Sunday, 26 October 2014

Carolingian Crystal and Tower of London poppies

I was in London again this last week with a couple of old friends. We meet regularly and get out and about quite a bit. This time the focus was the Ancient Lives exhibition at the British Museum. Eight of the museum's mummies were on display, having recently undergone intensive body scanning. They were fascinating but I came away thinking that if time travel was possible, an enterprising dentist could net himself a fortune by selling oral hygiene products to ancient Egyptians. Every adult mummy had, in life, suffered dreadfully from serious abcesses.

As it took just an hour to 'do' the Ancient Lives exhibition, we wandered upstairs to Room 41 to view Radwald's treasure from Sutton Hoo,  particularly those wonderful garnet and gold cloisonne decorations. It was also an opportunity to say hello again to the 12th Century Lewis Chessmen we'd last met at the the Viking exhibition a year ago. I do so admire the elaborately carved backs of the thrones.  

Superb stuff, but, in the same room, something else caught my eye. It was love a first sight. A huge and beautifully crafted piece of rock crystal. Called the Carolingian Crystal, it was created in the mid-9th Century and has associations with the court school of Charles the Bald. It was probably gifted to the Abbey of St Denis in France. No small jewel this. It has to be 9 inches in height at least. Stunning.

Our trip back to Waterloo was via the Tower of London to see the ceramic poppies. This was a sight spoiled for me by the rumour that the percentage of the profit going to charities from their sale is not as great as those members of the public who are buying them might have hoped. I couldn't get out of my mind that Monty Python sketch where John Cleese, playing a merchant banker, interviews charity collector Terry Jones. I'm sure it'll be on youtube somewhere.

Saying that, it was a remarkable sight, and being so close to the pier by the Thames at the Tower, we were able to take one of the Thames river clippers back to the London Eye and have a bite to eat on the embankment before catching our trains home. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Cowan Bridge and the Brontes

I've always been fascinated by the Bronte family.  Their lives, I feel, had as much drama as their fiction. The tragedy of their mother's early death from cancer was their creative 'big bang', causing them to cling together in a mutual dependency which lasted throughout their short lives. 

It should never be forgotten that there were originally six children - Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne - all under eight when Maria (Branwell) Bronte died in 1821. Is it any wonder therefore that the Rev Patrick Bronte's proposals of marriage to three separate women should have been turned down. It was his wife's sister Elizabeth (Aunt Branwell to the children) who took over the running of his household.  

The Rev Bronte was not a wealthy man so when looking to educate four of his daughters, he turned to a charitable foundation - the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge. Founded in 1824 and designed to house some 60 pupils, it was later fictionalised by Charlotte as Lowood (Jane Eyre). Above is what remains of the school buildings. Originally they were a cluster of 18th Century cottages converted for the purpose. They are just a stone's thrown from the River Leck and the bridge with spans it. Rev William Carus Wilson, the school's founder, had two wings built but they no longer survive. It seems the cottages reverted to their original function quite some time ago. Below is the Leck, viewed from the bridge.

£14 was the annual fee for each child. Maria (10) and Elizabeth (9) were the first to be boarded on 21 July 1824, followed a month later by Charlotte. The Rev Bronte can have had no concerns about their welfare for in November, Emily (not yet 7) joined them. She was the school's 44th pupil. But the winter took its toll. Maria fell ill in Feb 1825 and the Rev Bronte fetched her home. She died in May. That same month Elizabeth fell ill and went home. She must have been very sick because, on 1 June, the school sent Charlotte and Emily away to the seaside at Morecambe Bay from where their father collected them the following day. Two weeks' later Elizabeth was dead. Charlotte and Emily never returned to the school. During their time there, disease (consumption and typhoid) claimed the lives not only of their two oldest sisters, but of many of their fellow pupils, some of whom are buried in Tunstall churchyard. 

Cowan Bridge certainly has a period feel to it. The buildings clustered around it and alongside the Leck are 18th Century and pre-date the founding of the school, which lasted less than ten years at that location. In 1833 it moved to premises in Casterton. As a memorial to the Bronte childrens' time there, a plaque has been erected on the wall facing the main road:

All the above photos were taken two weeks ago on my way back from Scotland via Ravenstonedale in Cumbria. Information about the school can be found in Winifred Gerin's biography of Charlotte, first published in 1967. 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

A Walk through Georgian Westminster

Yesterday, on Westminster Bridge, elbowed by passing sightseers, it would have been difficult to imagine the scenes on the Thames 200 years ago if it hadn't been for the knowledgeable input of our guides, historical authors Louise Allen and Sarah Mallory. The walk was part of 'Writing Historical Fiction - the Westminster Way' organised by Louise and Westminster Archives.

