Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Herbs, Worts and all!

It is impossible to write of herbs without writing of the men and women who discovered the plants and dared to taste them for the first time. Among them were the food assayers, the simplers, the tasters, the indigenous healers who had learnt by observing, testing and tasting the seeds, leaves, tubers and fruits of the land and hedgerows.

Sick animals would change their food preferences to nibble at bitter herbs they would normally reject, birds would be observed eating seeds, animals carefully foraging – would open new doors to the “wise women”, who prescribed herbal remedies often with spells and enchantments, before becoming targets of the witch hysteria.

The study of herbs goes back as far as 5,000 BC, with the ancient Greek and Roman medicinal practices being preserved in the writings of Hippocrates and Galen. Galen’s “Die Materia Medica” being the first authoritative reference compendium published in the 1st century AD, remained together with Hippocrates’ “Historia Plantarum”, written in the fourth century BC, the two definitive works that herbalists and botanists relied on into the 17th century.

Galen, had on becoming independently wealthy, in 129AD, from a father whom he described as a “highly amiable, just, good and benevolent man” – but who was known to have eclectic interests including, philosophy, mathematics, logic, astronomy, agriculture and literature -and who had brought his son up to study and learn all things, followed the advice he found in Hippocrates’ teaching.

The Arms of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, whose motto is Opiferque Per Orbem Dicor, a Latin reference, meaning I Am Called a Bringer of Help Throughout the World, to the Greek deity Apollo.

He travelled widely in the Mediterranean and western Asia exposing himself to various schools of thought in medicine. He became physician to the gladiators of the High Priest of Asia, developing his skills as to the importance of diet, fitness, hygiene and preventative measures, as well as living anatomy – referring to wounds as “windows into the body”.

These he recorded in his Die Materia Medica, but which would have been unavailable to most mortal men for many centuries. The early discoverers would have continued searching, watching, trying and tasting and must have suffered many a catastrophe in gaining the knowledge that provided healing plants, plants for the pot, wild herbs for the gardeners, new resources for spinning and weaving, extraction of dyes, and colours and fixatives for the artists palettes etc as times moved on.

With the settlement of villages beside the monasteries, noble houses and the courts of the Crowns, provisions for the peoples were essential, and this brought about the planting of gardens of all sorts: physic gardens, herb gardens, orchards, fruit and vegetable plots and the spread of crop planting in fields. Writing and recording started to become more common place and travellers, apothecaries, merchants all would have started to spread this 'new' learning.

This pestle and mortar (dated 1662) belonged to the Apothecary John Battersby of Fenchurch Street. He became Master of the Society (1674/5) and was a friend of Samuel Pepys

Witchcraft and magic, darkness and superstition, still had to be overcome, as well as the terror of the plague, ravaging crop diseases (leading to the necessity at times of practicing of cannabilism!), human spite and human fear over the centuries leading to wars over land, spices and today even plants in the oceans.

It was not until three remarkable men, John Gerard, John Parkinson and Nicholas Culpeper started to grow distrustful of magic, and began to learn by experience – back to the testers and triallers of yore – known in those days as “simplers”.

A simple had become a medicinal herb (from the simplers who had scoured the land for plant, seed and herb restoratives) – the plant’s active properties required to be separated – four basic procedures were established, with the resulting preparations being known as decoctions, infusions, dilutions and extracts.
John Gerard 1545 – 1612

Gerard having travelled widely to eastern europe became the director of Lord Burleigh’s gardens in London and, in 1597, wrote his “The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes” – however medieval botanical texts are fascinating for their plethora of information and illustrations – but beware the veracity between fact and legend!

Parkinson followed in the late 1500s, having been an apprentice to an apothecary, he worked his way up to be one of the founders of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and was later botanist to King Charles I. He wrote two monumental works - one generally describing the proper cultivation of plants and the other an exceptional treatise of English plants.

Illustrations of parts of an oak tree from page 1386 of Theatrum Botanicum (1640) - by John Parkinson.

Culpeper is the last of these three herbalists and early botanists, spending most of life outdoors cataloguing hundreds of medicinal plants, before publishing two books in the early 1650s: “The English Physitian” and the “Complete Herbal”, both containing a rich store of pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge.

Many of these herbs and plants we continue to use today, and which are now being looked at with new eyes using technological advances to ascertain their medicinal and health properties; while the internet increases accessibility for peoples to look through the records, papers, drawings and other documentation to find ‘new’ cures.

The title page of The English Physitian – by Culpeper

A word with the suffix “–wort” is often very old, as the old English word “wyrt” derived from its German origins for ‘root’, and was often used in the names of herbs and plants that had medicinal uses. The old-fashioned word ‘wort’ has a comfortable if antique sound, but for many people today the word ‘herb’ implies cleanliness and instils confidence!

