Friday 28 August 2009

Hounslow Heath, Powder Mills, Flying Machines ...

Hounslow Heath – ever heard of it? One of the most dangerous places in Britain for over 200 years – this tract of land, part of the Forest of Middlesex, held the second most important coaching centre, after London. The direct route to Bath (A4), that fashionable Georgian watering place, and the Court at Windsor were straight across Hounslow Heath via one of the coaching stops – an ideal pouncing ground for highwaymen wanting rich pickings.

A map of Heathrow from before WWII

While slightly to the south the Kensington Gate Bar Turnpike was another direct way out of London across the Heath to the West Country: the Egham and Bagshot Turnpike (A 30) and the Staines and Bedfont Turnpike (A303) both known as the Hounslow to Basingstoke (Exeter) coaching routes.

The Heath over the years turned into farming and agricultural holdings, while the industrial revolution ensured that the location of the Grand Union Canal and the Great Western Railway made the area invaluable as a brick-making centre. Further south in Hounslow itself there was a Powder Mill plant, which was built in the 16th century and continued making gunpowder until 1927. These mills have long since disappeared, but the Shot Tower still stands, and the large mill pool has been turned into a nature reserve - Crane Park.

This southern part of the Heath, where a great deal of Heathrow Airport is now situated, was described as recently as Victorian times, as a ‘market garden’, renowned for its roses, narcissi, lilies of the valley, and for its apple, plum and pear orchards.

The Shot Tower in Crane Park

We used to live near Bagshot and I can attest that we lived in rural bliss, relatively I add! – and who would have thought that the London conurbation would stretch out beyond Bagshot within 50 years. Heathrow airport was there – but it was some distance away in London itself as far as we were concerned – but obviously with all the developments of the past two hundred years this productive farmland is now an ear splitting concrete jungle of noise.

Heathrow was used as a military airfield during the First World War, then reverting to a private aerodrome, used for assembling and testing, as Croydon was the main commercial airport.

A map of Heathrow from 1948 showing the small passenger aircraft apron just below "The Magpie" in the airport's NE corner.

In 1943, Heathrow came under the control of the Air Ministry and in 1944 on land acquired from the vicar of Harmondsworth construction of the new airport was commenced. Heathrow was named after the hamlet of Heathrow, little more than a row of cottages, which remained isolated on Hounslow Heath, which were demolished to make way for the airport.

This week ninety years ago the first paid daily passenger flight was undertaken from a patch of land on Hounslow Heath, about a mile from what is now London’s Heathrow Airport, to Le Bourget, Paris, operated by Air Transport and Travel Limited (now British Airways). This return flight cost 42 guineas, today that would be approximately £1,706.

Preparations for the first flight in the de Havilland (Airco Dh4 Biplane).

That flight in a converted bomber, open to the elements, travelled at a height of 2,000 feet (one third of a mile high), and navigated using landmarks – gravel or white chalk pits, hills, lakes, architectural buildings and particularly railway lines (which had their station names clearly marked on the roof).
The railway from Tonbridge to the south coast is relatively straight and could, in good weather, be easily followed. I was interested to hear that the pilots flew keeping the railway line on their left, which is different to us driving on our left (driving on the left can be traced back to Roman times, but was enshrined in England in the 1700s).

So much has changed in the 100 years of air travel; first by enclosing the planes and creating a passenger cabin so that by the late 1920s a four course lunch could be served – most of the stewards had to be short in stature due to the cramped conditions!

Imperial Airways Armstrong Whitworth Argosy passenger cabin.

By 1935 it was possible to fly from London to Brisbane for £195 – however the journey did take twelve and a half days! Ten years later, longer-range flying boats could do the journey in less than half the time.

Then there came even more luxury: a Boeing Straocruiser, which had a lounge, beds to sleep in (yes please!) and more for the wealthy; or even the practicality of the Bristol Superfreighter, an air car transport freighter – we used one in the early 1960s to take our car across the Channel, so we could drive to Italy. Economy fares came in the early 1960s – remember Freddie Laker?

In 1978 I got up in the middle of the night to go out and buy my 'no frills' ticket for £100 return to New York, go home and back to bed for a few hours, before setting off again – the fact I had not realised that Laker Airways flights went from Gatwick (not Heathrow) was neither here nor there really! Just somewhat worrying, as my space was likely to be on sold, as I had not turned up at the requisite time: mild panic set in .. but I made the flight and a friend’s wedding. One of her sons now flies the latest jet fighters for the American Air Force.
Concorde's final flight, G-BOAF from Heathrow to Bristol, on 26 November 2003. The extremely high fineness ratio of the fuselage is evident.

Then the first supersonic passenger airline, Concorde, came along reducing travelling times even further before being withdrawn. Now we have double deckers with huge seating arrangements – economy in numbers, but a cattle truck way to travel. The journey of invention continues and in another 100 years how will we be travelling .. on magnetic superhighways .. or how?
See below for notes on BBC pictures and BBC video.

It’s good to see you Mr Postman on this cool sunny morning – Hurricane Bill seems to have blustered on towards Scandinavia, it was so windy yesterday. Isn’t it amazing how much has changed over the years ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Excerpts taken from the BBC “In Pictures: 90 Years of Travel” – these you may be able to see overseas. The video unfortunately is only available to UK licence payers and for those who wish, and those who can, it is accessible by this BBC link “Recreating the first passenger flight”.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Aquitaine, Dormitories and a Crab ...

Aquitaine, the land in south west France, adjunct to the Basque country then spreading into northern Spain. A land of coastal strips, characterised by sandy beaches backed by pine forests; rolling vineyard-covered hills becoming dwarfed by the mountainous section of the Pyrenees rising majestically separating France from Spain. The verdant rising slopes, the narrow roads following the animal trails of long ago to tiny villages tucked high in the lower slopes.

