly, old burial mounds were often incorporated within hedges or walls because they were too much trouble to remove in the days before mechanical diggers. We are also fortunate in Britain to have a full series of accurate maps – the Ordnance Survey maps – stretching back over the last two centuries, which enable us to check how field boundaries have changed over that period. In all, fields are not quite the boring patches of green or brown they appear to be at first glance – although the history they contain is constantly at risk from modern farming techniques and development.

Competition Results

Sir Sidney Smith ended the Napoleonic war an admiral, but even before the final defeat of Napoleon, Smith was campaigning against slavery in the Mediterranean world. Wilberforce and his allies made great strides in stopping the trade in African slaves, but there remained the problem of Christian and non-Muslim European slaves in Islamic countries, particularly on the north African coast. Smith’s campaign led to the bombardment of Algiers by a British fleet in August 1816, which extorted from the ruler of Algiers the freedom of over 1,000 slaves and a promise not to capture any more Christians. This largely ended the north African white slave trade, although the countries involved now turned more attention to their other principal occupation – piracy.

As a fluent French speaker, Smith and his family retired to Paris, suffering hardship from the delays of the British Government in refunding his considerable expenses during his time as a diplomat. These were eventually paid in instalments, and Smith again became a celebrity after Napoleon died in exile in 1821. Napoleon’s physician, Barry O’Meara, published a book of his conversations with Napoleon. In it, O’Meara made it clear that although Napoleon ‘spoke in very high terms of Lord Nelson’, it was Smith who had haunted him and dogged his every move. Smith ended his life as an English eccentric in Paris. He died there in May 1840, at the age of 76, and was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Competition [now closed]

The frigate Unicorn of 46 guns, launched at Chatham in 1824, still survives and is open to visitors. Chatham Dockyard is a fascinating visitor attraction, but the Unicorn is not there. Where can the Unicorn be found?

In the Next Issue

Egypt in Britain, regulars like Monument of the Month, and all our latest news.