On this wonderful sunny day in June - thank you for delivering our letter - my mother has a huge knowledge of plants, and even to this day will remember names of flowers .. yesterday it was 'scabeous' - a beautiful skyblue and white flower; earlier in the year it was 'subhirtella' - the latin for prunus! Well - that's my Mum! I didn't know those .. in fact my knowledge is growing, as you'd expect as I try to bring different bunches of fresh flowers for her room. So today - she will be pleased to have this background. Equally she reminds me to keep looking for names we both don't know! I laugh to say I've forgotten and she laughs and says you're too young to forget?!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Great escapes - or not? ... cows, swine, swans, owls

.... escaping to live on ... Floss, the highland cow, escaped from her farm in Yorkshire last year – shortly before she was due to be slaughtered ... and has been given a stay of execution from the abattoir. Floss was on the run for nine months covering an estimated 60 miles as she headed south into Lincolnshire.

Floss the Highland Cow - photocredit Archant - courtesy The Daily Mail

I wonder if Floss passed through Swinefleet village, which is just outside Goole on the banks of the Ouse River, as it winds down towards the Humber estuary? The name Swinefleet amused me .. but there’s very little historical information except it had a chapel, and over the last 150 years its population has decreased by 400 souls.

A small fleet, in a creek, on the salt marshes

There must have been herds of swine feeding off the marshes, along the creek, and fleets (rivulets), from the times the early populations started to settle in small villages around the large and grand houses of the nobility.

Swinefleet village

Floss survived by living off council tips and stolen hay, eventually settling – very sensibly – on a batch of land used for paintballing. Two local women raised £500 to buy Floss from her owner and sent her to an animal sanctuary ... where she’ll live out her days. Great story .. the escaping highland cow ..

Highland cattle – collectively known as a ‘fold’

Highland cattle are an ancient breed of cattle and have been exported around the world – especially to Australia and North America; they’re known as a hardy breed due to the rugged nature of the Scottish Highlands and their ability to browse on steep hill sides.

Pigs escaping - photo credit Ross Parry – courtesy The Telegraph

These swine weren’t quite so lucky ... about 180 pigs charged down the middle of a road after their lorry overturned. Sadly they were rounded up and taken off to the Bacon Factory after all .. so their bacon was not saved.

Another unfortunate creature is a pig in the zoo in Kabul, Afghanistan, who’s been put into solitary confinement because of fears that it might spread swine ‘flu; it is being kept as a curiosity in a country where pork is illegal – for now the pig is under quarantine: usually he spends his time with goats and deer.

‘Khanzir’ was given by the Chinese government, who seem to have supplied most of the animals and fish for the zoo– it appears that the zoo is a popular place for Afghanis to visit at the weekend.

Fights in the skies .. two amazing battles – one here in the north of England: when the barn owl kept catching voles and mice, but every time the Kestrel attacked it. It was during our icy winter and food must have been scarce at night – the normal hunting time for barn owls.

Kestrel and Barn Owl – taken by Damian Waters (c/o The Saturday Times)

Two kestrel obviously thought their luck was in and the poor barn owl had to drop its prey just to escape; until the kestrel, as daytime hunters, had had enough and then the owl was able to sort its own life out! Aren’t they fantastic pictures?

In another battle of the skies here’s an eagle attacking a swan – Tom Carver from Lakelse Lake, British Columbia watched in amazement as the Bald Eagle attacked the Trumpeter Swan; in the end the swan escapes, plummets to the lake, splashes up and swims away, no doubt shaking its feathers somewhat .. the eagle has no lunch!

Trumpeter Swan and Bald Eagle

The Bald Eagle is the national bird of the United States of America. It is one of the country's most recognizable symbols, and appears on most of its official seals, including the Seal of the President of the United States.

So some are fleet of foot, some are swinishly foolhardy, some are unfortunate - some are not, and some will have a happy retirement.

Dear Mr Postman – thank you for bringing us these stories .. my mother loves hearing short fun stories, especially if there’s a twist in the tale; a cousin from Vancouver Island sent us the eagle and the swan picture – and I printed them up, and we have them on the wall above the curtain pelmet.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Starchy Lords and Ladies ...

The word Lord can be traced back to the Old English word 'hlāford' which originated from 'hlāfweard' meaning 'bread keeper' or 'loaf-ward', reflecting the Germanic tribal custom of a chieftain providing food for his followers; Lady, the female equivalent, originates from a similar structure, believed to have originally meant 'loaf-kneader' or ’bread maker’ and hence the commonly used term today “breadwinner”.

