Wednesday, 20 September 2017


In recent History Girls posts, I have written several times about the history of the Meon Valley. The motivation for my posts is simply that this area of Hampshire, as well as being where I live, is the setting for my historical novels, the “Meonbridge Chronicles”. Not that all my posts have been directly relevant to my novel-writing research, but it’s just fascinating to explore the past of a place you love, and turn up interesting little snippets of information about it that you didn’t already know. So, I’ve decided to continue with my theme, and this time I’ve discovered at least one snippet that I found really quite surprising…

Last month I wrote about Titchfield, the settlement near the sea end of the valley of the River Meon and, today, I’m moving a few miles upstream to the next place of any size along the river, Wickham (oð wic hæma mearce in the 9th century; Wicheham in the 11th; Wykham in the 13th; Wickham in the 14th). 

Wickham square Photo © Author
Wickham is an attractive little town (or large village – I’m never quite sure which it is, with a population now of about 4000), popular with visitors. In the 16th century, the writer John Leland described it as a “pretty townlet”, so it was agreeable even then. Wickham is no longer a market town (apart from the occasional farmers’ market) but it became one in the 13th century, and remained so for many centuries thereafter, and a busy, prosperous place it was, as it still is. Wickham also has a very famous son – a 14th century son –and both the town’s history and that of its son are certainly worth an airing.

In Neolithic times, the only sign of any habitation in the place that would one day be “Wickham” was probably a fording place that enabled travellers to cross the River Meon. Neolithic artefacts found in the village bear witness to these possible early visitors. There is evidence too of Iron Age and Roman sites in and around the village, including iron and bronze making as well as pottery kilns. Wickham is sited on the route between the two important settlements of Winchester and Chichester, probably making it of strategic value to the Romans. It is possible that Wickham became an important Roman settlement, with an industrial base.

The first mention of Wickham in history is in a document dated 826 AD, when the village is mentioned in a royal charter. The original village lay on the east side of the River Meon, where the church still stands and the medieval manor house was once located.

After the Norman Conquest, the king, William I, granted the manor of Wickham to Hugo de Port, one of many lordships he granted to the de Port family. The village appeared in the Doomsday Book of 1086 as part of the Titchfield Hundred, and the present church of St Nicholas dates from 1126 and was run by the Canons of Titchfield.

Wickham’s record in the Domesday Book says:
4 brothers held it from King Edward as 2 manors. Then and now it answered for 12 hides. Hugh acquired it as 1 manor. Land for 7 ploughs. In lordship 2 ploughs; 15 villagers and 6 smallholders with 7 ploughs. 5 slaves; 2 mills at 20s; meadow, 8 acres; woodland at 5 pigs. Value before 1066 £10; later £4; now £7
Its total population at that time was probably around 120.

In the 13th century, Wickham was held, under the de Port overlordship, by a family called Scure. The manor passed down through the Scures until 1381, when Sybil Scure, who was married to John Uvedale, inherited it and brought Wickham into a family with whom it remained for the next 350 years. The manor house of the Uvedales stood to the south of the churchyard. Excavations in the 1960s showed that manorial buildings had been erected on the site in the late 11th century, when a large, aisled, timber-framed hall was built. It was replaced with a smaller, stone-built, hall in the 13th century, with a moat and some fish-ponds. The lords of Wickham seem to have been both important and wealthy, for excavations also revealed the high quality of some of the pottery they had imported from Normandy and Spain.

However, there is more to tell of the 13th century lord, Roger de Scures. For, on August 13th 1269, King Henry III granted a charter to Roger, allowing him – “for ever”, the charter says – to hold a market in Wickham every Thursday and an annual fair on the anniversary of the Translation Of St. Nicholas.
“Know ye that we have granted and by this our charter have confirmed to Roger de Scures that he and his heirs may have free warren in all the demesne lands of his manor of Wykham in the county of Southampton for ever. So that those lands be not within the boundaries of our forest. On condition that no one shall enter those lands to hunt in them or take away anything that may belong to the warren without the leave and will of the said Roger or his heirs upon forfeiture of ten pound. We have also granted to the same Roger that he and his heirs shall have for ever a market at his manor aforesaid every week on Thursday and that they may have there a fair ever year for three days, that is to say on the vigil, day and morrow of the Translation of St Nicholas unless that market and fair may be to the damage of the neighbouring market and fairs.” 
Saint Nicholas depicted in a 14th-century English book of hours

The “Translation” refers to the movement (or rescue), in 1087, of Saint Nicholas’s relics from Myra (in present-day Turkey) to Bari, in Italy, to save them from potential destruction in the religious conflict that was ravaging the region. The relics still remain in the Basilica of Saint Nicholas in Bari.