A land of good food and wine to set your gastronomic juices flowing: fresh fish straight from the sea, or straight from the fast flowing rivers pouring off the hills, Bordeaux to go with your cheese, grapes picked from the local vineyard, fresh breads from the boulangerie, ragouts of lamb, game birds, pates and terrines – a feast from the streams, fields and ocean.

This area of France, particularly in the Middle Ages, fell under numerous rulers, as Kings, Dukes and Crowns fought, died or married to gain holdings to enhance their particular dynasties – the English, the French and the Spanish.

This dynastic conflict gave impetus to the idea of nationality – both French and English; other major military tactical changes were made and in the end medieval England was left an island nation, a fact which profoundly affected our outlook and development for many hundreds of years.

I remember a magical holiday here in the early 1960s, staying with some friends in a newly acquired ‘farm house’ on the slopes of the Pyrenees, in the tiny village of Helette, which was in dire need of renovation and land restoration. In those days we went out en famille, plenty of children, more than one family and everyone mucked in.

After our nights in dormitories, the only way to accommodate all of us, we had large rustic meals out on the paved frontage overlooking the valley below, large trees gently waving in the wind, overgrown shrubs edging the boundary, escaped planting, birds dancing around singing their individual songs for us.

It was this time of year and we were kept busy with long walks up into the hills, hiking across the saddle of connecting slopes, picnicking up there, and hiking back for a good supper a la maison. We went to the local villages to grocery shop and look round, I saw my first Pelota court – an ancient Basque game – played against a wall, with a lacrosse type stick and a hard ball; being derived from the game of “Real Tennis” (see my previous post here).

We went to a local village cinema for a French film I guess – I just remember, as a gauche teenager, the very hard seats and not being able to understand a word, with the whole thing being completely washed out by a torrential storm – lightning, blown electricity, and all the fun of the fair!

Talking of fairs we also went to the local Fiesta in the village – everyone dressed up and partying, side shows, music to dance to, the villagers all wearing national costume, fireworks galore, food and drink tents – for us kids the chance to let off steam, to watch the craftsmen ply their wares, to marvel at the wonderful Basque styled costumes, the decorated square – a magical evening amongst the stars.

We had one wonderful day when we drove across the mountains into Spain to the cross roads town of Pamplona: with its links to northern France and down to the Mediterranean, to northern Spain and the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, and into Catalan and southern Spain. Pamplona set in its green valley had been a fortified city from the times of the Romans, becoming a focal point for all invasions thereafter.

Pamplona has the bull run in July, but we went in August and I always remember the rope walk, the lengths of rope spread out on the pavement and it just fascinated me. Interestingly I found some films (see here) on the making of rope dating back to the late 1940s and early 1950s from an American source – which reflects the sign of the times and historically is of interest.

We then went on to San Sebastian a beautiful old town, developed, altered, expanded over many hundreds of years with wide open sandy beaches surrounding La Concha Bay, as this picturesque are is known. We swam in the clear blue seas across to the tiny island, where the remains of a 16th century castle are to be found. Then back to the esplanade to find a restaurant to take us all for a very late lunch, early supper and here I had the most wonderful crab I have ever eaten and to this day, I still crave another .. I have yet to find one as good!

That meal for me finished off a wonderful excursion over the Pyrenees, a holiday glimpse of rural and rustic life in these lands of historical spice – a heady mix of geography, history, gastronomy, exploration across the seas: the early influence of the new found American foods – tomatoes, peppers, maize and pumpkin; the reminders through the architecture, the religious pilgrimage routes, the army marches of times long past – the Romans, the Arabs, the Moors. A joyous informative holiday to remember, as I do!

Thank you for popping in Mr Postman and seeing my mother, she will be pleased to have another letter as I'm having a few days away - having some space, doing a few extra things and catching up a little - it's bliss just being at home without going up and down to the Nursing Centre twice a day.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Monday 24 August 2009

Pigs, Vineyards, Bloomsbury and murals ...

Can you imagine a hundred pigs running around in the woods, surrounded by vineyards in the middle of London – is it 2086, has climate warming set in – no, but this was Bloomsbury as described in the Domesday Book.

Bloomsbury the borough, or the bury, of William de Blemond, a Norman landowner, the area originally being known as Blemondisberi; the bury, as a description, is still recorded in many of our towns: Bury St Edmunds, Canterbury, Shrewsbury to name a few.

Edward III passed the lands on to Carthusian monks, ensuring that the area stayed rural, however with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII transferred the land to the Crown, and then granted it to the Earl of Southampton. The Earl started developing his estates by laying out Southampton Square, now known as Bloomsbury Square; the fashionable residential areas of the 17th and 18th centuries were added to by the Dukes of Bedford, becoming notable for its array of garden squares.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882 – March 28, 1941), British author and feminist.

One of these squares, is Queens Square, pictured here in 1787, with an open vista stretching north towards Hampstead. As a matter of interest Bloomsbury is the home to many academic institutions, some that are notable are the British Museum, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Great Ormond Street Hospital for children, and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery – where my mother spent four months 220 years after this picture was drawn!

Queens Square, Bloomsbury in 1787. The fields to the north reach as far as Hampstead.

This idyllic setting, with majestic Georgian mansions looking over some private and some public gardens, was the home to the Bloomsbury Group or Bloomsbury Set, as they were known, a group of writers, intellectuals and artists who regularly met in the surrounds of this square. Originally the men established an eclectic mix of thinkers while at Cambridge, then through the sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, met other close friends and relatives who lived, worked or studied near Bloomsbury.

Their work deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism and economics, as well as modern social attitudes. Its best known members were Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, Duncan Grant and Lytton Strachey – a mix of artists, writers and thinkers.