Lords and Ladies;
Wild Arum

In feudalism, a lord has aristocratic rank, having control over a portion of land, its produce and labour of the serfs living thereon, and as part of that heritage of feudalism, a ‘lord’ can generally refer to superiors of many kinds, for example landlord.

The Queen as Lord of Mann

However, this is not universal, as the Lord of Mann and female Lord Mayors are examples of women who are styled 'lord'. In the Isle of Mann, the title is now Lord of Mann, regardless of the gender of the person, who is the Island’s Lord Proprietor and head of state – at the moment Queen Elizabeth II. Queen Victoria, however, required that she be styled as Lady of Mann! , while the Loyal Toast today is “The Queen, Lord of Mann.”

Coming from the earliest known Western Asian wheat fields, that staple of bread making, wheat, spread its glorious tufted waving fields across the landscape into Europe and the rest of the world well before the early Egyptian era coalesced around 3,100 BC.

Wheat flour contains a large amount of starch, being used as a thickening, stiffening or gluing agent when dissolved in warm water, giving wheatpaste, which certainly we used as children for sticking coloured paper together, when making Christmas decorations.

Wild arum, a common woodland plant, also known in the UK as Lords and Ladies, Jack in the Pulpit, Cuckoo-Pint, Cuckoo Flower, Starchwort and in America as Wake Robin, Dragon Root and Wild Turnip, amongst other wondrous names depending on the county or area of the British Isles you are in.

The name Jack in the Pulpit may well have been taken across the States by the Cornish as they exported their mining talents, and wild flower names, in the pioneering days. The majority of the names are some comment on the appearance of the plant’s flowering parts in the spring, with the Victorians probably calling it as politely as they could “Lords and Ladies”!

The Unicorn in Captivity – 1495 – 1505 – Metropolitan Museum of Art (tapestry): showing cuckoo-pint growing within the enclosure;

All parts of the wild arum plant can produce allergic reactions and in their green state in Spring at the time of the cuckoo in England, can be very poisonous and toxic to humans, though rodents and insects are drawn to the scent at its maturation and utilise its resources.

The large tubers are edible when baked, however they were also dried and turned into a kind of arrowroot for the process of thickening or clearing liquids – formerly known as Portland Sago, or Portland Arrowroot, but now obsolete. It was used like salop or salep (a working class drink popular before the introduction of tea or coffee).

Wild Arum diagram – 1. Leaves and Inflorescence, 2. Underground root-stock, 3. Lower part of spathe cut open, 4. Spike of fruits- showing in succession (from below) female flowers, male flowers, and sterile flowers forming a ring of hairs borne on the spadix

Despite the toxicity cuckoo-pint roots were once grown on a small industrial scale for starch production. Starchwort, for example, recalls the era when the dried and ground-up tubers were used as a substitute for starch in laundries.

Arum starch was used for stiffening ruffs in Elizabethan times, when we find the name Starchwort among the many names given to the plant.

John Gerard, in his Herball of 1597, says:
'The most pure and white starch is made of the rootes of the Cuckoo-pint, but most hurtful for the hands of the laundresse that have the handling of it, for it chappeth, blistereth, and maketh the hands rough and rugged and withall smarting.'

In parts of France, a custom existed of turning the mucilaginous juice of the plant into a substitute for soap, so that it could be used for laundry work. The starch from the arum was also used in powders for early cosmetics, as reports have it that it was used in Italy to remove freckles from the face and hands – before sense and sensibility set in.

Ruff of c. 1575.
Detail from the Darnley Portrait of Elizabeth I.
Starchy Lords and Ladies ruling their lands, naming the plants, providing the breads for their clans, ensuring their detachable ruffs were well starched , finding the wherewithal to investigate, search out and develop new ideas for future generations of bread winners to use – all go to show how much interweaving there is in our historical development.

Thank you Mr Postman for dropping this letter off for us – I remember starching my skirts and my father having his collars starched when I was growing up – I have to say I’m glad it didn’t last too long! Also the thought of the laundry women of old, does not make for a pretty picture .. My starching left much to be desired and I expect my mother will laugh and remember having to do it for me ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Which is the fastest, highest ... and who is the oldest man in the world?

Which is the fastest game bird in Europe .. the koshin golden plover or the grouse? Sir Hugh Beaver, the Managing Director of Guinness Brewery, posed this question in 1951 during a shooting party in North Slob (the large mud flat on the north shore of the River Slaney), County Wexford, Ireland.

Danish seamen, painted mid-twelfth century.