The event is celebrated as a religious holiday in some Eastern Orthodox churches, but it seemed to me a curious anniversary for a little town in southern England to honour with a fair. The rationale for it is, I suppose, simply that Saint Nicholas was the saint to whom Wickham’s church was dedicated.

The holiday was originally celebrated on May 9th, the date in 1087 when the relics were brought to Bari, but it was moved to May 20th (something, I think, to do with the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian) and thus it has remained. The Wickham Fair – a three-day event in the Middle Ages –attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area, dealing in goods of all kinds.

But what might seem extraordinary is that Wickham still holds a one-day fair on May 20th every year, 750 years after it was instituted.

In earlier centuries, the fair apparently traded in livestock of many kinds, including pigs, sheep, cattle and horses. But eventually it became essentially a horse-trading fair, which is what it is now, and is thought to be one of only two such events in the whole country. Thousands of members of the traveller community come from all over the country to show and sell ponies and horses, and to race them, with and without buggies, up and down the Winchester to Fareham road. A funfair fills Wickham’s great square for the rest of the day on the 20th.

The Square, Wickham Photo © Author
Wickham’s square is said to be one of the largest in Britain and it is from the time of the royal charter of 1269 that the layout of the village, with this broad market place, probably began to emerge. A road sign on the approach to Wickham from Fareham declares the village to have a “13th century market square”, which I have always thought just a little misleading. For, while it is undoubtedly true that The Square had its beginnings in the 13th century, and would once have been surrounded by contemporary buildings, sadly, few medieval buildings are still standing there.

Nonetheless, it is an impressive square, with a fine collection of 16th, 17th and 18th century houses surrounding the broad marketplace, a few of them quite grand, probably built by the increasingly prosperous merchants and skilled craftsmen. But there are certainly houses with 15th century origins in Bridge Street, a narrow road, apparently known as Grub Street in the Middle Ages, that crosses the River Meon at the east end of the square.

The Old Barracks, Bridge Street, Wickham Photo © Author
These cottages on Bridge Street are known as “The Old Barracks” and represent one of the best examples of a Wealden hall house in the area. They are timber framed with plaster infill and with later brickwork cladding. Timbers have been dated by dendrochronology to c1495. There is apparently a reference in the Parish Register to three cottages in Bridge Street called “The Barracks” in 1556 (the reign of Mary Tudor), which probably refers to this building.

Bridge/Grub Street is thought to have been part of the early settlement, referred to already, centred around the church and the (long since disappeared) manor on the east bank of the River Meon. After the development of the new square and its associated buildings in the 13th century on the drier, west bank of the river, Bridge Street was the connecting route between the old settlement and the new, via what was at first a ford, then a wooden bridge, and finally, in 1792, a stone bridge.

In 1334 Wickham was worth 6 pounds, 8 shillings and 6 pence in taxes paid to the Crown, which was more than Fareham, which today is vastly larger, so 14th century Wickham must have been a prosperous place. By 1700 it probably had a population of around 500, and two hundred years later the population had more than doubled. Now there are more like 4000 inhabitants, though that presumably doesn’t include the many residents of neighbouring villages who regard Wickham as their local centre. And it certainly doesn’t include the thousands who flock there, not only on fair day, but on every other day of the year, especially in summer, to admire the broad square and lovely old buildings, and to do some trading of their own in the antique shops, and enjoy a meal in one of the many restaurants and cafés.

But what of Wickham’s most famous son?

William was born in 1320, his father a modest freeman, John Longe, who moved to Wickham with his young family. Somehow the lord of the manor, then John de Scures, recognised that young William was bright and sent him to a school in Winchester.

And John was right. This bright but poor boy became clerk of the king’s works, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England. He called himself William of Wykeham, in honour of the place that nurtured him.

Winchester Cathedral [CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]
On leaving school it seems that William became secretary to the constable of Winchester Castle, before passing into royal service in 1347. In 1349, he was appointed rector of a living in Norfolk, despite apparently not having taking holy orders, but then a few years later took on a series of jobs as clerks of works. He rose rapidly in service to the king, Edward III, and by 1359 was responsible for the castles of Windsor, Leeds, Dover and Hadleigh, as well as many royal manors.

