Friday, 21 October 2011

A glass of grog for Nelson

Nelson's Common and Trafalgar Square, by Ozeye
on Wikimedia Commons

On this day in 1805 the Battle of Trafalgar was fought, when the British navy beat the combined forces of the French and Spanish, but Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson already regarded as a hero by the English, was shot dead.  His body was, apparently, preserved in a cask of brandy, camphor and myrrh until it could be returned to England and a state funeral was held at St Paul’s Cathedral in January.

Portait of Nelson when he was
Rear-Admiral, painted in oils by
Lemuel Francis Abbott
It was another 25 years before a great London square was named in his honour, and more than a decade after that a pillar bearing his statue was erected in the centre.  For hundreds of years much of the land now covered by Trafalgar Square was the courtyard of the mews stables for Whitehall Palace. The area was cleared in the 18th century and in 1812 the architect John Nash created an open space on the site when he built a new road from Charing Cross to Portland Place, but it wasn’t until 1830 that the site was given its official name – Trafalgar Square.

Nelson’s Column, designed by William Railton, was erected in 1843; the square’s famous fountains were installed two years later, and Landseer’s bronze lions were installed at the base of the column in 1867.  

Three of the plinths at the corners of the square hold statues, but the fourth was left empty and is now used as a platform for specially commissioned artworks. The latest exhibit is a model of HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship, sealed in a toughened acrylic bottle, created by artist Yinka Shonibare. His ship is more than 11 feet long and over 7 feet high, and has sails made from brightly patterned batik material. Shonibare has gone on record as saying that this work is a celebration of Britain’s multicultural society which he believes is due in part to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar – this ensured British supremacy at sea, which played a part in establishing the empire.

You could celebrate Nelson’s victory at Waterloo by being creative and stitching a naval-style pennant or some bunting...  or enjoy a glass of grog, which seems to have been a mixture of rum, water and lemon... you could also recite Spike Milligan’s rhyme, ‘Tis due to pigeons that alight on Neslon’s hat that makes it white...’

By the way, should anyone wonder, the battle was fought off Cape Trafalgar, which is on the south west coast of Spain, south of Cadiz. While writing this I realised I had no idea whatsoever where it is, so I looked it up!
Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, by Yinka Sonibare, MBE
photo by Quentin UK at Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

How to See Your Truelove!

Just a short post today, to mark the Feast of St Luke when, according to tradition, a maiden wishing to catch a glimpse of her true love used to mix up honey, vinegar and spices, smear it on her face, retire to bed and recite the following rhyme:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me,
In dreams let me my true love see.”

I have no idea how successful this method of foretelling the future would have been (it sounds more like a cookery recipe – for a salad dressing perhaps,  or a marinade – than an aid to divination) but it must have made a terrible mess of the bed linen.

Additionally, it was customary for people to kill pigs on this day and to bung up barrels – presumably as part of the preparations for the approaching winter.

Anyway, St Luke the Evangelist, the author of one of the four Gospels, was a physician who lived in Antioch in the first century, and accompanied St Paul on his final journeys. He is the patron saint of doctors, artists, lacemakers and bulls.

Perhaps we could celebrate by eating honey rather than applying it to the face... honey cakes, or a drink sweetened with honey...  or, talking of drink, what about mead...

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Orange Sunday

 Time for tea! I finished a tea cosy for my little teapot that sits on top of a cup - and made a flower to on the top.
Don't hang about! I spotted this hanging basket hanging from an arch in the Buttermarket, beneath the Town Hall.
Getting stuck in to needlework.... Miniature pincushions in autumnal colours.
Sine a light! These Hallowe'en candles look like tiny Jack o' lanterns.
It's knot difficult... An autumn tree, embroidered with French knots and seed beads.
Petal power! Bizzy Lizzies in the Castle Grounds.
All buttoned up! A card stitched from scraps.
A pretty flower in one of the tubs by the entrance to the Castle Grounds. It looks pinker in the photograph than it did in reality and I have no idea what it is!
Bags of money.... Crochet bags to hold cash or treats!
  I can't eat chocolate, but I couldn't resist these. Aren't they cute?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A Line of Time at the 'Centre' of the World

Shepherd Gate Clock, 
Royal Obsevatory by 
Alvesgaspar Wikipedia 

October sees the end of British Summer Time, when the clocks go back, but it also marks the 127th anniversary of the introduction of Greenwich Mean Time by countries around the globe, which may not sound very exciting but is the reason time is calculated from the same base, no matter where in the world you are.