No wonder the English have such a rich language .. I never knew where the word ‘slob’ came from – funnily enough as children, we all used to call each other ‘slob’ and still do sometimes!! Back to slob! – the estuary of the River Slaney, in the Viking era (approx 780 – 1030 AD), was an inlet of mudflats, the Vikings naming the city Wexford from their Norse words “Waes Fjord” for mud flat, the Slobs being named from the Irish word ‘slab’ meaning mud.

This question of the fastest bird became the subject for discussion over dinner, with the realisation that the question simply could not be answered, along with lots of others over which arguments would ensue and honour could never be satisfied as there was no definitive reference book to check out the facts.

Beaver’s idea of such a book became reality when twins Norris and Ross McWhirter, who had been running a fact-finding agency, were commissioned to compile what would become The Guinness Book of Records in 1954. In 1955 it had become a British bestseller and by Christmas that year had sold 70,000 copies.

The American edition was launched in 1956, when it was realised that the book supplying answers to numerous questions might prove popular. The initial publication became a runaway success being published annually, containing an internationally recognised collection of world records, both human achievements and the extremes of the natural world, while the book itself holds a world record, as the best-selling copyrighted series of all time.

Henry Allingham, who lived in Eastbourne where I now live, and continues to live in Sussex is an amazing man, who now features in the Guinness Book of Records, as the world’s oldest man born in 1896, having just celebrated his birthday on June 6 he is now 113 years old. The previous incumbent, Tomoji Tanabe, died in his sleep at his home in Japan, also at the age of 113.

Gareth Fuller/PA photo credit Henry Allingham turned 113 on June 6 c/o The Times

Mr Allingham is twenty five years older than my mother, 88, which is considered a whole generation, and which fact does make me consider all that he has lived through. His terminally ill mother persuaded him not to sign up as soon as war broke out in 1914, when he would have been would have been 18, but immediately she died in 1915 he promptly enlisted.

He has, as you might expect, got many ‘lasts’ to his name – however it is his spryness that the nation sees – he lived on his own until he was 110, and now lives in St Dunstan’s Care Home for the Blind; between his 110th and 111th birthdays he attended 60 public events, and still continues to participate in commemorative functions and as an honoured guest at various events.

Personnel of No 1 Squadron RNAS in late 1914

As the last surviving member of the Royal Naval Air Service and the last living founder member of the Royal Air Force, Mr Allingham has also been made an honorary member of the Fleet Air Arm Association, as well as being decorated many times.

He has been an active participant in telling the World War I Veterans’ stories so that future generations will not forget; he is visited by RAF trainee technicians, who despite their almost 90 years age difference, display the bond of respect that they have for each other.

Despite his failing eyesight he is reportedly in good health, with visitors remarking on his memory and voice – this we can hear when he is interviewed. Up until he was 110 he was able to walk, but nowadays he sits in his wheel chair but can recall events from over 100 years ago – so no failing memory there, despite being physically fairly frail!

Kitchener's Last Volunteer: The Life of Henry Allingham, the Oldest Surviving Veteran of the Great War (available from Amazon)

I just thought I would mention a very! few milestones that have occurred in the past 113 years and let you have a few of the quotes that Mr Allingham is said to have made regarding his longevity and life in general.

As a boy of 7 and 8 he remembers watching WG Grace play cricket, and when he was 6 he recalls the City Imperial Volunteers return from the Second Boer War in 1902. His second job at a Car Body Makers, was when cars were put together using separate component parts – coach building being one of them (I know my grandfather used this method for purchasing a car in the early 1920s, by selecting the coach work separately).

His longest stint of employment in 1934 was with the Ford Motor Company, which had only just opened its first plant in England in 1931, eventually retiring in 1960. Although not formally qualified he has been recognised by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers who presented him with a Chartered Engineer award on 19 December 2008.

Henry had the following to say about the award: "Since entering the engineering profession I always hoped to become a chartered engineer, but when I was younger we just couldn’t afford it. It’s something I never thought would happen for me, so to receive this honorary certificate from IMechE is a lifetime’s goal finally realised. I am very grateful to the Institution for presenting me with the award.” It’s never too late!

1896 Ford Quadricycle - courtesy Ford Archives

Mr Allingham credits "cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women — and a good sense of humour" for his longevity!

He was quoted as saying "They (the veterans) have given all they have got for the country ... I owe them ... we all owe them."

On his 111th birthday asked how it felt, Allingham replied, "I'm pleased to be seeing another tomorrow. It's just the same as it was as at any age, it's no different. I'm happy to be alive and I'm looking forward to the celebrations. I never imagined I'd get to 111.