But only two years later he was a royal secretary, concerned with the king’s finances, and by 1363 was a royal councillor. It is hard to understand how one man could undertake so many rôles, but in these few heady years, he seems to have taken part in the negotiations between England and France during the Hundred Years War, he was a canon at Lincoln Cathedral, and a Justice in Eyre in the Midlands, and also Lord Privy Seal. By 1366, William was elected as Bishop of Winchester, but also held other livings with an annual income exceeding £800. The following year, when he was consecrated as bishop at St Paul’s in London, he was also appointed Chancellor of England. However, he found it hard to raise the money for the king to resume his conflict with France, when it resumed in 1369 and, finally, he lost the king’s favour and resigned his role as Chancellor in 1371.

However, all was not lost. As Edward III’s health and energy declined, William maintained good relationships in high places and received more important appointments but, in the topsy-turvy world of medieval politics and jockeying for position, he fell out of favour again and in 1376 was banished from court, his church incomes seized. But his banishment didn’t last, and in 1377, he was pardoned by the new king, Richard II, shortly after his grandfather, Edward, died. (The king’s own father, Edward, the Black Prince, had died in June 1376.) Under Richard, William resumed his position as a royal councillor, and served as Chancellor again from 1389 to 1391.

In the meantime, William was making educational foundations. It seems that he was genuinely kind-hearted and generous, excusing poor tenants on his manors their customary payments, paying off debts of others, and giving food daily to many poor people. He also supported poor scholars at Oxford University for many years before he founded New College in 1379. His grammar school, Winchester College, in Winchester, obtained its royal licence in 1382, though it was several years before either institution was open for business. At both, however, William required daily prayers to be said for the king and queen, for himself and his parents, and all of his former patrons, including Sir John Scures.

William was concentrating on his foundations by the time Henry IV deposed Richard II in 1399, but he welcomed the new king in Winchester in 1400. He died at Bishop’s Waltham (a few miles north of Wickham) in 1404 and was buried in his chantry chapel to the south side of the nave in Winchester Cathedral. At the time of his death, he was one of the richest men in England and, although he did leave legacies to his descendants, much of his wealth went into the schools and colleges.

William’s motto was “Manners makyth man”, adopted also by his foundations. Jean Froissart, in his Chronicles, said of him: “Everything was done through him, and without him nothing was done.” Quite an accolade for a poor boy from a little Hampshire village!

William of Wykeham (Photo: New College, University of Oxford)

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

What does ‘Roman’ mean to you? by Alison Morton

Signifer, National Roman
Legion Museum, Carleon
Traditionally, Rome was founded in 753 BC. It grew into one of the largest empires in the ancient world with roughly 20% of the world’s population and an area of 6.5 million square kilometres at its height.

 Plagued by internal instability and attacked by various migrating peoples, the western part of the empire broke up in the 5th century, giving way to the pre-mediaeval ‘Dark Ages’ of Europe. Only Italy, Dalmatia, an isolated part of northern France and parts of Mauretania remained under Roman or Roman shared rule. The last western emperor Romulus Augustulus, abdicated in AD 476, kneeling in the dirt to Odoacer, who styled himself King of Italy.

The western Roman state existed for 1229 years. Although development has moved at rocket speed in recent years, a simple comparison would be from AD 680 to AD 1909 – what a lot of history that covers!

 Popular but not always accurate, depictions include plays like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Anthony and Cleopatra, feature films like ‘Ben-Hur’, ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’, ‘The Robe’, ‘Gladiator’ and series such as ‘I, Claudius’ and HBO’s ‘Rome’. Visual depictions often stay in the public’s eye more firmly than images conjured up by books. However, we have every sort of fictional account from humorous with grim undertones such as Lindsey Davis’s Falco series to gritty campaigning and power grabs by inter alia Simon Scarrow, Ben Kane and Douglas Jackson.

But over more than a millennium, what really symbolises 'Roman' for us?
Do we go back to Romulus, founder and first king of Rome 753-717 BC?

From an altar found at Ostia Antica –
The discovery of Romulus and Remus

Or do these pottery heads found on the Capitoline Hill in Rome and dating from 6th century BC tribal societies indicate the essential Romans?

Maybe the ‘great’ Marcus Furius Camillus c. 446 – 365 BC Roman general and statesman who defeated the Etruscans at Veii in 396 BC and expelled Brennus and his Gauls in 390 BC. But patrician to his core, he stoutly resisted granting the plebian representatives rights until 367 BC during a further war against the Gauls when he negotiated a compromise which united the two orders.