Vanessa married Clive Bell, with Virginia marrying Leonard Woolf, and with their unconventional households (friends and families) bought properties in East Sussex to escape the turmoil of war, most of the men being conscientious objectors. Charleston Farmhouse where Vanessa Bell lived, but had moved down with Duncan Grant, became the meeting place for the Group members.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf at their London home in Richmond founded Hogarth Press, and started hand printing their books, which grew from a hobby into a commercial business; at the end of the 2nd World War it became an associate company of Chatto and Windus, itself an imprint of Random House. (There is no connection to Bloomsbury Publishers, whose offices were in Bloomsbury).

The Annunciation - by Vanessa Bell (1941)

The Group were all incredibly prolific in their journals, essays, novels and art influencing and developing their controversial take on life, providing the early 20th century with new modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism and philosophy.

Charleston Farmhouse, the country home of the Bloomsbury Group, has been decorated in the style of the Italian fresco painters – the walls, doors and furniture all became works of art. The walled garden with rambling roses displays mosaics, box hedging, wild flowers and natural planting interspersed with statues; the pond covered with water lilies, the lawn and paths leading to this focal point from the house, all offer an artistic opening to expression.

The Bloomsbury murals also transformed the most delightful tiny church at Berwick, near Charleston, into an artistic and cultural treasure; the murals now adorn the Nave walls, the Chancel Screen, the Pulpit, both sides of the Chancel Arch as well as the Altar frontal.

Berwick Church

Bishop Bell of Chichester (the Benefice of Berwick falls within the Diocese of Chichester) expressed his belief that the murals represented a fulfilment of his vision to reunite religion and ‘modern’ art and so bring about a ‘spiritual awakening of our country’. In 1929 Bishop Bell set out his vision, at his enthronement address at Chichester, to include all form of art as an expression of worship of God.

The ‘how’ of these murals coming about is described in a wonderful short newsletter issued by Berwick Church on the 50th Anniversary of Bishop Bell’s death, in1958. I highly recommend a read: it throws a light on the thinking before and after the War and gives an insight into a way of life few of us have experienced; copyrighted pictures and art works are shown, as well as some more pictures of the flower decorated Church celebrating this act of inspiration by the Bishop.

Christ in Glory – by Duncan Grant (1941)

The Bloomsbury Group continue providing today’s generation with new ideas and thoughts, as their biographies reflect, and new works are found tucked away in archives throwing another dimension on this group of artists with their eclectic ideas. We should celebrate their forward thinking ideals perhaps with a spit roast of hog and English wine from Sussex grapes, or perhaps even London grapes as I am sure the foragers will tell us there are plenty to be found.

Thank you Mr Postman for delivering this letter which I know will interest my mother, and I will enjoy reading the celebratory newsletter to her, while she will enjoy seeing the pictures. My brother reads from “Recollections”, by Reverend EB Ellman (1815 – 1906), Curate and then Rector of Berwick for 66 years! He lived in Glynde, Firle, Lewes and then Berwick; he is buried in the churchyard at Berwick. The Reverend, an educated man with a degree in Mathematics from Oxford, has a unique tale to tell of life in nineteenth century Sussex.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Friday 21 August 2009

Safari here, or Safari there ....?

Camping – a childhood first experience usually. We used to camp in the garden using my father’s old war tent, a tiny A frame, into which we could squeeze his camp bed, a ground sheet and some bedding. Waking to the bird calls, especially the wood pigeons, the cool misty air which the sun shafts through as the dawning day warms up.

There is nothing quite like being outside ‘with nature’, listening to the nocturnal beasties and birds return to their dens, or nests crossing the paths of the early morning risers – the blackbird with its wonderful song, the cock-a-doodle do, birds warming their feathers, the pigs snorting and scuffling in their pen, the deep breathing of the cows their nostrils blowing their smoky breath out into the chilly air.

The Telegraph newspaper reviewed Sussex on Safari - camping in the South Downs and this picture is courtesy of their site.

The breaking out onto the dewy lawn, feeling the damp dewlet dropped grass trickle through our toes, dancing around making dark patterns as we dragged our feet. The dash back in through the tent flaps onto the warming beds with the morning fresh air following us in; the chatter of the young swopping ideas, popping new ones out, full of eager anticipation to the magical start to the day.

Or in the middle of Africa, in a delta – not just any delta, but the Okavango Delta – on a tree ridged island surrounded by ‘swampy’ beds of grasses and papyrus, where the waters are crystal clear over the sands of the Kalahari before they are soaked up into the desert or evaporated away over the annual cycle.

Waking from a cocoon of duvet to remember that the sounds have an eerie echoness of never ending expanses of this desert and watery world, where the lions have been hunting through the night, the howls and cries of assorted beasts, the monkeys scrambling in the trees above preening each other a real familial feel to their rituals.

The malachite kingfisher in the Okavango Delta

A luxury tented camp, with Laura Ashley furnishings, is an incongruous home in those wilds, but it certainly is a way of attracting intrepid explorers, wishing to experience the Okavango and safari bush life, wishing to learn and see another part of the world. Personally observing African nature during the guided walks, or on the mokoro trips through the watery channels, often kept open by the hippos.

That certainly is one of the main differences of do-it-yourself camping, which can still be done in Africa – and I also had that incredible opportunity of being on safari through the Okavango with some friends – where, I hate to say it, I went along for the ride, the planning had been done for me: but did I enjoy it – so much so that I always recommend a visit to anyone planning to visit Southern Africa!

Certainly in Africa you cannot sensibly get up and walk through the dewy grass – encounters with some of the animals would be likely to end in disaster – crocodiles, hippos (if they get angry), any of the large cats, the hunting dogs – but to be able to get up, sit with coffee in hand listening to the early call of the wild, feeling the African day begin is really special.

The northern slopes of the Sussex Downs

Now how about coming on Safari in Sussex? In the lee of the South Downs – I live in Eastbourne where the South Downs disappear under the English Channel, but about ten miles from here (one eighth of the South Downs Way to Winchester) you can camp Safari Sussex style - we could hike along the old Down road and meet up – perhaps at one of our many local pubs?

