Sunday 31 January 2010

Great British Garden Birdwatch

This weekend a great many families have been taking part in the world’s largest and longest running survey called “The Great British Garden Bird Watch”. This event started in the 1970s as part of the BBC childrens’ tv show – 'Blue Peter' – and quickly became a mainstream event, which has been run every year since 1979.

It’s quite simple with surveys, taken at home, or in local parks, being submitted over the internet or via snail mail (if the birds, in this cold, have left any snails) on a form duly provided by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Nuthatch (to the right)

Starling (below)

It’s become one of those annual family events looked forward to each January .. my goddaughter and her family take part. You might ask why do they expect us Brits to watch birds either through the window, or in special bird spotting tents in the garden, or from tree houses in winter – quite logical really: the cold weather brings birds into our gardens, looking for food and shelter – so surprisingly it’s pretty much the best time of year to watch garden birds.

Why again watch for only one hour? Well simple really .. the RSPB thought it better to have lots of surveys for an hour of watching, than probably many fewer surveys made over two or three hours. What happens if no birds are seen? Again it’s a matter of what’s missing on the survey, as much as which birds show up. This is where the results of the surveys have highlighted problems, which then form the first step to help aid species recovery.

Preparation in the garden is the key – feeders will need to be put out, so the birds are used to having a regular supply of food and rain water (keeping it ice free) ensuring that they’re likely to come into the garden. With the recent prolonged cold snap it is expected that there will be a wide range of birds, as every day birds need to find and eat food equivalent to 40% of their own body weight to survive – so putting out those supplies is a lifeline.

Blue Tit (to the right)

This year three to five year olds at school are taking part in the Little Schools’ Birdwatch, and have been setting up feeders near their classroom windows, so they can see the birds, which will hopefully inspire the little souls to grow up to be twitchers or bird lovers.

There are special bird recipes kids can make up – cheese crumble: grated cheese sprinkled on the bird table to be found by robins, thrushes and starlings, or hidden among the bushes and flowerbeds to be pecked on the ground by dunnock, wagtails and wrens.


Then there are cheesy fir cones: the gaps in pine or fir cones can be crammed with bird cake mixture, raisins, sunflower seeds, (good quality) peanuts, or bird seed, then hung from branches, the bird table or hide them under shrubs or bushes; the hanging cones are ideal for tits or finches; those on the ground or bird table will be found by starlings, blackbirds, thrushes, robins and sparrows.

Blackbird (below right)

How about a speedy bird cake? Mix together good quality bird seed, some peanuts, raisins and a little grated cheese; then add about 85 gm (3 oz) of softened suet or lard – mix well. Using an empty yoghurt pot for example – make a hole in the bottom, thread a knotted piece of string through, so that the pot will hang up, put in the ‘cake’ leave to set & then hang out. Or meld a few balls of the mixture and leave on the bird table. These will be loved by tits, greenfinch and possibly a great spotted woodpecker.

Last but not least – how about peanut butter cracks ?..... very easy. Just spread beanut butter into cracks in walls, fences or trees and you will attract tits, wrens and nuthatches.

Wren (our smallest bird)

Blackbirds in this country in the summer have the most wonderful dawn chorus, a really evocative mellow song, which really has to be considered the finest song of all British thrushes, and is the most common bird seen in our gardens. Recently I came home in the twilight and heard that magical song again .... so they have long days!
Robin (to the right)

Wild Monty – a British wildlife lover, who is not called Monty! – but blogs about the birds, wildlife, and plants around his home patch of Bristol. On a google ‘Cri de Coeur’, up popped Wild Monty with the answer to my summer dawn chorus .. that it must be a blackbird. Now I’ve popped back and he records having seen Chaffinches, Long-tailed Tits, Robins, a Wren, Blue Tits, a Great Tit, half a dozen Starlings, and as he describes them the usual gaggle of House Sparrows, three Blackbirds and a Grey Squirrel. In his local Park some other species. I must remember to keep looking at his blog as a learning curve and for general interest.

The most common birds in 2009 were the sparrow, starling and blackbird, while some of the most unusual birds included the skylark, the meadow pipit and the tawny owl. What will be found in 2010 – will the robin, that most English of birds featured predominantly at Christmas time, drop lower than its number seven of last year? We must wait and see.