Triumph of Furius Camillus
Francesco Salviati (1510–1563)

Perhaps the influential Cornelia Africana, the daughter of Scipio Africanus, mother of the political reforming brothers, the Gracchi. She died at age 90 in 100 BC, and was remembered by the Romans as an exemplar of womanly virtue by saying she needed no other jewels than her children.

Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi
Angelica Kaufmann (1741-1807)

Or this soldier from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, known as the “Census frieze”, circa 122 BC?

Maybe Augustus 63 BC – AD 14, the first Roman emperor, founder of the Julio-Claudians; power grabber and great reformer. He certainly ensured his image was disseminated throughout the Roman Empire during his lifetime which has left us plenty of evidence of his existence.
The Meroë head 27-25 BC
Photo courtesy of the British Museum

Or his influential and clever wife, Livia, or staunch friend Agrippa, the builder, general and administrator?
Statue, Museum of Roman Civilisation, Rome

The Plinii, Elder and Younger, polymaths, scientists, narrators of the minutiae of Roman life?

The eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 which has sent us so many poignant messages from Pompeii and Herculaneum into the present?
Domestic items from Pompeii, Naples Museum

Or perhaps Eurysaces, an eccentric baker, who made a fortune out of the grain trade who was introduced to us by Mary Beard?

Does Claudia Severa’s birthday dinner invitation to Lepidina testified by the Vindolanda tablets resonate with us today as we email that invitation to some friends for next Saturday night?

Or perhaps Constantine the Great AD 272 – 337, the first emperor to convert to Christianity?
Capitoline Museum, Rome

And there’s Flavius Stilichio, the half Vandal general who was magister utriusque militiae (commander-in-chief) of West Roman forces AD 395–408.
From an ivory diptych c. 395AD,Monza Cathedral
(Sometimes attributed to Aetius)

Perhaps Galla Placidia (AD 392 – 450), daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, Regent for Emperor Valentinian III from 423 until his majority in 437, and a major force in Roman politics for most of her life. She was consort to Ataulf, King of the Goths from 414 until his death in 415, and Empress consort to Constantius III from 417 until his death in 422.

Galla Placidia medallion, minted, Ravenna c.425AD
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

And near the end, Emperor Majorian AD 457-461 who was one of the last emperors to make a concerted effort to restore the Western Roman Empire. Possessing little more than Italy, Dalmatia, and some territory in northern Gaul, Majorian campaigned rigorously for three years against the Empire’s enemies.

Gold coin of Majorian in full military kit

Late Antiquity was a very different place from the days of Romulus and Remus, but people very much regarded themselves as Romans. Indeed some vestiges of Roman ruled lands such as the Domain of Soissons persisted almost until the end of the fifth century  And of course the Roman church, the systems of government, law and administration persisted for further centuries.

What does the word “Roman” conjure up for you?


Alison Morton's latest book in the Roma Nova thriller series, RETALIO, is available from the usual retailers as ebook or paperback.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Why Historians are Hoarders by Sarah Gristwood

Blame it on too many women’s mags, but I started sorting out the other day. Not before time - the piles of papers had reached the point where we burrowed between them like tunnellng moles. But that doesn’t mean, as I threw anything towards the dustbin bags, that I didn’t feel a little guilty. Some of those papers had been there longer than I had. Some were there before I was born, actually.

In one chest of drawers, they went in layers, like the strata of rock they taught us in geology. In others, previous attempts to sort (or simply to find something for the taxman!) have resulted in an earthquake-like overthrow, so that my father-in-law’s World War II permission to travel is in among a stack of 1980s press releases.

A backstage pass to join Bruce Willis’ band in Berlin, some time in the 1990s. A shooting script for Last Tango in Paris. A letter, dating back to the Fifties, from the then head of an Oxford college, pouring out his affection for my husband’s mother. A handful of share certificates, a thousand old German marks . . . And an enormous quantity of sheer junk, naturally.

The point is, how to distinguish? Fashionable (essential!) though it might be to minimalise, how can you really be sure of what will and won’t be valuable some day? And by valuable, I don’t mean the German marks, or the share certificates - I mean something that makes me feel I’m touching history. Even if it is only my own history.

Those press releases can go, surely? Or the letter from a press officer making arrangements for me to travel to an interview, and giving details of a flight that landed several decades ago? Except . . . Don’t I want to remember that once (before I left journalism for the ultimately more rewarding, but certainly less glamorous, world of Tudor history) I used to jet around the world interviewing Hollywood celebrities? That ladies-only lunch with Sharon Stone at the Hotel du Cap, outside Cannes? That LA lunch with Clint Eastwood, that flight back from a film location in Ireland, with Anthony Hopkins giving me life advice I remember to this day?