The camp ground is 'similar', large bell tents mix with A frames for sleeping in (it is camping!) occupy the space, numbers are limited by our group, or ‘share’, a yurt is used for the sitting room (a haven from the rain) near the trees, open to the stars, the camp is in on the outskirts of a wooded copse, tucked up against the northern edge of the Downs.

Skittish zebra

The description is of overall African, except for our weather, which mean late starts, not dawn forays to see early morning hunts; it is more our English understanding of ‘camping’, still rustic but most definitely enhanced by the camp’s fixtures and fittings. Each group brings its own food and drink – to share a campsite with friends or family is wonderful – a total mix and match: fun for all.

At least in Sussex there are plenty of alternative sites to walk to, right on the camp’s doorstep (or should that be tent post?) – up high on the Downs to Firle Beacon with views across to the English Channel and coastal towns; or to Charleston, the farmhouse of the Bloomsbury Group – a wonderful cottage garden, a house of hidden artistic delights (the national trail runs through Charleston before going on to the high point Firle Beacon); Berwick Church where the walls have been painted by members of the Bloomsbury Group.

There are Exmoor ponies, not zebra; there are bee orchids not waving papyrus; the trees are gnarled, not thorny; badgers roam, there are no lion; foxes slink around, not cerval cats, rabbits for Africa though, which following a kill, will be prepared and slowly cooked for the evening’s meal.

Charleston Farmhouse - country home of the Bloomsbury Group

Sleeping under the canopy of English woodland trees, nestled into the side of the downs, the natural hedging trees and shrubs providing nesting sites for all kinds of insects, birds, small mammals .. more do it yourself, but comfortable and well thought out and at least in England you are unlikely to go to the loo and find a snake winding its way through the bamboo sides! – a surprise to me too .. as I scampered away.

Hello Mr Postman – have you ever been to Africa and had a safari? Or have you tried this new English Safari under our starry plough in the sky? We have been very lucky with our travels .. my mother has had a sleepy week, but comes too for a little while when I visit, which is nice and we manage to have a laugh .. she’ll laugh at the snake story!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Tea containers?

English tea and containers – does that make you think of getting your pretty tin down, boiling the kettle and making yourself an extra special luscious thirst quenching cuppa? Have you chosen Chinese or Indian tea, green or breakfast tea or perhaps English tea – did you know we have a tea plantation in England? It surprised me, but then Cornwall is a special place and there probably isn’t anything that happens in the land of the pixie that should surprise us.

Tea we imagine being grown in far off lands not locally; but I see tea also grows in the Seattle region of the States. The teas we know today have been consumed, in China for thousands of years, the earliest records dating back to the 10th century BC. Japan caught the influence of tea when the Japanese priests and envoys sent to China to learn about its culture brought back some tea bushes.

Note the "Digestible" Tea tin of 1895.

The tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, originated in southeast Asia and has now spread from there to most regions of the world. Catherine de Braganza, a Portuguese Princess, who married King Charles I brought the court habit of drinking tea with her to Britain in the 1660s: Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary “I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before”.

Interestingly the British ‘exported’ the pleasure of tea drinking to India, where it had been used medicinally for millennia, and from there it spread to Sri Lanka, via the shipping routes round the Cape in the late 1800s. The four major tea growing nations now are China, India, Sri Lanka and Kenya, with most of the tea we drink in England coming from Kenya.

The Old Kea Mission Church

On the Fal estuary in Cornwall, is the Tregothnan Estate, home since 1335 to the Boscawen family, where tea plantations spill down the hillsides, plum trees straggle in the orchards, bees hum, the botanical gardens flourish in the temperate Cornish climes. The estate, a living testament to custodianship, where their stated intention is to ensure its continued existence for another 700 years.

The incongruence at what they find at the bottom of their garden is a sign of the times, not tin tea caddies ready to be filled with fresh English tea, but huge containers usually used as car transporters – a sign of the recession – anchored in the deep water. Large blots on this exquisite landscape of rugged inlets, where the land reaches practically into the deep water, the buckled windswept trees bent towards the earth, amidst the sailing dinghies bobbing up and down – these hulks of metal stand out like sore thumbs.

Because of its depth and close links to major Atlantic shipping lanes, in times of economic crises, the Fal estuary is also a cheap place to park massive container ships: they can be mothballed here far cheaper than they can be in a port, perhaps waiting indefinitely for a non-existent cargo.

The Cornish economy benefits from the monthly charges each vessel pays for being laid up, as well as local mariners checking the sea worthiness of each ship, ferrying the crew and delivering groceries as required. The estuary is also a barometer of world trade: “when the Fal is empty, trade is buoyant. When it is full, as now, times are tough”.

In 1940 the Tregothnan estate decided to see if the garden could make money and sent up two camellia bushes, including pruned cuttings to Covent Garden market and earned £100 from them! Another advantage of Cornwall, despite its distance from London, is the main railway line, for a while called the Flower train, as it collected all the early flowers and vegetables for the distribution from the London markets.

A gated entrance at Tregothnan with vistas reaching down to the sea.

Tregothnan continues to seek out niche markets, keeping the estate private, offering private days, but only being open to the public for charity events. The garden area is extremely small between 60 – 100 acres, so they are reviving the Kea plum, probably a cross with a damson, which are found scattered in the hedgerows, but possibly being crossed with a plum brought in by the seafarers. The orchard has been hidden for over 300 years, but the estate now is grubbing out the old wood, beating and clearing the brambles and recreating the Kea orchard as a working plum garden.

A day's course mastering the origins, process and planting of teas, together with some insights into the garden at Tregothnan.

Can you keep entrepreneurs canned? The Boscawens seem to have kept themselves quietly to themselves, just building their various businesses – the Falmouths, the seat of the Boscawens, developed wood interests in the time of Henry VII and Henry VIII, when oak was required for warships, purchasing extensive estates in Kent – the garden of England – where the Royal Chatham dockyards are situated.