House Sparrow
What birds do you have in your garden?
Blackbird Song, Garden Birds too - YouTube video:

Dear Mr Postman – my mother is getting better and though she now can’t hear – I guess because of the throat infection – it’s an improvement. It is now obviously difficult as she can’t hear – so communication is tricky .. let us just hope this comes back soon. Yesterday was glorious – we had bright blue skies and a lovely sun .. further up the country they were struggling with snowstorms again.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Friday 29 January 2010

The Wigmaker, “Cottonpolis” and the first factory

Richard Arkwright started his young working life as a barber and wig-maker, opening his first shop in Bolton, Lancashire in the early 1750s. He was the youngest of thirteen children, and despite being poor his parents ensured he was able to read and write.

Arkwright obviously had a flair for learning and invention, as it was while he was working as a barber he invented a waterproof dye for use on the fashionable ‘periwigs’ (wigs) of the time, the income from which later facilitated the financing of prototype cotton machinery.

Wigs in the 17th century

Cotton had been spun, woven and dyed since prehistoric times. It had clothed the people of ancient India, Egypt and China before its use spread to the Mediterranean traders by the Arabs in the first century AD. The Moors introduced the cultivation of cotton into Spain in the 9th century, before it spread into Europe; little cotton was imported to England before the 15th century, when it was known as an imported fibre.

The indigenous species of cotton from Mexico, which has been cultivated for at least 8,000 years, now accounts for about 90% of the cotton production worldwide.

Marie Antoinette, in 1783, in her famous "muslin" portrait. (Muslin in England is a name given to sheer cotton fabrics, while in the States muslin is a firmer fabric, we know as calico).

Arkwright (1733 – 1792) is credited as the creator of the modern factory system. Arkwright’s achievement was to combine power, machinery, semi-skilled labour and a “new” raw material (cotton) to create, more than a century before Henry Ford, mass production. His mechanical abilities, his genius for organisation made him the person who pieced together the origin of the modern factory system.

Arkwright, together with his partner, a clockmaker, moved south to the textile heartland of 18th century England – Nottingham and Derby. His cotton mill at Cromford, Derbyshire was built specifically to house machinery rather than just bringing workers together and was one of the first instances of the working day being determined by the clock instead of daylight hours, and of people being employed rather than just contracted.
Gateway to Arkwright’s Mill

As well as being the ‘father of the factory system’ he is considered an innovator as he combined water power, the water frame and continuous production with modern employment practices. Entrepreneurs in the 18th and 19th centuries abounded with many inventions being borrowed, stolen, amended, melded out of other practical ideas; they struggled for money, for recognition of their achievements – if you were unable to raise sufficient funds to cover obtaining your patent, the likelihood was another entrepreneur would copy the process or specification.

Arkwright tried to obtain a grand patent covering many processes that he hoped would give him monopoly power over the fast-growing industry – but this was not to be: there was hostility to the granting of exclusive patents. Aggressive and self-sufficient, Arkwright proved a difficult man to work with, so he was able to buy out his partners and built more factories across England and Scotland.

Arkwright in 1790
Cromford Mill was the first water-powered cotton spinning mill in Derbyshire, which laid the foundation for Arkwright’s fortune and was quickly copied by other mills in Britain, Germany and the United States. Cromford was built in 1771 as a five storey mill and from 1772 it was run day and night with two 12 hours shifts. He started with 200 workers, but within two years employed 600 people; he built housing for them nearby, one of the first manufacturers to do so, as the locality could not supply sufficient workers.

He chose the site at Cromford, on a subsidiary of the River Derwent, because it had a year-round supply of warm water being drained from the local lead mine – ensuring that the water wheel had a constant supply of water at times of drought, and that would not freeze in winter, and lastly that would not be damaged through river flooding. The river water flowing through the Peak uplands was soft, which softened the cotton during the washing process.
Cromford Mill developed by Arkwright in 1771, now the centre piece of the Derwent Valley Mills, a World Heritage Site.

Future developments arising from the Industrial Revolution, notably the introduction of canals into Britain in 1757, and then the invention of the steam railway in 1794 completely revolutionised freight transport, particularly the transportation of cotton to the various textile centres, ensuring the England became criss-crossed by numerous interlinking transport exchanges. This was when the “cottonpolis” developed – the large mills powered by water turning machinery sprang up in and around Manchester, backed up the Industrial Revolution of reliable transport and the large port of Liverpool.