OK, so maybe that remembering is the point? Maybe I don’t need the paper to remind me? But somehow there’s a need almost to prove my case - as if someone else might be interested, some day.

Many years ago I wrote a book about women’s diaries, and one of the questions that came up then was why so many of us, ordinary people, feel impelled to leave a record of ourselves for posterity. I remember one diarist declaring openly that it was in case, one day, someone wanted to write her biography.

Most of us can’t flatter ourselves with that possibility - but all the same I was aware that, researching the subjects of biographies I’ve written, I’d have been ecstatic to come across hoards of the kind I was about to throw away.

It doesn’t, after all, have to be the person themselves who is so notable, to whet a historian’s appetite in future years. Sometimes ordinary people find themselves acting extraordinarily. The papers in our flat, transported in their crates from my husband’s old home, and simply dumped unsorted in a boxroom, have already helped him write a book, Family Secrets, about a murder in his family. Sometimes they are simply swept up in an extraordinary event. That wartime ‘permission to travel’ - the card that came with a WWII medal - carry with them the whiff of a whole world turned upside down, of courage and of tragedy.

But what about the souvenirs of more mundane occasions? What about the playbill from the 1950s, featuring my husband - as ‘A Gaoler - in a university production of a Shakespeare comedy? (It’s lying on top of a season’s programme for the Guardian cricket club, and a pair of handcuffs. Handcuffs. I like to think they were sent to us as a publicity gimmick for some movie.)

If, perish the thought, I’d had done amateur dramatics in my own youth in the Eighties, I’d have no illusions that I was keeping that flyer from anything but pure vanity. But this, older, one feels like an artefact, a message from a vanished era. Even the yellowing paper seems to have something to say.
So what - does junk become valuable after x many years, and if so, how many? Does someone ring a bell and the past becomes history? It’s a question for Antiques Roadshow, maybe. But meanwhile, you know what, I think I’ll stick to throwing away old make-up bottles. That’s safe - surely?

Our thanks to Sarah for this "anytime" post. Celia Rees will be back soon.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

A TIME OF FIGS by Dianne Hofmeyr.

Penny Dolan says: I came across Dianne Hofmeyr's beautiful post on another blog and immediately wanted to share her words, thoughts and images with everyone here, so thank you very much, Dianne, for being my History Girls Guest today.

London is subdued in the last heat of summer as August draws to a close over the bank holiday week-end. The pavements lack children careering down on you on their scooters. The streets are deserted. The traffic is quiet. Street markets are full of bright yellow zucchini fiori, tomatoes of every colour and fat purple figs… but no one to buy them. Everyone is away.

On my tiny London terrace under a sparse fig tree stunted forever in its pot, the pages of my book flip close and I drowse through an imagined Sicilian heat. The landscape of aridly undulating hills of Tomasi di Lampedusa …
with no lines that the mind could grasp, conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation; a sea suddenly petrified at the instant when a change of wind had flung the waves into a frenzy.'

Summer in London, is not the blistering 40 degrees of Italy or France that brings back frazzled families when schools finally reopen. I savour the peace with The Leopard under my nose. Drip by drip, Lampedusa feeds me the landscape and customs of the old aristocracy – Sicily that summer of 1860 when Garibaldi arrives.

It’s not the Sicily of the five-star hotel high up on the cliff of Taomina with dramatic infinity pool and a view of Mount Etna and a wander through the tourist-filled main street up to the ancient Greek amphitheatre set above the limpid Ionian Sea.

To see Sicily the way Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina in The Leopard sees it, you must start with the chaos and contradictions of Palermo – the traffic, the grime, the washing hanging from balconies in narrow side streets, the scorched hills that surround it, the glimpse of sea, the architecture ravished by time and neglect, ancient baroque palazzi, interiors opulent with gold and mosaics, convents, churches and oratories on every corner reflecting Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Norman rule.

The Arabian arches of the Cloister at Monreale outside Palermo

Leopards between olive and date palms in the Room of Roger, Palazzo dei Normanni, Palermo
Close-up of the mosaic work by Byzantine artisans 
Describing a ball in one of the Palermo palazzi, the Prince savours the decaying grandeur.
‘The ballroom was all golden; smoothed on cornices, stippled on door-frames, dasmascened pale, almost silvery… It was not the flashy gilding which decorators slap on nowadays (this being 1862) but a faded gold, pale as the hair of certain nordic children, determinedly hiding its value under a muted use of precious material intended to let beauty be seen and cost forgotten. Here and there on the panels were knots of rococo flowers in a colour so faint as to seem just an ephemeral pink reflected from the chandeliers… From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky.’