This is an extraordinary mix for Cornwall – English tea, organic florestry, Kea plum ice-cream from a tiny estate with a huge vision to be around long after those floating container ships have gone off into their world of scrap metal. We cannot beat the longevity of careful management, however we need to ensure that their landscape is around for us all to benefit.

Today Mr Postman you must have been sweltering on your rounds, it is very hot, a mini last burst of summer, though we haven’t had it too bad here in the south – in fact I was noticing that some of the chestnuts seem to be suffering from drought, with burnt leaves. My mother was asking me the subject of today’s story – she does know what is going on .. and doesn’t seem to miss a trick!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Monday 17 August 2009

Queen and Red Arrows!

The Red Arrows came to town at the weekend, those noisy nine scarlet red Hawk trainers exhibiting their diamond nine formation in all their glory along the seafront of Eastbourne. The coastline in which Eastbourne nestles has the advantage of the South Downs chalkland curling round as it disappears under the sea providing both a high point for viewing, and a hiding place for the planes to absolutely just appear in a flash above.

Pevensey Bay gently stretches ten to twelve miles round from Eastbourne in the west to Hastings in the east – the land where William the Conqueror conquered, the sea reaching further inland before longshore drift silted up leaving the area marshy with tiny islets at high tide.

So an ideal place for an air show, a three mile promenade, a good mile of wide grand parade to site all the side shows, the food stalls, the Services’ aircraft on show, places for the parachutists to land, and the long fly through from the east, the planes pop up to shock us over Beachy Head, towering 550 feet above the town below, or hiding out to sea in the mirage of the English Channel and heading straight at us before we had time to draw breath.

Coastline Eastbourne

Well having had the real thing at the weekend explode in front of my eyes as I drove down the Downs in a burst of scarlet followed by red, white and blue plumes I had to write about the Red Arrows; little did I think I’d be writing about Queen too (you have to see this video – if you like flying, displays or listening to Queen .. it just says it all .. ‘it’s a kinda magic!’).

This middle weekend of August is our fire-power, our weekend for the boys, or those who love aircraft from British Aerospace Hawks, to a Typhoon F2 swing-role combat aircraft, Battle of Britain Memorial planes – the Spitfire, the Hurricane Bomber and the Lancaster – and all possible types of aircraft in between .. even a glider – and as that is something that I have done, next year I must go and watch. This year other priorities are in place.

The star burst of the Red Arrows coming from below the houses, on the seafront and appearing to come straight towards me flying skywards was a sight to behold. I had to stop the car and look! My house is in the middle of the town and I could see some of the coloured trails reflected in my computer screen (sad really!), and I could definitely hear the noise but due to visiting did not take time out to walk to the sea front to look.

I’m sure the four day show was a success, especially as the weather was pretty good this year, they seem to have covered all bases, with lots of planes on the seafront, pilots to talk to, displays of all sorts happening –Team Guinot the UK and the world’s only formation wingwalking team, the Tigers parachute display team, the Blades the UK’s most extreme formation aerobatic display team, the Royal Air Force band at the town’s band stand and concluding each night with a firework display.

Patty Wagstaff is an American aerobatic pilot - see the wonderful trails she has left in this manoeuvre.

Aerobatic manoeuvres are quite superlative as this wonderful photo shows, the rotation of the aircraft as it rolls and pitches, spins, tumbles, and darts about the sky in different formations – the Red Arrows’ formations using all nine Hawks are just amazing. Aerobatic flying requires such high technical skill and precision sets, the pilots must be at their best; some pilots fly for recreation, others compete and push themselves to their limits.

William the Conqueror would be somewhat put out to find that all he needed to do was wait 950 years and then he could, using his red arrows soften the enemy up, before unleashing a final red arrow right at the heart of the English Crown. Simple really! Then I could not have made this connection with Queen and the Red Arrows – what a mix:

it’s a kind of magic -one chance of life – I choose the way – it’s great at last 1,000 years will soon be gone - - - ha ha ha - - - the world turning inside out and floating around in ecstacy – so don’t stop me now – ‘cos I’m having a good time shooting stars through the sky like a tiger defying the laws of gravity’ .... do watch the video and listen to the words, they match so well. Queen – one of my favourites, and that laugh in the middle round about 3.30!

Red Arrows training (in Cyprus) to Queen!

I hope that cheered you up Mr Postman on your rounds today – it certainly has cheered me, not to say I really needed it .. but a buzzy song always helps lighten the mood - my mother would hate it!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Sunday 16 August 2009

Garlic Beer Anyone?

Garlic is so ancient that its origins cannot be traced, and is so basic to our civilisation that it is not known in a true wild cultivar, however the Chinese have been using it medically for thousands of years. Asian peoples, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all knew about its medical benefits as well as its culinary attributes.

Herbalists, medicine men, warriors, travellers all carried garlic as a talisman, ensuring its spread across the continents. The plants must have come in many varieties even then – different sorts for different climes, edible cloved bulbs, large and small. As well as prolific fields of wild white flowering garlic were seen around the world, now constrained in the main to the verges, woodlands, scrub-land wherever it can obtain a footing, once bedded in being somewhat difficult to eradicate.

Harvested garlic, from Tacuinum Sanitatis, 15h century (Bibliotheque Nationale)
The Egyptians placed garlic amongst their deities, and no Egyptian priest was permitted to eat it. In one pyramid, an inscription states that 100,000 men were employed on its construction, and these ate garlic, leeks and onions to the value of 1,600 talents of silver. It was one of the staple foods of Egypt where it grew in great abundance. (The talent is one of several ancient units of mass, and one talent of silver would be worth about $20,000 in 2004 money).

Virgil, the classical Roman poet, mentions that the ancient Greek and Roman soldiers, sailors and rural classes consumed this free food, while Pliny the Elder, a learned navy and army commander, mentions that garlic was included in the diet of the Africans. (Onions and garlic travelled well on expeditions). Galen, probably the most accomplished medical researcher of the Roman period, eulogises garlic as the “rustic’s theriac”, or antidote to poison (cure-all).