Arkwright will be remembered by most for his reformation of the way that people work. No one has had greater influence and indeed revolutionised industry than Sir Richard Arkwright. At 60 years of age, Arkwright died one of the richest men in England. It is estimated that his fortune amounted to something in the region of £500,000.

The fourth mill to be built in 1784 near to Cromford lives on over 200 years later, being run by the same family, the Smedley family, after Arkwright moved north to take advantage of 'cottonpolis’. The factory has been renovated and still operates as it did all those years ago, while having continued to invest in the latest technology for the new factory block, which now manufactures seamless long johns.

A wig-making entrepreneur brought the component parts of a factory under one roof for the first time – a long john cotton manufacturer continues a similar factory and its concept today – with (just) the Industrial Revolution in between!

Dear Mr Postman – arctic winds arrive again, and the possibility of snow, which should it arrive I may need my long johns! though if we’re lucky not down here; but it is noticeably lighter in the evenings. My mother finally seems to be improving and was awake for a little today, so that is good news.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Monday 25 January 2010

Haggis, Whisky and Poetry .. means only one thing "Robbie Burns"

Robert Burns’ birthday is remembered today, 25 January, with a celebratory Burns Night supper – they were originally held on the anniversary of his death in July, but now the traditional suppers occur on or around the 25th .. I might just scrape into the 25th, but I’m not celebrating, though we used to in South Africa – and I can tell you a heavy Burns Night meal is not the best thing for a hot January evening south of the equator.

Mind you here on a cold January day in England a supper of Scotch Broth, Haggis, Neeps and Tatties (above), and Cranachan (or a Tipsy Tart) sounds quite good to me. I have just celebrated his birthday with a piece of Scottish Shortbread and some tea!

Scotch broth, that quintessential soup from north of the border, traditionally made with barley, meat and vegetables, gives a full and hearty broth. Now haggis – that is another matter – an offal dish, with the ingredients minced up with onion, oatmeal, suet, and flavourings producing a sausage style dish.

The cranachan dessert also made from the ubiquitous oatmeal, raspberries, malt whisky, runny Scottish honey and double cream – sounds wonderful. Then to finish off - some cheese and biscuits, a decent coffee and another glass of whisky to settle the meal: sounds good to me (sans the whisky).

Cranachan – taken from Scottish Recipes
The Glen Garioch whisky featured here, is because I liked the colour .. not because I like whisky – I don’t; however the distillery is one of the oldest in Scotland dating back to1797. The location chosen in Aberdeenshire was in the celebrated ‘Valley of the Garioch’ (The Granary of Aberdeenshire) famous for producing the finest barley in all of Scotland, an indispensible ingredient in the making of whisky. The distillery has been through difficult times, but now incongruently is owned by a Japanese company!

As time unfolds and descriptions get attached to people they give us something of their background, and this is so true of Burns (he is also known as Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s favourite son, the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire and in Scotland as simply The Bard). So from these depictions we can deduce he is a poet and lyricist, a man of the soil, where he grew up and the fact that he is Scottish and cannot be claimed by another nation.

He had a tough life, as a self-educated farmer’s son, who schooled his own children in reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history, and also wrote for them “A Manual of Christian Belief”. In due time he would be grateful for his father’s education as Burns at one point trained and became a tax collector (an exciseman), which is probably not that well known.

His casual love affairs did not endear him to the elders of the local kirk and created for him a reputation for dissoluteness amongst his neighbours, which certainly would not have helped in promoting his writings. Burns was incredibly short of cash, or credit, and was encouraged to publish his works to fund his proposed passage to the West Indies. The success of this publication was immediate, and soon he was known across the country.

His reputation made, he was able to move to Edinburgh and became an accepted member of Society and it was during this time that he collaborated with James Johnson, a struggling music engraver and music seller with a love of old Scots songs and a determination to preserve them. Burns shared this interest and became an enthusiastic contributor.
The best-known portrait of Burns (1759 - 1796)

So Burns as well as writing magnificent romantic poetry, also made original compositions, collected folk songs from across Scotland and wrote in English as well as a “light” Scots dialect that was soft on the ears and easier to understand around the world. At least one of his poems and songs you will definitely have heard of – Auld Lang Syne, which is usually sung on at Hogmanay, the last day of the year.