When asked the secret of his long life, Allingham said: "I don't know, but I would say be as good as you possibly can."

The following quote when the distinction for being the oldest man in the world to be alive was sinking in, was made when a friend said “Henry thinks he has got to a time where he is more than ready to go” – “but as his mother used to say ‘Wait to be asked, Henry, wait to be asked’”.

A special man with a relevancy to us today with stories to tell through his books, and to his many family members – most of whom now live the United States – where he even has one great-great-great-grandchild!!

He has been through and seen so much during his lifetime including the first publication of The Guinness Book of World Records when he was 58, and now 55 years later he is in it himself, as a living legend.

Dear Mr Postman – I know my mother will be fascinated by this .. and to think that he has lived all these years, she has always wanted to live on to be 100 - it’s sad that her quality of life is not as good as Mr Allingham’s .. but she will enjoy the story and will be stimulated to remember things occurring in her lifetime.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Sausage Tree

If you can have pastry rocks, I guess you can have sausage trees? These magnificent flowering and fruited plants are part of a large botanical family now in the Old World as well as the New World, which includes lianas. The sausage tree occurs throughout tropical Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

Its botanical name of Kigelia comes from a Mozambican bantu name, while the common name Sausage Tree refers to the long sausage-like fruit, which in Afrikaans is “Worsboom” meaning, believe it or not, sausage tree! Apparently in Arabic the name means “the father of kit bags” .. and would be the name used in northern Africa.

I saw them quite often in Southern Africa – though they were planted well away from where they might cause harm .. as one fruiting drop could cause serious damage to cars, or people! The tree can grow to heights of 70 foot (20m).

They also grow all over Botswana, especially in the Okavango Delta – that wonderful inland delta, which I have been privileged to visit quite a few times, where the wildlife live in relative freedom. Perhaps I even stood under this tree in Botswana waiting for a flight further into the Delta and another camp.

The animals make use of the trees in various ways – the trunks are used as rubbing posts by the Elephant, they graze the foliage Kudu; the fruits are pecked at for their seeds by a whole range of birds, including Parrots, while the fruit is eaten by several species of mammals, including Baboons, Warthogs, Elephants, Giraffes, Hippopotami, Monkeys and Porcupines – the seeds being dispersed in their dung.

In southern Africa they are widely used as shade trees and as they are one of the first species to flower in the southern hemisphere’s spring (August to October) they are a huge early resource for insects and birds. The tree is widely grown as an ornamental in tropical regions for its decorative flowers and unusual fruits, being found for example in Australia where the cockatoos love them, and California.

In African herbal medicine the fruit is believed to be a cure for a wide range of ailments, from rheumatism, snakebites, evil spirits, syphilis and even tornadoes! However studies are continuing to see what medical attributes may occur from the fruits of the tree – it has been shown to kill melanoma cancer cells, and is being used in various skin care treatments, for instance sores and ulcers.

While the fruit has known antibacterial properties, today beauty products and skin ointments are prepared from the fruit extract. However the fresh fruit is poisonous and strongly purgative, but after drying, roasting or fermenting it can be consumed – the Africans make a beverage similar to beer from it.

The rough wood is used for shelving, and boxes, while in Botswana and Zimbabwe the wood is used for the traditional style of canoe, called a makoro. In the Delta the makoros are propelled through the shallow waters with the use of a pole, in a similar manner as punting.

Makoros are traditionally made by digging out the trunk of a large straight tree, such as an ebony tree or the sausage tree! It is a wonderful way of being transported around the swamp to be able to see the wildlife in its natural habitat – just as long as you make sure you stay well away from hippos .. who can easily attack the vulnerable boats if they feel threatened. Just the silent swish of water, and the drips off the poles as they are raised and pushed down to propel the punt along – with the cries of the birds, the roars and gentle barking of various animals as they roam their landscape.

The Afrikaans sausage, boerewors, very popular in Southern African cuisine, comes from the Afrikaans words ‘boer’ (meaning farmer) and ‘wors’ (meaning sausage). This type of food was used by the Boers as they trekked across the mountain ranges and explored the southern African country.

The fresh game meats were finely chopped, mixed with spices, preserved with salt and vinegar, and packed in sausage casings – and wound into a spiral before being cooked over an open fire. As there would always be more than could be used immediately and, as two hundred years ago, food could not be kept fresh, a cured sausage was made and was called dröe wors (dried sausage), in a similar process to biltong – often known as jerky.

Now-a-days the traditional boerewors is made with minced beef, but as with other sausages around the world, other combinations are made; however the spiral is the ‘trade mark’ sales pack.