It felt odd standing in that particular place because if the year had been 1745, we'd all have been in the drink. The first Westminster Bridge wasn't built until 1746 when the Houses of Parliament seen here would have looked very different (see p.70 of Louise's 'Walking Jane Austen's London'). How far would Mr Wordsworth have got in 1802 with his poem 'Upon Westminster Bridge' if he'd been writing it today? He might have managed 'Earth has not anyth...' before the pencil was jostled from his fingers by some bloke using thimblerig (find the pea) to con a gullible tourist. The game was surely known to the Georgians, who probably played with similar intent.  

Horse Guards provided a view of some beautiful Grade 1 listed buildings of between 1751 and 1753. The parade ground above was large enough the enable the Duke of Wellington's funeral procession to form in 1852 before making its way to St Paul's Cathedral where he is interred. Nearby, in Downing Street, was the Colonial Office. There, in 1805, took place the only recorded meeting between him and Lord Nelson. I'd have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that one!

The Parade Ground is home to a couple of remarkable military survivors - a mid 16th century Turkish cannon captured by the British in 1801 from Napoleon's forces in Alexandria (left), and a mortar taken at the battle of Salamanca in 1812, during the British Army's long Peninsular campaign. Functional items in their time but, my, what embellishments their carriages have endured since -the first bears a crocodile, pyramids and Britannia, while the mortar is supported on a Chinese dragon.

The mortar was presented to the Prince Regent by a grateful Spanish Nation. Referred to as 'The Regent's Bomb', the caricaturists of the time had a field day with the 'Regent's Bum.' The carriage was made at Woolwich Arsenal.

Horse Guards is bordered on one side by St James' Park, at night the haunt of Georgian prostitutes. The lake is home to an enormous variety of wildfowl, and to Duck Island.

Duck Island existed in the reign of Charles II, who appointed a court favourite as its Governor. It appears to have been William III who first built a cottage there. Over the years the island fell into disuse, but was restored in the 1820s when the park was landscaped by John Nash. The cottage put in a reappearance soon afterwards. Below is how it looks today. 

One surprise was seeing pelicans. Apparently, in 1664, a Russian ambassador presented a pair to Charles II. They've been in residence ever since - not the same ones, of course. The present pelicans are more modern. In fact, the one I snapped yesterday has a positively punk look about him.
Our group strolled back to Westminster Archives from Birdcage Walk, so named because of the Royal Menagerie and Aviary kept there by James I and Charles II. 

On the route we noticed a few surviving Georgian buildings, many overshadowed and over looked by more modern constructions. 

What a beauty that bow-fronted corner building is (to the left). The building on the right is a pub named for two sedan chairmen. If you look closely you can see them in the sign between the two first floor windows. This pub was first established in 1683. The current building dates to the mid 18th Century. 

I  must say a massive thank to the staff at Westminster Archives, to Sarah Mallory as our group tour guide, and particularly to Louise Allen for her afternoon talk on how writers of historical fiction can get the best out of archival sources. I had a really enjoyable day. And what fun it was trying to make my way back to Waterloo Station. Westminster was gridlocked by what appeared to be an amalgamation of protesting groups. By 4.30pm the bridge was festooned with banners. What would Wordsworth have made of it?    

Friday, 5 September 2014

I'm still getting used to blogging and uploading pictures, so a few more photos of Lamorran Gardens, and of Cornwall in general, might be in order.

Above is the view from Lamorran Gardens over St Mawes.

The gardens are beautifully laid out. You follow the steep and narrow paths which open up into grottos with statuary, just like the one above. Delightful.

And Cornwall wouldn't be Cornwall without views like this. The photo was taken near the Levant Mine north of Botallack. No doubt we'll be seeing many scenes like this on television next year when the new Poldark is shown. 

And then there's archaeological sites like Carn Euny, Shown above in the fogou.

And to finish, a typical Cornish coastal village scene - Mousehole. Now I need to stop procrastinating and get on with finishing my story.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

My first post so I'm going to try to upload a photo of Lamorran Gardens in Cornwall

And I did it! But not until I changed computers. Different browser perhaps? And Let's go with Arial font (Normal).