So if you are celebrating a Burns Night sometime this week – then enjoy .. enjoy the poetry, enjoy the bagpipes, enjoy the ceremony (as there’s bound to be one!) and above all drink a toast to that celebrated Scotsman – Robert Burns.

The Bagpiper, by Hendrick ter Brugghen (17th Century, Netherlands).
It always amazes me how much our ancestors could achieve – Burns’ father educating all his seven children, as well as attempting to farm the land in very tough conditions; Burns’ dissolute life that still enabled him to rise up the ranks and become accepted by the establishment, while continuing to write, record and compose so many works that we continue to love to this day.

Dear Mr Postman .. yesterday was lovely, but today another grey damp January day .. one day nearer Spring I suppose! My mother is still not so good, but is improving very slowly.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Thursday 21 January 2010

A bet on the Eleven Cities Tour or the Winter Olympics being held?

The worst seems to have gone and the possible horrors of a repeat of the 1963 winter of frozen discontent have all but abated. A couple of stories came to light which generated memories of that winter and the fact that ponds, large and small, some rivers and the sea in places were all frozen solid, remaining so for weeks on end. It was probably my first memory of skating across frozen water – a childhood thing – and we had at some stage taken up ice skating as a hobby at one of the local rinks.

This year frozen swathes of meadows, rivers or canals brought surges to the hearts of Fenland Racers and the hardened tour skaters in Holland. Wilma, who now lives in New Zealand, commented on my recent post that:

I love the winter pictures and yet I am so pleased I am not living in a place where it can get that cold. In Holland they always get excited when it gets cold as every year they hope for a certain event to happen. It is the 11 cities skating event, where people skate from city to city, covering all eleven. The whole country is involved. It hardly ever happens though as it requires a continuous below zero temperature to produce strong enough ice that can carry the masses of participants."

So I had to find out more ..

The Fens, East Anglia -
on the Benelux map to the right,
Holland is depicted in stone-brown;
while the bump creeping in is East

Then the BBC mentioned that the Fenland Skating Centre hoped to stage some competitive speed skating events on the shallow flooded meadows in the Fens, as long as the temperature remained at or below sub-zero for a while longer, as had happened in the particularly icy winter of 1963.

Thousands of years ago the Netherlands and the Fens of East Anglia were joined but now both exhibit similar landscapes – hardly above sea level – water meadows, marshlands, lakes, canals and rivers with their rivulets; the Fens becoming a drained agricultural landscape; Holland with its extensive inland canal and waterway system, where any arable land is used for intensive agriculture, including horticulture and greenhouse agri-businesses.

Those cold winters so well recorded in the paintings by the Old Masters, as well as recorded in literature: both Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn recording seeing skating on the canal in St James’s Park in London during the winter of 1662. Pepys wrote: “... over to the Parke (where I first in my life, it being great frost, did see people sliding with their skeats which is a very pretty art) ...

The Skater, 1782, a portrait of William Grant by Gilbert Stuart

It is thought that the Finns were first to develop ice skates some 5,000 years ago from animal bones – leg bones of horses, ox or deer, which were attached with leather straps. A pole with a sharp spike was used to propel the skater forward.

Early Fen skates came across from France or Holland in the 1600s and were called ‘fenrunners’ with the footstock being made of beechwood, then screwed into the heel of the boot, while three small spikes at the front kept the skate steady, with leather straps providing extra fastenings.

Fen Runners

Fenskating became extremely popular in the regularly severe winters of the 1600s – 1900s – so much so .. that skating matches were held in towns and villages all over the Fens. In these local matches men (sometimes women or children) would compete for prizes of money, clothing or food – for example joints of meat being hung outside the village pub, to be skated for on the morrow.

In the late 1800s skating boots appeared and were adapted to the different disciplines, eg ice hockey boots, figure skates; tour skating uses special long blades attached, via bindings, to hiking or cross-country ski boots and are used for long distance skating on natural ice. The length of the blades makes touring skates more stable on uneven natural ice than skates with shorter blades.

Wilma’s mention of the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour) as the world’s largest and longest speed skating competition and leisure skating tour, is held irregularly in Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands. The tour, almost 200 km (125 miles) in length, goes along frozen waterways between eleven historic Frisian cities.