So if you visit Africa stay away from fruiting sausage trees – but enjoy your boerewors as you are punted silently in your carved out sausage tree through the delta channels!
Thank you Mr Postman .. it's such a wonderful day here - and this would be just glorious. I am sure my mother will love this story - as she so enjoyed her holidays in Africa .. happy memories with lots of laughter ..
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Sunday, 21 June 2009

A place of sun worship, a healing sanctuary, a sacred burial site, or something different altogether?

Mystery surrounds this 5,000 year old monument - Stonehenge is a powerful reminder of the once-great peoples of the late Stone and Bronze Ages. Erected between 3,000 BC and 1,600 BC, a number of the stones were carried hundreds of miles over land and sea, while antlers and bones were used to dig the pits that hold the stones.

The surrounding landscape is also fascinating. It contains huge prehistoric monuments, stretching over several kilometres, massive earthwork enclosures, and hundreds of burial mounds. The whole World Heritage Site covers more than 2,600 hectares and includes 415 archaeological sites protected by scheduling, with Stonehenge sitting at the centre of this densest complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England.

The name derives from Old English ‘stan’ for stone and ‘hengen’ in reference to something hung up, in this case the horizontal lintel stones and consists of an outer circle of local sarsen stones, and two inner circles of Blue Stones. From the centre of Stonehenge the Mid Summer Solstice Sun rises over the Hele Stone (helios for sun), which stands in isolation outside the circles.

Of the more than nine hundred stone rings existing in the British Isles, Stonehenge is the most well known. The megalithic monuments of Britain and Europe predate those of the eastern Mediterranean, Egyptian, Mycenaean and Greek cultures. The Druids however had nothing to do with the construction of the stone rings, they are a priestly and learned class and are known to have conducted their ritual activities mostly in sacred forest groves.

Sarsen stones (left) are the remnants of a hard dense cap of sandstone – these blocks ‘moved’ in a downslope “flow” across the landscape, through the process of ‘solifluction’, which occurred in areas of periglacial environment. These huge stones up to eighteen feet in length and up to twenty five tons in weight are found in the old Saxon area of Wessex (SW England), especially around the Stonehenge area.

The term "Bluestone" in Britain is used in a loose sense to cover all of the "foreign" stones at Stonehenge. It is a "convenience" label rather than a geological term, since at least 20 different rock types are represented. The bluestones at Stonehenge were placed there during the third phase of construction around 2300 BC. The stones weigh between 2 and 4 tons each.

The majority of them are believed to have been brought from the Preseli Hills (below), about 250 miles away in Wales, either through glaciation (glacial erratic theory) or through humans organizing their transportation. If a glacier transported the stones, then it must have been the Irish Sea Glacier. Recently the archaeological find of the Boscombe Bowmen nearby has been cited in support of the human transport theory, while new glacier modelling supports the erratic theory.

Unlike the stones of the main monument the Hele Stone is unworked, the top of the stone is naturally pointed. It’s a huge stone measuring around 20 feet long, of which 4 feet are buried, 8 feet wide,7 feet thick and weighs around 35 tons!

Stonehenge was mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100 – 1155) in his (Historia Regum Britanniae), when Uther Pendragon (a legendary king and father of King Arthur) is said to have spent time there. His “Histories of the Kings of Briton” appears to be a mix and match account incorporating others’ histories (eg the Venerable Bede) of both fact and fiction.

The circle was aligned with the midsummer sunrise, the midwinter sunset, and the most southerly rising and northerly setting of the moon. The ground plan and structural engineering of Stonehenge incorporate sophisticated mathematical and geometrical understandings on the part of its builders.

Modern techniques in archaeology, and the series of recent digs, have helped to shape new theories about the stones, but their ultimate purpose remains a fascinating and enduring mystery.

Stonehenge was simultaneously used for both astronomical observation and ritual function. By gathering data regarding the movement of celestial bodies, the Stonehenge observations were used to indicate appropriate periods in the annual ritual cycle. During those periods, among them being the solstices, equinoxes and different lunar days, festivals and ceremonies were held.

Archaeoastronomy is the belief that early peoples, in even a primitive state of intellectual advancement, took notice of the sky and its changes. Stonehenge is a true attestment to early astronomy and its accomplishments. In 1740 William Stukeley, (doctor and antiquarian) was probably the first to apply archaeoastronomical ideas to Stonehenge.

Stonehenge stands as a lasting testimony to the people who built it, in several phases between 3,000 and 1,600 BC: amazing feat of engineering and arguably the most sophisticated stone circle in the world.
An inward view of Stonehenge from August, 1722 (William Stukeley)
Last night 35,000 gathered to herald the dawn of the 2009 summer solstice, when the sun reaches its extreme northern point in the ecliptic and appears to stand still (Latin ‘sol’ = sun; ‘sistit’ = stands) before it turns back on its apparent course, the track in the heavens along which the sun appears to perform its annual march.