I've not seen that Palermo ceiling but in Noto I came across the ballroom of the Nicolaci family. The palazzo with its 90 rooms, (not unlike the maze of rooms Tancredi and Angelica get lost in, in The Leopard) makes me wonder how the nobility became so rich? In the earthquake of 1693 the entire town of Noto was destroyed – palazzi and people all lost and the town later rebuilt in the style of the day – Sicilian baroque. Of the noble families only a few remained and through intermarriage became even wealthier built on the shoulders of the tuna industry.

Ballroom at the Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata in Noto
The railings of the balconies curved to contain the voluminous swoop of silk and taffeta ballgowns. 

The pink-washed walls of Modica.
Under my fig tree I dream on... the salmonpink-washed walls of Modica at sunset. Modica, Syracuse, Ortygia – none play a part in The Leopard. They are names from my A Brief History of Ancient Times schoolbook. That incredible lofty Cathedral of Syracuse, the walls wrapping the Ionic pillars of an earlier Greek temple, the old Jewish Quarter close by, its narrow alleys where craftsmen still work, tinged with salt air. So mesmerised am I by the marble inlay of the ancient floor that I forget my iPhone in a pew which is later returned to me with a simple ‘Pronto’ when I call my number.

When I run up the worn marble steps from the harbour to retrieve it, my mind has skittered down another track. I think of the ancient ships arriving, the Greek sailors treading these same steps and Cicero describing Syracuse as 'the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all.'

Yes… the quiet of August in London is as delicious as a fat ripe fig, filled with the dreams of blistering islands where the sun beats down 365 days of the year from an inexorable blue sky.

But a chill creeps into the closing lines of The Leopard.  When the mummified carcass of the family wolfhound is thrown out the window, the shadow of The Leopard hovers in Don Fabrizio's spinster daughter's words...
'its form recomposed itself for an instant; in the air there seemed to be dancing a quadraped with long whiskers, its right foreleg raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a little heap of livid dust.'   

A salute to all my past History teachers. Other books on Sicily: The Land where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee and Syracusa recommended by Adele Geras. Do any History Girls or readers have any other recommendations?
twitter: @dihofmeyr

Dianne Hofmeyr's picture book, Zeraffa Giraffa, about a Giraffe sent as a gift from Egypt to Paris in 1826, will be on stage at the Little Angel Theatre in Islington and the Omnibus in Clapham over the next nine weeks. Zeraffa Giraffa is illustrated by the artist Jane Ray, who also illustrated their forthcoming picture book: The Glassmaker's Daughter, which is set in Venice. Both books are published by Frances Lincoln.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Marianne North - plant painter!

My last few posts have been about plant hunters. This is not unconnected with the fact that I have a children's book about plant hunters coming out at the end of the month - it's called Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, and you can find out more about it here.

But this month, I want to write about someone who also travelled the world searching for exotic new plants - but in order to paint them, rather than to collect them.

Marianne North at work

She was called Marianne North, and what she did would be remarkable if she had been doing it today - but she did it in the Victorian Age, which makes her even more extraordinary. The conventional image of Victorian women is that they sat at home looking demure, painting water colours and occasionally swooning on a sofa. But they certainly weren't all like that. There were some women who not only broke the mould but utterly smashed it - by climbing the Alps, by writing great novels - and by exploring dangerous corners of the world: women such as Lady Hester Stanhope, Gertrude Bell and Isabella Bird.

Marianne North belongs in their company. She was born in 1830 into a comfortably well-off (and well-bred) family - her father was the Liberal MP for Hastings. Her first passion was for singing, but with a background like hers, a career in music wasn't an option. So then she turned to flower painting. Her sisters married, but Marianne thought marriage was a terrible idea, which turned women into 'a sort of upper servant', and she avoided it. Instead, when her mother died in 1855, she took to travelling with her father, who was also interested in botany. Then when he died some 15 years later, she, at the age of 40, determined to continue her travels, exploring far-flung corners of the world and painting the plants and flowers she found there. She usually travelled alone, finding companions a distraction and an annoyance, and she lived simply - it wasn't a case, obviously, of hopping on a plane and staying in a nice hotel: travelling was difficult, but she did it anyway.