This rare event creates a huge buzz across Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands, because since its inauguration in 1909 the tour has only been held 15 times, as temperatures do not fall enough to provide the required thickness (15 cm or 6 inches) of ice along the course.

About 15,000 skaters take part, amateurs and pros, cheered on by almost 2 million spectators, one in eight of the whole population. The winners are hailed as national heroes. In the mythical 1963 race, just 136 crossed the line out of 10,000 who set out in a raging blizzard – due to the extremely low temperatures (-18 deg C / 0.4 deg F) and a harsh Siberian wind.

Wilma’s description that the whole country gets excited, with a huge momentum of media attention – as only climate expectation really brings on .. the “will they be able to hold the event” .. or “not”? It looks unlikely .. but so near & yet so far for the Elfstedentocht 2010 .... I suspect we’d better put our bets on the certainty of this year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver from 12 – 18 February!!

Thank you Mr Postman - at least the weather has warmed up a little. My mother is ok, but has an infection of some description that we're trying to resolve - not easy with her condition: but she is just very tired and sleeps lots.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Sunday 17 January 2010

Turning a team of oxen - any idea how?

Well - that’s the question I was asked by Jannie as she commented on my recent post on Books, books, Glorious books. The time is over - the moment is here no more waiting with bated breath for a posting on how a farmer turns his oxen! Extraordinary question .. but there we are – it’s a rum old world ..

J K Rowling in Harry Potter uses the spelling “baited breath” thus, while Shakespeare uses “with bated breath, and whispring humblenesse” in ‘A Merchant of Venice’ (1596).

Ploughing with oxen. A miniature from an early-sixteenth-century manuscript of the Middle English poem God Spede ye Plough, held at the British Museum

Do oxen get bated breath? The answer is ‘they must’ .. because it was established that a furlong (furrow length) (40 rods) was the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting. (Plough or plow – you takes your pick .. !!)

In the picture above the medieval ploughman on the right appears to carry a goad, a traditional farming implement used to spur the oxen on from time immemorial.

Egyptian goddess Neith - bearing her war goddess symbols, the crossed arrows and shield on her head, the ankh and the Egyptian goad

The emergence of farming as confirmed by the Sumerian Farmer’s Almanac clay tablet (dated between 1500 – 1700 BC) confirms the emergence of urban societies in ancient Mesopotamia. This Ancient Near East civilisation existed for a long period of time from circa 5,300BC until circa 600BC.

Domestication of oxen in Mesopotamia and by its contemporary the Indus Valley Civilisation provided mankind with the pulling power to develop the plough and thus cultivation of more land.

Ancient Mesopotamia
The name furlong derives from the Old English words of furh (furrow) and lang (long). Dating back at least to the 9th century, it originally referred to the length of the furrow in one acre of ploughed open field (a medieval communal field which was divided into strips).

The system of long furrows arose because turning a team of oxen pulling a heavy plough was difficult. An acre (in old usage) is an area that is one furlong long and one chain (22 yards) wide.

The furlong (660 feet) has historically been viewed as equivalent to the ancient Roman unit of measurement “the stadium” (625 feet), which in turn derived from the Greek System. These ancient Roman units of measurement were built on the Hellenic (Greek) system, which had been based on the Egyptian system, and were comparatively consistent and well documented.

After the fall of Rome, Medieval Europe continued with the Roman system, which proceeded to “diversify” leading to serious complications in trade, taxation etc. At the turn of the 14th century (1300), England by decree standardized a long list of measures, including important units of distance and length, for example: foot, yard, rod, furlong and mile.
Ancient Egyptian plough, circa 1200 B.C. Mural in burial chamber of Sennedjem. Scene: Plowing farmer in Osiris’s House. Sennedjem was an ancient Egyptian artisan – one of his titles was “Servant in the Place of Truth” – meaning that he worked on the excavation and decoration of the nearby royal tombs.

The historical rod length is 16 ½ feet and may have originated from the typical length of a medieval ox-goad. 4 rod lengths would be the medieval field strip width of each furlong ploughed.
These farm-derived units of measurement remained in use and were used in the new worlds by the settling immigrants. They were all based around the amount of land an ox, or team of oxen could plough.

There would be differences as different soils in separate countries would make the base unit of medieval land area slightly different – but the principles of standardising measurement remained.