Dear Mr Postman .. have you been to Stonehenge? We used to go quite often as it was on our route, before the roads were improved, on our journey from Surrey to Cornwall - it was a good stopping off point and place as kids we could run around.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Mutton Grand Prix and a Silver Stone

What a mix - stone weights, silver chisels, American millionaires, an ancient village, and yet another major invention in the last 130 years, trophies and sheep for starters.

The Silver Stone Trophy was originally designed and produced for the now defunct European (Ice) Hockey League (1997-2000) by Italian artist Enzo Bosi. It weighs seven kilograms in silver chisel, equivalent to one British stone (fourteen pounds), hence the name The Silver Stone. As of 2009, it is awarded to the winner of the Champions Hockey League.
The Silver Stone Trophy

The silver chiseller is a craftsman (specialising in jewellery and art and design) who embosses the metal giving it both volume and relief. The Artistic Industrial Museum in Naples, opened in 1882, distinguishes itself from other metropolitan museums, because it was founded with craft training workshops attached to the museum, where silver chiselling is taught.

An embossed mirror on display at the Artistic Industrial Museum

The village of Silverstone nestles in the former Whittlewood Forest, a medieval hunting forest in the south of the county of Northamptonshire, which is noted for its bluebells in mid-Spring.

The village is listed in the Domesday Book and in the Middle Ages its trade was primarily in timber through the practice of coppicing from the surrounding forest, while fish ponds to the north fed the villagers.

Grand Prix motor racing has its roots in organised automobile racing that began in France as far back as 1894. However Karl Benz, from Germany, generally is acknowledged as the inventor of the modern automobile. Motor racing quickly evolved from a simple road race from one town to the next, to endurance tests for car and driver.
Karl Benz's "Velo" model (1894) - entered into an early automobile race

Innovation and the drive of competition soon saw speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour (160 km/h), but because the races were held on open roads there were frequent accidents with the resulting fatalities of both drivers and spectators.

As a direct result of the enthusiasm with which the French public embraced the motor car, manufacturers were enthusiastic due to the possibility of using motor racing as a shop window for their cars.

The Gordon Bennett Cup
In 1900, James Gordon Bennett, Jr. the owner of the New York Herald newspaper and the International Herald Tribune, established the Gordon Bennett Cup. He hoped that the creation of an international event would drive automobile manufacturers to improve their cars. Each country was allowed to enter up to three cars, which had to be fully built in the country that they represented and entered by that country's automotive governing body.

England's 1903 team entry for the Gordon Bennett Cup
Bennett was primarily educated in France, and after some altercations in 1877 in New York he settled in Paris, launching the Paris edition of the New York Herald, titled The Paris Herald, the forerunner of the International Herald Tribune.

Grand Prix motor racing was first established in Britain by Henry Segrave, an American with an Irish father, at the Brooklands course in 1927, after he won the 1923 French Grand Prix driving a Delage 155B. Brooklands had been opened in 1907 as the first custom-built banked motor race circuit in the world, with Indianapolis opening a year later.
Delage DI 6-Seater Tourer 1925
Silverstone was first used for motorsport by an ad hoc group of friends who set up an impromptu race in September 1947. During the course of the race one of the racers, Maurice Geoghegan, was unfortunate enough to run over an errant sheep that had wandered onto the airfield. Both car and sheep were written off, and in the aftermath of this event the informal race became known as the Mutton Grand Prix!

Silverstone has hosted the race regularly since the start of the Formula One championship in 1950 (in which it was the first race of the first ever official World Championship) and every year since 1987; it alternated with Brands Hatch between 1964 and1986, and with Aintree (better known as a racecourse).

The 2009 Formula One Grand Prix season is well under way with most of the events taking place in Europe, Asia and Australia, with only one race in the Americas – in Brazil, the Canadian Grand Prix having been dropped this year.

However you may have noticed that Formula One, one of the grandest and most popular sports in the world, has been involved in a car crash of its own making. The governing body has collided in monumental fashion with eight of the leading teams.

Let’s hope for motor racing fans and the sport itself that the intense, vigorous, unpredictable sporting dynamic that is motor racing will prevail, as a delicate balance is struck between the two organisations.
Dear Mr Postman .. thank you for letting us have this letter - my mother loves watching Formula One, so she will be interested to hear about this ..
Hilary Melton-Butcher
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Friday, 19 June 2009

Music Hall artists, Caruso, the Vatican ....what's the connection?