As the French Onion farmers were in the 1920s c/o Bonnie Alter, and the TreeHuggers Site.
Superstition may be dead or dying, but ancient remedies continue to hold secrets that are slowly being unlocked with the advances in medical technology; garlic never really lost its healing properties being used against colds and coughs, Louis Pasteur having observed its antibacterial activity in 1858. During both World Wars it was used as antiseptic to prevent gangrene, and most of us recognise the benefits of garlic, though we may not like the after effects of halitosis!

I remember garlic becoming a component and acceptable part of British cooking in the 1960s, especially as at that time I realised that I loved cooking and trying new foods. In fact I remember typing up a small batch of garlic recipes for my father and slipping them into a photo album as a present one year!

For about 50 years plaits were brought over by the traditional bereted French onion and garlic farmers, to sell to the British housewife from their bicycles as they cycled round the city streets, towns and villages: one of the lost rural traditions. Those were the days of garlic bread, gazpacho and chicken kiev all becoming stalwarts of our British menus (as a note - I now make herby bread with a touch of garlic, which I find so much more appealing).

Pink Onions and Les Johnnies arrive in London on their annual pilgrimage c/o Bonnie Alter, the TreeHuggers site.

Garlic has that wonderful appetising smell as it slowly melts cooking in butter or olive oil, probably along with some chopped onions, until lightly browned and almost completely dissolved ready for the rest of the ingredients, thereby reducing its potency somewhat.

This weekend there is a garlic festival on the Isle of Wight, as you can smell the farm before you get there, perhaps it is a good thing that both the farm and the festival is over the water! Chocolate in savoury dishes seems to be somewhat more acceptable than garlic ice-cream, or how about a garlic beer .... I leave you for a moment to dwell on these tastes?!

The garlic tent at The Garlic Farm festival
The garlics of today are being searched out in the regions of middle Asia, seeing if true botanical varieties can be found, or new plants. Specialist farms are experimenting with different strains – early purple hard-neck garlic bulbs, pungent Auvergne, the white soft-neck, long keeping garlic (Solent Wight) with its wonderful bouquet, the bland (so-called – but probably from the onion/leek genus) elephant garlic, and the new clumping variety that appears to be closest to the Central Asian wild cultivars of millennia ago.

The good thing about the festival is that it is supported by all sorts of other Isle of Wight businesses: food booths, arts and crafts, entertainment and music stalls, as well as antique vehicles being on show – which will be so helpful in these times as all the monies goes to the island’s charities.

From the front page of The Garlic Farm site
Garlic festivals appear all over the world celebrating both its remedial benefits and its culinary attributes .. even as far as garlic ice cream or a thirst quenching beer, if you so wish!

It’s good to see you Mr Postman, my mother has been very bright recently – even recognising a nurse by her voice (not having seen her for 3 months) and being able to remember her name “MariLou” , though not see her, before MariLou went round the bed to say 'hi'.. my mother never ceases to amaze me! Thanks for coming to bring us another letter ...
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Friday 14 August 2009

Has the earth's mantle turned into a bed of ants? Cobblers talk Cobblers. A toddler and his floating car ...

These and other stories amuse me and amuse my mother, bringing a smile to her face and often an involuntary laugh before I’ve finished reading them to her, and shocked amazement sometimes .... She loves short stories, not too long and ones with some life in them, amusement, ‘tall orders’ and so on.

A few people in this world like creepy crawlies, a few more of us realise their importance, most of us just want them kept well away: it’s a bug’s life. I subscribe to The Week, which has provided me with fun and amusing stories to read to my mother. This unique digest covers ‘the week’; the content is completely mixed and suits my taste, especially as I have found that shortened or highlighted articles supply me with insights I would simply never have seen, let alone find.

A Bug's Life: Theatrical poster, from the Creators of Toy Story
I still like to read paper, we do enough reading on line, and I love getting a letter or card through the mail, though most are now to my mother! She loves them too, hearing the news of that person or family and I rotate peoples’ letters re reading from long ago, adding my own notations to bring the letter to life again.

Mum has been down here nearly two years now and when she arrived I put Christmas card ‘strings’ up and have attached letters, postcards etc on them, theoretically so I could take them down and re-read them and swap them over: it is a labour of love, that has waned. I now swap a few around as she can only really see one corner of the room and I keep that relatively updated – but it takes time, and I am afraid that’s one thing that has also gone by the board.

I have cheated and put a poster up instead – a wonderful idyllic looking ‘Cornish style harbour and cove’, which everyone seems to love and in particular my mother is very happy to share with her carers and nurses. We also have posters on the ceiling .. into which she can daydream. – and cards around her wall poster.

Back to “The Global March of the Argentine Ant”, a summary of an already short article appearing in a recent copy of The Week: “Are ants taking over the world? Actually, yes, says BBC Online. A team of Japanese scientists has discovered that a single species of ant has established vast colonies in Japan and California, and one in Europe stretching 6,000 km along the coast of the Mediterranean. Moreover, it now appears these major colonies may themselves merely be components of one “mega-colony” stretching across the entire globe.

As a rule, ants from different colonies attack one another, even if they are of the same species. Yet when Argentine ants from the above three super-colonies were brought into contact, they rubbed antennae (a sign of friendliness among ants).Further tests at Tokyo University found striking similarities in the chemical profiles of the hydrocarbons on the ants’ outer shells, suggesting they were all originally from the same family. “The enormous extent of this population is paralleled only by human society,” the researchers noted in their study, published in the journal Insectes Sociaux (Switzerland).”
I do reply to each and every letter friends and relatives have sent us, as well as send a ‘round robin’ of up to date news, and where we are at, which will have a personal note on it. The thought of how many that is over two and half years is somewhat daunting! To make my letters interesting I would let everyone know the things we laughed at, the subjects my mother was interested in and amused her – these snippets of life, amongst the gloom of the Acute Brain Injury Unit, or hospital, or Nursing Centre as now seemed to cheer everyone up and encouraged more post.