And that base is the Greenwich Meridian, zero degrees longitude, where East meets West at the centre of time throughout the world.  Its use as a universal marker for time was approved at an international conference held in 1884 ‘for the purpose of fixing a prime meridian and a universal day’.

Britain had unofficially standardised time in the 1840s when ‘railway time’ was introduced by train companies to ensure timetables were more accurate – prior to that time varied from town to town, which must have been confusing, especially where transport was concerned, but GMT was not legally adopted until 1880. However, for many years clocks in public places had two faces, or even two minute hands, to show local time and GMT.

 The Greenwich Meridian itself is an imaginary line (not a lion as I used to think in my schooldays) running from the North Pole through England, France, Spain, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ghana and Antarctica to the South Pole. Known as early as 1738, its route is now indicated at night by a laser beam pointing north from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and was originally determined by the Airy Transit Circle, which sounds like some kind of magical atmospheric phenomenon but is actually a historic telescope.

If you are feeling energetic you can follow the line of the meridian from the point it reaches England at Sand le Mere, near Withernsea, in East Yorkshire, to its exit at Peacehaven, in Sussex - a trail using public footpaths has been established by The Long Distance Walkers’ Association.

Prime Meridian, Greenwich
by ChrisO Wikipedia Commons
These days Universal Time is atomic pieces, but is essentially the same as GMT, and the old terminology continues to be used by most people in Britain, including the BBC which still broadcasts hourly ‘pips’ for listeners.

Currently, of course, we are GMT plus one, since we are still in British Summer Time (set up in 1916 to provide an extra hour of daylight) but all that changes at 1am on Sunday, October 30, when the clocks go back and we revert to real time again.

If, like me, you can never remember what happens when, I find the following saying is helpful, even though it sounds American: Spring Forward, Fall Back.

By the way, most of the ‘information’ about the Greenwich Meridian in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is, apparently total rubbish, but there are masses of good websites – I found was helpful, even if I couldn’t understand all the detail.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Leopards, Lilies and Knights Templar

Hereford's famous Mappa Mundi can be seen at the centre
of this painted scene on  the front apex of the canopy  created for
what remains of the shrine of St Thomas.
’Tis the Feast of Thomas Cantilupe, otherwise known as St Thomas of Hereford,  whose shrine was one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in England during the Middle Ages,  with over 400 miracles recorded: only St Thomas a Becket at Canterbury had more. It is claimed that he healed lepers, made the blind see, the dumb speak – and even restored the dead to life, including a Welsh rebel who was hanged eight years after the saint’s death

Like his more famous namesake, this Thomas was also Chancellor of England for a time, and was forced to live abroad when he fell out with the king, but later he returned and become Bishop of Hereford. According to the cathedral’s website Thomas Cantilupe had red hair, was very feisty, and was well known for his holy life and devotion to his diocese. He may also (though the cathedral website does not mention this) have links with the mysterious Knights Templars.

The shrine with its new gilded
 Born in 1218, he studied in Oxford and Paris, was Chancellor at Oxford University, was then appointed Chancellor to Henry III in 1265, but lost his position when Simon de Montfort was killed  because, apparently, he supported the Earl’s rebellion against the king.

Thomas travelled abroad for a while, but on his return once again took up the post of Chancellor at Oxford University, before being enthroned as Bishop of Hereford in 1275. He became known for his care of the poor, and was an advisor to Edward I.  He  wasn’t afraid to stand up for the rights of the church, or the people, and in 1290 this led to his ‘great conflict’ with Gilbert de Clare, 7th Earl of Gloucester and 6th Earl of Hertford over hunting rights in Malvern, where Gilbert dug a ditch to prevent access. In addition he is said to have forced Lord Clifford to walk barefoot through the cathedral, and then beat him, in penance for assaulting tenants and raiding cattle.

Far more serious was Thomas Cantilupe’s quarrel with John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury, which led to his excommunication. The Hereford Cathedral website says the argument was over land rights in the diocese, but it is difficult to understand how that could have escalated to the stage where such an extreme step was taken, especially as there seems to be no accusation of heresy or wrong-doing on Thomas’s part. Perhaps it was a personality clash which got out of hand – or perhaps, as some websites claim, there was a connection with the Knights Templar.