Who spent his early years collecting music, recording music hall artists and operatic stars of the day, while also travelling continents to record indigenous music? Who was a young amateur musician and technophile, who could play by ear practically any instrument and badgered Columbia for a holiday job in the late 1880s?

Not Emile Berliner (right), who in 1888 cut the first new fangled flat gramophone record and a player to play it on, nor Thomas Edison who produced the cylinder playing phonograph – but Fred Gaisberg.

Gaisberg’s story really fascinated me and I thought it a tale worth telling – this is a synopsis of the man, who was meticulous in everything that he did, who had a huge curiosity and a voracious appetite for recording, while maintaining complete integrity in his dealings with the artists – ie he had an absence of self-consciousness, conceit or pompousness.. he let the performers record their song their way.

Columbia was the distribution and selling arm for Edison’s cylinder phonographs (see below), which he had intended to be used as a tool to aid stenographers in the Courts. In the meantime, the flat disk and player developed by Emile Berliner was aimed at the novelty market as a slot machine.

So Gaisberg, now working for Berliner, was sent over to London and arrived in the RMS Umbria sailing into Liverpool from New York in July 1898. This proved a momentous decision and transformed the gramophone from a novelty into the medium of maestros and divas, to say nothing of popular entertainers.

It was at this stage that Gaisberg realised that each country would have its own expectations for its music and for now, the cross cultures would not easily be accepted. So he set about recording the music hall artists of the day, but he had more difficulty with the opera stars as they were worried about their future if their songs were recorded – would they be required to sing in person ever again?

Gaisberg also realised that if records of local artists were being produced, each country would also need gramophones to play them on. In the years before the first world war Gaisberg, that enterprising recording engineer, realised the global potential of the infant gramophone.

So he set out travelling and from November 1902 to the summer of 1903 he recorded hundreds of records in Tokyo, Calcutta, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Rangoon – as he travelled he made meticulous notes, so all the detail was recorded for posterity, together with the treasury of eastern folk and classical styles, untouched at that time by western influences.

Before he left for the Far East in 1902, Gaisberg had been in Milan at La Scala and had heard Caruso (right), the young tenor, sing. Caruso was very impressed with what he saw; Gaisberg, ever the impresario, asked what fee Caruso would accept for ten songs; Caruso said £100 to be recorded in an afternoon – prohibitive at the time!

These travels round Europe and Asia were very daunting, not least with the methods of travel, but with the amount of items and elements that were required .. acid baths, acid, huge quantities of wax, sensitive acoustical recording equipment – all needed to set up studios in all sorts of places.

When Gaisberg was in the Vatican recording the Vatican choir in 1902, and what would become the only recording of the last castrato, the acid vats, in which the matrices were dipped, caught fire! They managed to put the flames out – but decided they could not stay and face the wrath of the powers that be in the Vatican!

Gaisberg, aware of the cultural challenges, recorded at the courts of both the Chinese and Japanese Emperors; made records of an India singer; recorded Islamic singers and despite not being enamoured himself to a number of these styles recognised the importance these recordings would have in the future.

He also recorded Dame Nellie Melba, Luisa Tetrazzini and Adelina Patti.The recordings made by Patti were very important as her bel canto style goes back to the mid 1800s and to the composers Bellini and Donizetti.

Dame Nellie Melba making a recording - note the positioning of the piano ..

His impresario skills in his later years did not desert him – he even matched Edward Elgar and the teenage Yehudi Menuhin to record Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto at the new Abbey Road studios. Gaisberg really was the first Artist and Repertoire man – putting the artist first, bringing in the repertoire and finally the recording sessions – he really did shape events.

All Gaisberg’s recordings, diaries, photographs, instruction sheets and supplementary documentation are fortunately stored, together with other artefacts, in EMI’s Hayes archives, just to the west of London, in temperature controlled vaults in an enormous hanger the size of two football fields.

If Gaisberg had not recognised Caruso as a new phenomenon and had not offered Caruso the chance to record – would the gramophone be as important today as it is? and would Caruso being as recognised as the great tenor that he is today?

The timing of these two coming together were as important then, as the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 was in spurring the purchases of a television set to be able to watch that spectacular event.

These notes were taken from a recent BBC Radio 4 programme when Paul Gambaccini took us through EMI’s Hayes archive, which contains some of the world’s first recorded music, to uncover the story of Fred Gaisberg.

Thank you Mr Postman for bringing us this interesting information .. I've mentioned the story to my mother, so she will be interested to hear more and will no doubt laugh at the Vatican nearly going up in smoke!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
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