I just thought I’d transition those letters across to this blog, and extrapolate the concept a little: my mother enjoys the blog stories, though we do not read them all – her powers of concentration or ability are not as they were – but she will still amaze with her perceptive comments or sudden remembrances, often some days later, if I have asked her something.
6 Cast Iron Cobbler Shoe Boot Makers Repair Last Forms

She laughed at this story: From Martyn Hopwood of Devon, written to The Daily Telegraph, reproduced in The Week: Cobblers talk cobblers ....When living in Bermuda some years ago I need a pair of shoes repaired. One Saturday afternoon I went in search of the local cobbler and found his shop displaying a large sign above the door: “Shoes repaired while you wait.” I handed my pair over. “They will be ready next Saturday, OK?” “But your sign says, ‘Shoes repaired while you wait,’” I protested. He smiled from ear to ear and replied: “You can wait if you like”.

The Gods were smiling on Demetrius, aged 3, this day: he was camping with his family in British Columbia, when he slipped out of the tent for a morning drive, wearing just his nappy and a T-shirt ... as we all would do .. can you imagine the picture .. they look so great at that age .. puppy fat, glowing with health... proud as punch ... driving away. Well he did drive away straight into a stream, now he had a boat – excellent and less power was required by his little legs – he was found safe and well (fortunately!) downstream three hours later. The police spokesman said “I don’t think he realised the gravity of the situation” ... would you at that age?!

Don’t you just love a hand written letter dropped through the letter box – it seems to lighten the day and absolutely brings my mother to life, which is so good. Communication for the very young – Demetrius will no doubt soon enjoy his post – and the sick or elderly seems to have become something we should strive for, put more effort into .. a handwritten letter shows a little love, a little thought – I know it helps us.

It’s a bug’s life ... and anyone else you can have a laugh with .. lets find joy in our hearts today .. thank you Mr Postman .. I hope you realise you're walking across a bed of ants!
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Where would you describe a population of 22 as dizzy, amazing, extraordinary?

Where would you expect: but on the Lizard – a squamate one or a folded one – a scaled reptile or the more likely extremely old metamorphic rocks of the Lizard Peninsula – the latter, of course.

The Red-billed Chough, a member of the crow family, is now found once again on the rocky coastline of The Lizard in Cornwall, the south-westerly tip of Great Britain. They were thought to be extinct, but miraculously have reappeared after the landscape was allowed to revert to rough grazing, on which they thrive; they breed on the impenetrable coastal sea cliffs, feeding on the adjacent short grazed grassland.

Painting of Red-billed and Alpine Choughs Publication information: Johann Friedrich Naumann (1780-1857)

The Choughs have a large range across into Asia, but in the extremes of their regions the coastal archipelagos of Europe, and the western extremities of Great Britain they are and were under threat. Wildlife continues to amaze – how it finds its way back to areas previously inhabited, but which had been abandoned since humans interfered with their natural habitat, yet with careful management from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have returned.

There are two species of chough, part of the crow family: the red-billed chough that we have in Cornwall and the Alpine or yellow-billed chough . There is a white-winged chough found in Australia, but despite its similar shape and habits is only distantly related and is an example of convergent evolution – the wing is a classic example of convergent evolution in action: they have large white patches on their wings, particularly obvious in flight.

Appearance in flight: the Red-billed Chough has deeper primary feather "fingers" and a shorter tail

The choughs breed for life and display fidelity to their breeding sites, which are usually caves or crevices in the cliff face – and in The Lizard they can soar in the updraughts along the ridge, happily mastering the difficult conditions of the Atlantic winds as they meet the cliffs, pouring on over the land ahead.

The Red-billed Chough, with its red legs, has long been a part of heraldry, Cornish history, its legend, its culture while The Lizard has played its part in the annals of Cornish life, both ancient and modern, technological and cultural, as many of Daphne du Maurier’s books were based here.
The Red-billed Chough has an older connection with Greek mythology, when it was considered sacred to the Titan, Cronus. For Cornwall a legend says that King Arthur did not die, but was transformed into a Red-billed Chough, and hence killing the bird was unlucky.

Arms of Thomas Becket: Argent three Cornish Choughs proper two and one

In heraldry, Choughs are known as “beckits” and three were depicted on the coat of arms of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Choughs appear on the Cornish Coat of Arms, as they do on the city of Canterbury’s coats of arms, due to its connection to the Archbishop.

Older than Greek mythology, or heraldic depictions, the lands of the Lizard were created 35 million years ago and are thought to consist of three main units, represented as a slice through the ocean crust, extremely unique as exposed here in the Lizard (similar earth crusts’ foldings are found elsewhere in Cyprus, and Oman). Serpentine, one of the three component parts, is the state rock of California.

The name Lizard is probably a corruption of the Cornish name “Lys Ardh” meaning ‘high court’ and nothing to do with the squamate or scaled reptile, probably more appropriate to this extremely rugged, hazardous stretch of coastline, also known as the “Graveyard of Ships”.

Lizard Point

The Lizard points south protecting the natural deep water port of Falmouth, as well as hindering exiting ships, which were mauled by the Manacles, a square mile and half of jagged rocks just beneath the waves, guarding or watching the English Channel for marauding pirates, warships or returning maritime successes.

The Saxons came west inhabiting the area in the 6th century utilising its tin and copper, while the Domesday Book recorded the local manor of Helston. Fishing, smuggling, and the exports of tin, copper and china clay made up the bulk of the economy. The Second World War saw an airbase being built, which is now Europe’s largest helicopter base.