It has been suggested that Thomas was a Grand Provincial Master of the Order, and that the sculpted knights around the stone base of his shrine are Templars. Conspiracy theories about the Templars crop up all over the place, but personally I think one 13th century knight looks much like any other, especially when their faces and shield designs have been erased, presumably during the Reformation, and there seems to be no evidence to prove the identity of these figures.
This applique and embroidered panel shows Thomas' journey to Italy,
his illness, death, and the creation of his shrine at Hereford.
I had the camera on the wrong setting, so the picture is blurred.
Whatever the truth, Thomas was determined to gain absolution and clear his name, so in 1282 he met Pope Martin IV in Italy, where he fell ill and died. His bones were taken back to Hereford, and tales quickly spread of miracles occurring at his tomb. However, the road to sainthood was not easy: in addition to the usual processes a  Papal inquiry was convened in London 1307 to ascertain whether Thomas had received the absolution he sought – if he had not, he could not be canonised. It took the commissioners 13 years to find in his favour, and Pope John XXII finally declared him a saint in 1320.

Is this a Templar? A  knights
on the side of Thomas' tomb.
During the Reformation his shrine was destroyed and the relics dispersed, but the stone base was left and recently craftsmen have produced a beautiful gilded canopy to cover it, and there are candles for modern pilgrims to light, and space for them to sit in quiet reflection.

In addition the story of Thomas is portrayed in two embroidered  fabric panels which hang by the restored shrine, and he left a lasting memorial because his family’s coat of arms – three upside-down leopard heads with heraldic lilies in their mouths – was adopted by the Bishops of Hereford and is still in use today.

You could celebrate by treating yourself to a bunch of lilies... or plant lily bulbs ready for next year... or create your own story in fabric and thread... and, of course, you could sample festive fare with a medieval flavor – gingerbread and wine perhaps?

You’ll find the Hereford Cathedral website at, and there are some details about Thomas Cantilupe’s alleged Templar connections at .
Leopards and lilies... Thomas Cantilupe's
family coat-of-arms is now an emblem for the
Bishops of Hereford.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

On the Buses!

1:8 scale model of STL-type double deck motor bus No 500, registration AYV680. Finished in London Transport colours. Courtesy of the Collection of London Transport Museum.
Today marks the introduction of the first London bus with an enclosed upper deck in 1925 – an anniversary carefully selected for your delectation and delight as a mark of respect to my grandfather, who was an electrician on the buses.

Born in 1903, Grandpa must have been a very modern young man when he was apprenticed, because the London General Omnibus Company didn’t install electric lighting on its vehicles until 1913, with headlights being fitted the year after that, so it must still have been quite innovative, and I can imagine his father, who was a tailor, moaning about young people with new-fangled ideas, and saying he would be better off with a more traditional job.

When my mother was very small, around 1929 or 1930 I think, Grandpa moved his family out of London to Egham, in Surrey, and cycled backwards and forwards to ‘the works’ at Chiswick – a round trip of about 30 miles a day. As an employee he could have got free travel aboard a bus but, as I’ve said in a previous post, he liked to do things the hard way (

Eventually, after the Second World War, he moved to County Donegal, taking his bicycle with him. There he found a similar job with what is now the Loch Swilly Bus Company, and continued to cycle to work every day along a slightly shorter but much hillier route, negotiating Irish wind and rain, steep slopes, rough tracks and twice-daily encounters with customs officers with his usual irrepressible bravado.

But back to the buses... it seems they came a long way in a short time, for the first one to be operated by a petrol engine was  introduced as an experiment in 1899, with permanent services set up five years later, when Grandpa was just a year old. I like to think of him, first as a toddler, then as a small boy, fascinated by the rapid changes in this new form of transport, watching the buses as they drove past.

Replica London General Omnibus Company
1920 design open top double decker bus
at The North of England Open Air Museum,Beamish.
Initially they looked little different to the old horse-drawn vehicles, (the last of the LGOC’s horse-drawn buses was taken off the road in 1911) and many of the changes which took place over the early years had to be improved the Metropolitan Police. At first drivers sat in the open air, behind their engines, then they were given a seat beside the engine and finally, in 1930, were provided with safer, enclosed cab areas.

Passengers on the open-topped upper deck were provided with wet-weather canvas covers, and other early improvements to services included night buses, set up in 1913 for postal employees and shift workers.  During the First World War almost a third of London’s buses were requisitioned by the War Office, and were used to move troops and equipment, to hold anti-aircraft guns – and to house the pigeons which provided communications along the front.
This double-decker became the standard London Transport bus of the 1930s.
After the war buses became even more popular, and stops were introduced: there were 59 in London in 1919, compared to some 17,000 today. Buses became bigger, faster and more reliable, and the network of routes grew larger and larger. In 1921 the LGOC centralised all maintenance at the new Chiswick Overhaul Works (where, I assume, my grandfather worked), trimming the time taken to overhaul a bus from 16 days to four – a saving of 12 days.  