Morning glory climber in South Africa

She wasn't formally trained, so maybe this is why her paintings are so unlike conventional botanical illustrations, in which the plant is shown against a white background. Marianne shows her flowers in context, where they grew - though she clearly took some liberties in order to show a beautiful view or an interesting insect: she didn't simply paint what she saw. Also, she didn't use water colours, she used oils, so her paintings are dense with brilliant colour - full of drama and absolutely wonderful.

In 1879 she offered her paintings to Sir Joseph Hooker, the Director of Kew Gardens. She designed a special building for them, and decreed how they were to be hung: close together, and grouped according to geographical area. However, she lost one fight. She wanted visitors to be served tea or coffee (so sensible!) but Sir Joseph huffed and puffed and said he was running a scientific institution, not a cafe. But she had the last word - she painted a tea plant and a coffee plant above the entrance.

The gallery at Kew

I think I first heard about Marianne North when I went to Kew Gardens when I was researching Jack Fortune, though for some reason I didn't go to the gallery then - I probably didn't know about her till I'd been to the shop, where I bought a pack of reproductions of her paintings. I was enchanted by their boldness and brilliance, and one of them showed a view of the Himalayas through a framework of foliage, which was in my mind as I wrote about my characters' first sighting of the mountain which plays a pivotal part in the book:

Then, between two houses, Jack saw something that stopped him in his tracks. In the distance he could see immense mountains with snow glistening on their peaks. “Look, Uncle!” he breathed.
His uncle stood still. He didn’t say a word, and Jack glanced at him. He was gazing at the distant peaks with a look of the most desperate longing on his face. Jack suddenly saw just how much his uncle wanted – no, needed – to reach them. On impulse, he touched his arm, and said seriously, “It’ll be all right, Uncle Edmund. We will get there. I promise you we will.”

His uncle looked surprised. Then he smiled sadly. “I hope so, Jack,” he said. “Oh, I do hope so!”

Friday, 15 September 2017

A Brief Lighthouse History

by Marie-Louise Jensen

Within a short stretch of coast on the very northern tip of Jutland, there are three lighthouses. Two are decommissioned, the third is still active. They are a remarkable glimpse into the development of the lighthouse in Denmark. 
This first picture is of the Skagen's vippefyr (or 'lever light') which is a copy of the lighthouse that guided ships around the tip of Jutland from 1627 to 1747. It was the first of its kind and replaced an earlier system - a parrot light. This new design allowed the burning coals to be hoisted into the air, clearly visible to passing ships, contained in a metal basket, thus reducing the risk of setting the wooden structure alight. 

This was one of three of a kind that marked the shipping channel from the North Sea down into the Baltic - an important but treacherous route for Danish vessels, especially in the days of sail. This one defintely has a quaint, olde worlde look to it.
A short distance further north, but in sight of each other, is another lighthouse; Det hvide fyr (the white lighthouse). This looks altogether more modern, even with its lantern removed:

(Photo attribution: by Arnoldius (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

The white lighthouse served Skagen from 1747 to 1858. The first Danish lighthouse to be built of stone, it was originally red brick until it was whitewashed at the beginning of the 19th century. It must have originally had another name! Initially coal fired, rapeseed oil was later burned.

The third lighthouse on this small peninsula is the Skagen Lighthouse, also known as the Grey Lighthouse (Skagen fyr; det grå fyr).

This lighthouse came into use in 1858 and is still in use. It is impossible to tell from the photographs, of course, but at 46 metres tall, it is more than twice the height of its predecessor. The original parafin lamp was replaced by a 1,000 watt and then a 1,500 watt sodium lamp. It's not difficult to imagine the progress towards safety at sea that these developments must have made over the years. Having seen an old chart of shipwrecks clustered at the tip of Jutland, I know how necessary that was.
What is fascinating at Skagen, is having these three very different lighthouses from different eras all in view at once; testament to the importance of warning ships of the dangers of the peninsula through the centuries and to people's continual striving to improve the system for doing so.

Incidentally, the Skagen lighthouse is now also home to a migratory bird reserve with hides and an interactive museum inside. An excellent double use for the building.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

‘Algernon and Ernest’s Excellent Adventure’ by Lesley Downer

In October 1866 a young man called Algernon Mitford arrived in Japan. ‘I found myself in a world younger by six centuries than that which I had left behind,’ he recalled. Like the eponymous heroes of the 1989 film ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’, he had stepped into a time machine, but in his case, his experiences were real.