Titanium was also discovered here in 1791 by an amateur geologist and pastor, William Gregor; a German chemist four years later confirmed Gregor’s findings, having named the new element for the Titan of Greek Mythology.

Kynance Cove, The Lizard

While nearly 100 years later the Falmouth Gibraltar and Malta Telegraph company was formed with the intention to connect India and England with an undersea cable landed not at Falmouth but at Porthcurno, further west towards Lands End. In 1900 Guglielmo Marconi established the Lizard Wireless Telegraph Station, which in 1901 successfully sent a radio communication across the Atlantic to St John’s Newfoundland.

The land folds, the Titans are remembered, the underseas connect the mantle once again, an ancient bird transcends the ragged cliffs, a meagre population of 22 defying the odds of extinction celebrating with a buoyant acrobatic flight along the cliff ridge, the Lizard has seen more of life than most parts of this wonderful earth.

Dear Mr Postman .. thank you for letting me have this letter, my mother enjoys hearing about the land of her father, and her youth and there’s lots more to discuss too.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Monday 10 August 2009

How are the Romans, Monty Python and Jugglers all linked to Scotland?

Scotland was never completely subdued by the Romans, but they kept the barbaric northern tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall. The diverse peoples (Picts, Scots, Britons and Angles) gradually united, helped by the spread of Christianity.

During the Middle Ages there were recurrent wars and machinations amongst the Kingdoms of France, Scotland and England eventually ‘settled’ in 1603, when James VI of Scotland succeeded to the throne of England as James 1, though political union between the two countries was not established until just over a century later, with the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain.
Typical Scene of a band playing to street watchers at the Fringe (above)

The continued independence through Scots Law, the Scottish Education System, and the Church of Scotland have all contributed to Scottish Culture and Scottish National Identity since the Union in 1707.

The cramped tenements of the Royal Mile were once home to most of Edinburgh's population.
This independence encouraged Devolution in 1998, with Scotland now having partial self-government within the UK, as well as representation in the UK Parliament; the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament are based near Holyrood Palace, the Monarch’s Official Residence, in Edinburgh.

An interesting note: when Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne, her title “Elizabeth II” caused controversy as there had never been an Elizabeth 1 of Scotland. A legal case ensued arguing that the title would be a breach of Article 1 of the Treaty of the Union 1707. The case lost and it was decided that future British monarchs would be numbered according to their English or Scottish predecessors, whichever number is higher. Any future King James would become James VIII, since the last Scottish King was James VII, who was also James II of England; whilst the next Henry would be King Henry IX throughout the UK even though there have been no Scottish kings of that name.

Edinburgh, the country’s capital and second largest city (after Glasgow) is one of Europe’s largest financial centres; Edinburgh was the hub of the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century which together with the Industrial Revolution transformed Scotland into one of the commercial, intellectual and industrial powerhouses of Europe: by 1750, Scots were among the most literate citizens of Europe, with an estimated 75% level of literacy.

This cultural advance enabled Edinburgh to host a number of music festivals during the 19th century, the first being held in 1815 with the profits being distributed to the Royal Infirmary and other charitable institutions. Further festivals followed periodically.

The present festival first occurred in 1947. The idea had germinated in the mind of Rudolf Bing, the General Manager of Glyndebourne, around 1943. Bing was an Austrian-born impresario, who had fled Nazi Germany in 1934, bringing with him all that was good about German and Austrian culture. The idea of a music festival linked with the resources of Glyndebourne Opera appealed, especially as mainland Europe would not be able to support any cultural festivals for some time to come.

The Edinburgh Festival traces its roots to those days of 1947, when it was established in a post-war effort to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”: consisting of classical and contemporary theatre, opera, music, dance, visual arts, talks and workshops.
Street Performers in the Royal Mile

That same year 1947, eight theatrical companies ‘gatecrashed’ the festival by organising their own event, which has grown into and is now known as the Edinburgh Fringe. The Fringe is now the largest arts festival in the world and includes theatre, comedy, music, musicals, mime, dance and children’s shows.

The Fringe is an 'unjuried' festival – so any type of event is possible: often showcasing experimental works which might not be admitted to a more formal festival; while the Royal Mile hosts a street fair. The Fringe provided the platform for Flanders and Swann, Monty Python, Stephen Fry to launch their careers, to name a few.

Mudfire at the Fringe Festival

Edinburgh Festival is not one, but a collection of independent festivals which happen to take place in the same city at about the same time. Some of the others include the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which takes place on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, or the International Film Festival and many more.
Edinburgh Castle Military Tattoo
I went many years ago when I was too young, though I had always loved watching the Military Tattoo on the television, and I remember going up to the Castle, but sadly not a lot else. I was with a second cousin, Margie, whom I really did not know and was in awe of - you know the feeling (we are on good terms now), and we stayed with her relations in Edinburgh – the best part was swimming in the sea water wave pool at Portobello – yes, that is a suburb of Edinburgh!

From the audience’s perspective, the ability to see so many outstanding performances of all sorts in such a short time span at very affordable prices has been extremely attractive. There is an aura of excitement, enthusiasm, and appreciation at Edinburgh from both the performers and audiences that is unmatched anywhere else. The festival lasts for three weeks when Edinburgh is absolutely abuzz.
Panorama of the Old Town and Southside of Edinburgh from the Nelson monument. The term panorama was originally coined by the painter Robert Barker to describe his panoramic paintings of Edinburgh.
The Romans stayed out, letting the Scots rule supreme in one way or another, Monty Python could not resist the lure of the Fringe, nor the picturesque rural areas to film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, while jugglers and circus performers roam the streets mixing with the crowds – festivals of delight for all.

Dear Mr Postman thank you for delivering today on what started out as a bright sunny, but turned into a wet and miserable one .. so much so that my mother told me to go and put a warmer jacket on. I read her a chapter from a traveller's book of 1929 around the St Ives and Hayle area where she grew up.

Hilary Melton-Butcher

Positive Letters Inspirational Stories