This is probably more clearly explained in Wikipedia’s article on Furrow – and there is an excellent depiction. The farm-derived units of measurement are explained thus:

1. The rod is a historical unit of length equal to 5½ yards. It may have originated from the typical length of a medieval ox-goad.
2. The furlong (meaning furrow length) was the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting. This was standardized to be exactly 40 rods.

3. An acre was the amount of land tillable by one man behind one ox in one day. Traditional acres were long and narrow due to the difficulty in turning the plough.

4. An oxgang was the amount of land tillable by one ox in a ploughing season. This could vary from village to village, but was typically around 15 acres.

5. A virgate was the amount of land tillable by two oxen in a ploughing season.

6. A carucate was the amount of land tillable by a team of eight oxen in a ploughing season. This was equal to 8 oxgangs or 4 virgates.

Ploughs were pulled by oxen until the domestication of draft horses suitable for slow heavy work, but oxen continue to be used in subsistence arable farming, and were even used here in Sussex until the early twentieth century.
Ploughing in the Nivernais, France by Rosa Bonheur: Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

It appears that to turn the oxen, a decent space is required, hence strip farming – whereby the oxen team can go up one furlong length, turn at right angles for 4 rod lengths, enabling the turn to be made, before ploughing the reverse furlong length, and so on.

So as I mentioned in my post on Books, Books, Glorious Books ... written text originally copied the method of driving an ox when ploughing a field – so alternate lines of writing read in opposite directions!

It has been an interesting subject – and one that has taken me from writing texts, to standards of measurement through the ages, and that I certainly did not expect when I started researching ‘How a Team of Oxen turn when ploughing’.

Measurements are a quagmire subject to discuss – but I love the old names and their derivations .. Chain, Rod, Ell, Hands, Fathoms, Stones ..

Here are two short videos on Ox Ploughing – amazing what you find! The American one has hill-billy music included (if that’s right?), while the Ugandan reflects life as it is and was for thousands of years – except now there’s a camcorder around!
You Tube: (1 min 24 secs) Plowing (American spelling) a Field with Oxen – Old Sturbridge Village. Historian Emily Pawley tries her hand at ploughing a field 1830s style behind a team of Red Devon oxen at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.
You Tube: (1 min 13 secs) In January 2004, on Mt. Elgon, eastern UGANDA. The Sabiny is a Southern-Nilotic people living on the north slope of the mountain and the population is about 110,000. Many of them said that their ethnicity is related Kalenjin who have many branches in Kenya. In the last decades of the 20th century, hybrid maize growing became more popular and nowadays fields of maize and bananas cover the landscape. In recent years, maize has become the main crop. They use usually four oxen, sometime when the soil of the field very hard they use six (not only two like other ethnic groups), for tilling their maize field. They call this system as "sbaidit ak yeeyik". This movie I (Slystonester) took near from Cheminy centre

An additional note 2 Oct 2011 - Historical measure of land area equal to a quarter of an acre of 40 square perches is a Rood.

Dear Mr Postman – thank you for visiting .. at least the snow has almost gone. My mother still hasn’t quite got over her throat chesty cold, but we had a chat for half an hour and had a look at some iphone photos .. which she has taken to her heart. We’re going to do a revamp of the decorations this week – so I shall be kept busy – I needed to warn her, as it will interrupt her quietness, and she will be prepared.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Saint Hilary, Happy Anniversary, Hilary Term and ..

Guess what today is? Well a few things actually – yes St Hilary’s Day, as well as two celebrations and a few connective links. Have you ever wondered where the word ‘humour’ comes from – the Greek; from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks, which stated that a mix of liquids known as humours controlled human health and emotion.

Smiling can imply a sense of humour and a state of amusement, as in this painting of Falstaff by Eduard von Grützner (1846 – 1925)

Well today is a day for emotions – celebratory emotions .. this little blog has commenced its second year – which amazes me .. and to all my readers and followers – I say THANK YOU! I’ve enjoyed the creation and am amazed at the pleasure it gave my uncle and still gives my mother – she always asks what the next story will be about .. as in fact do quite a number of others who have no access to the internet. This next year will see new things springing up giving it new shoots.