The extraordinary world that Mitford found himself in is the setting for The Shogun’s Queen as well as the other Shogun Quartet novels. One of the most exciting parts of my research was reading Mitford’s Memories. His writing is so vivid, fresh and full of life that he brings alive that Japan of a century and a half ago that was even then on the brink of disappearing.
Algernon Freeman Mitford
portrait by 
Samuel Lawrence, 1865

Japan had been largely closed to outsiders for 250 years, until 1853 when the American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived to force open its doors. Just eight years had passed since 1858 when a treaty was negotiated permitting westerners to visit, trade and settle in a few specific ports.
Ernest Satow 1869

Algernon - the grandfather of the famous Mitford sisters - was 29 years old and had been posted to Japan to join the newly established British Legation under Sir Harry Parkes. He had paid his own way. In those days you had to have private means to be a diplomat.

Another of the officials at the legation was the 23 year old Ernest Satow, from Clapton. He’d arrived in Japan in 1862 and was fluent in written and spoken Japanese. The two became firm friends. Satow, too, later wrote his memoirs, a gripping account entitled A Diplomat in Japan.

At the time there were few westerners in Japan and most were confined to the heaving port of Yokohama. In those days Yokohama was like a wild west gold rush town, populated largely by unscrupulous adventurers who’d gravitated there, pretending to be merchants or traders, out to make a quick buck by fair means or foul. The only westerners allowed to live and travel outside the port were diplomats attached to the legation - like Mitford and Satow.

'younger by six centuries' pic from Rutherford Alcock
The Capital of the Tykoon 1863
After several of their small wooden houses had burnt down in the regular fires that took place, the two set up house in Edo, now Tokyo, in a little temple in Shinagawa, near the Legation, in the south east of the city, as far as possible from Edo Castle where the shogun lived. It was the roughest part of town, a ‘sinister and ill-famed quarter’. On a morning ride they sometimes passed a headless body lying at the side of the road, the aftermath of a vendetta execution.

'Like hobgoblins of a nightmare'
Samurai by Felice Beato
‘Edo,’ Mitford writes in his stirring prose, ‘was like the Edinburgh of the olden days with the cries of the clans and the clash of arms ringing in its wynds and alleys, and a Walter Scott is needed to tell the tale.’

Shinagawa was where the execution ground was. The standard mode of execution was crucifixion on a X shaped cross and Mitford writes of seeing the executioners, who were of the outcaste class, sitting peacefully smoking their spindly pipes, having finished their work for the day, with the corpse still hanging on the cross.

In Japan this was a time of enormous and dramatic change with the empire-building British doing their best to interfere in every means possible so as to advance Britain’s influence and power. Mitford and Satow hobnobbed with all the major players on both sides of what was rapidly developing into full scale civil war. They dined with the last shogun, Tokugawa Keiki, who features in The Shogun’s Queen. Mitford describes him as ‘the handsomest man that I saw during all the years that I was in Japan. ... He was a great noble if ever there was one.’ 
Tokugawa Keiki, the Last Shogun, 1867

Mitford also witnessed some of the fighting that brought about the fall of the shogunate and saw troops of samurai in full armour ‘with crested helms and fiercely moustachioed visors’ and streamers of horsehair floating to their waists, ‘like hobgoblins out of a nightmare.’

But the biggest adventure was a trip which the two took overland through territory which no westerner had ever passed through before. They travelled by palanquin with a guard of twenty men. Crowds gathered to see what to their eyes were ‘strange wild beasts.’ 

Whenever the two were out of sight of people they walked though in order to preserve their dignity they had to squeeze back into their cramped and uncomfortable palanquins whenever they passed through a populated area.

They were nearing the end of their journey when they came to a hurdle. Impatient to reach their destination, Osaka, they had decided to take a short cut. But the officials they met up with that night argued incessantly that they should take the regular route, which was longer. The officials dreamt up all sorts of arguments but Mitford and Satow were well aware of the real reason - to keep them away from the sacred city of Kyoto which no westerner had ever been allowed to visit and which would be defiled even by their proximity.

'cramped and uncomfortable' - palanquin
Eventually Mitford, exasperated, demanded that the officials put their arguments in writing and said that if they did so they would comply with their demands. The officials did so and the two men reluctantly took the longer route. 

They reached Osaka two days later, having been on the road for 15 days. Only then did they learn by chance that there had been four hundred samurai lying in wait along the shorter route to ambush them, intending to cut them down to punish them for defiling the neighbourhood of the sacred city. ‘Had we taken the route which we proposed we should have been dead men,’ Mitford wrote.

Unknowingly the Japanese officials had saved their lives.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun's Queen, set in the world of Mitford’s Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see