New vehicles were designed and built by the Associated Equipment Company at Southall, which opened in 1927, and hard on the heels of covered buses came other improvements, like pneumatic tyres and upholstered seats, as well as the Greenline service which took people to more rural areas outside the city (including Egham).

The iconic red colour of London’s buses was established by LGOC (before that there were different colours for different routes). The company, formed in 1859, quickly became the largest bus operator in the capital, but in 1933 it joined with other transport firms (both privately owned and run by local authorities) to form London Transport, which then became responsible for buses, trolley buses, trams and Tube trains.
It’s worth remembering that during the 1920s and 30s London’s buses were the envy of the world, and that hidden behind the drivers and conductors who dealt with the public was a huge workforce of people like my grandfather, who ensured the vehicles stayed in tip-top condition.

If you want to know more about the history of London’s buses, then take a look at the London Transport Museum website at which is packed with information and images, and provides a fascinating trawl through 100 years or more of transport history.

And, of course, there’s only one-way to mark the anniversary – take a trip on the top deck of a bus... or, should this prove difficult, why not sit back enjoy A Transport of Delight with Flanders and Swann, the late, great comedy duo, who are every bit as funny now as they were when this was released way back in 1957... Just click on the link and see what you think...

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Celebrate a Peaceable King with a Bath Bun

Edgar,portrayed in a stained glass window
at All Souls College Chapel, Oxford. 
Today is the First of October, and I was going to take a look at the month ahead, but it is also the anniversary of the day in 959 when Edgar the Peaceable became King of All England, and his title sounds such an unlikely attribution for a king that I thought I would find out more. Besides, he was crowned at Bath (although not until much later in his reign) so we could honour his memory by eating Bath buns or, if you are worried about your weight, you can have a Bath Oliver biscuit instead - and, of course, you musn't quarrel with anyone or cause a disturbance!

Edgar seems to have been forgotten; his achievements overshadowed by the exploits of other Anglo Saxon Kings, including his youngest son Ethelred the Unready (his eldest son went down in history as St Edward the Martyr after being murdered just three years into his reign). Anyway, Edgar deserves to be better known, for he was the first king of England to establish a single form administration throughout the regions, he established a uniform system of coinage, reformed the church, overhauled the legal system and built up the navy.

He also gave Danes in the kingdom of York (which was then part of Northumbria) legal protection to follow ‘such good laws as they best decide on’, a concession made in gratitude for the loyalty they had shown him.  

Coins from Edgar's reign.
Born in 943, Edgar was the younger son of Edmund I. Some early records refer to him as King of Mercia, while his elder brother Eadwig is named as King of the English. It is unclear whether he seized power or succeeded when the brother died, but by 959 he was established as ruler of the whole of England, although he was not consecrated until 973, in a ceremony which took place at Bath and is mentioned in several annals in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles.

Following this event, all the lesser kings pledged their allegiance at Chester promising fealty ‘on sea and land’. The earliest chroniclers record six kings, but later writers list eight crowned heads, who rowed Edgar up the River Dee in his royal barge.

These state occasions are thought to have been organised by St Dunstan (before he was a saint, of course), who was recalled from exile to become Edgar’s chief advisor and was eventually made Archbishop of Canterbury. Together the two men restored Benedictine rule to English monasteries and set up new bishoprics.

Edgar was married twice. His first wife was Aethelfaed Eneda (not to be confused with Ethelfleda, Lady of the Mercians), who was the mother of St Edward the Martyr. His second wife was Aelfryth, with whom he had Edmund, who died young, and Ethelred. He is also reputed to be the father of St Edith of Wilton, through some kind of liaison with Wulfthryth, a nun who was later appointed abbess at Wilton.

Edgar seems to have been a capable and efficient king but when he died at Winchester in 975 he was only 32, and had failed to clarify the succession, so there was turmoil as two rival factions each claimed the crown for one of his two young sons. He was buried at Glastonbury Abbey.

 By the way, much of the information in this post came from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which can be accessed online in the comfort of your own home if your local library subscribes: all you have to do is to key in your library membership number. It’s a fantastic resource, and another good reason why libraries should be kept open.
Enjoy a lovely, sugary Bath bun in
honour of King Edgar the Peaceable
who was crowned at Bath.