I seem to be true to my blog name and my ‘given name’ – as Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, in his book Authentic Happiness, describes happiness as consisting of “positive emotions” and “positive activities”. Being happy and cheerful as I go through life seem to apply, especially as the derivation comes from the Latin for ‘hilarious’.

The best medicine is laughter and my mother and I laugh together at all sorts of funny stories I bring in to tell her about. We all respond to humour, whatever age or culture we are from, and I’m grateful that my blog has allowed me, at times, to express my sense of humour.

A sense of humour can depend on so many variables, including geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, intelligence and context. We as children used to love slapstick .. and often watched Charlie Chaplin, or Tom and Jerry on 16 mm film hired by my father, with great roars of childish laughter ringing out.

St Hilary (c300 – c368AD) was Bishop of Poitiers, in France, and a Doctor of the Church. His parents were pagans of distinction, but made sure he had a good education, including some Greek, before he studied Old and New Testament writings with the result that he embraced the Roman Catholic Church.

The Ordination of Saint Hilary. From a 14th century manuscript.

Ultimately Augustine of Hippo designated St Hilary as “the illustrious doctor of the churches” Hippo Regius was a major city in Roman Africa, situated in modern Algeria, and was the home to Augustine (354 – 430D), the philosopher and theologian, who is one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity.

Well the judiciary very kindly named their court sittings after me – so this term is known as the Hilary Term – I am now ancient – of the early medieval variety??!! The judges and their courts travelled the country over seven circuits to the Assizes in various towns, to hear the cases, in four sessions known as terms: Michaelmas, Hilary, Easter and Trinity.

Oxford and Dublin Universities similarly named the January term “The Hilary Term” after the Feast of St Hilary, which they declare is on 14th January ... however the academic year consists of three terms. Oxford University has no clear foundation date, but teaching existed in some form from 1096, and it is acknowledged as the oldest surviving University in the world.

Today, (if I get on with it!) the13th, is Saint Hilary’s day according to the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, but in the past when this date was occupied by the Octave Day of the Epiphany, his feast was moved to 14th January . An Octave Day as here allows for an eight day period to observe certain major feasts, such as the Epiphany.

I’ve had a quiet day, birthdays in January in the snow and ice don’t really portend well for partying – still I have lots of rain checks! I seem to have heard from friends around the world – South Africa, Australia, Abu Dhabi, America and lots of friends from here .. so all in all – lots of happy thoughts: can’t do much about the weather.

So for now – Happy Birthday to me .. all of 62, Happy first Anniversary to my blog .. lots of information on the name Hilary and how appropriately I am named, especially as my father was at Oxford University (I only made the school there!), and was a lawyer; (see above) there’s a church of St Hilary in Cornwall in the village of that name (but I don’t think they named it after me!), which has Roman connections – them Romans got everywhere!? Oh yes – and I live at number 13!

I know the light shines out!

Dear Mr Postman – well done for venturing out in this unfavourable weather – and I thank you for the cards that you’ve left for me – her and up with my mother. My poor Ma is not too well – she has a fever and raging sore throat – and in the three years she’s been ill .. she’s only had one other minor infection – she is one strong lady & my mother – bless her.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Sunday 10 January 2010

Start of weather forecasting, some stats and memories ...

I remember, I remember the great British freeze of 1962 – 1963 – we built a proper igloo from home-made frozen blocks and it remained in the garden for nearly six months; then I was ill and couldn’t go to school, so stayed at home for a week or two until we had to set off intrepidly sometime at the end of January.

We’d had to clear our long drive first, about 30 metres, and then head out to my school at Oxford (45 miles away). What had been amazing at home, was quite extraordinary once out and about. The roads and skyline had completely changed – the hedges had vanished under the white of drifting snow ... snow ploughs were out shovelling vast swathes of thick white stuff off the roads.

A new wave of very cold weather, with temperatures dropping to as low as −45 °C (−49 °F), affects much of Europe. NASA Satellite Image of Great Britain and Europe dated 7 January 2010.

At home we’d had enormous icicles hanging down – but none like these in Teesdale - and I remember the outside playroom full of fairy lights in the bright white light of a snowy landscape. I was then ill at the end of term – this is not a norm (.. this a very healthy bod here!) – and I was lying, isolated – oh yes! .. nasty little virusy thing they didn’t want me contaminating the world – I was one of 9 people in Oxford, who had similar symptoms: I’m none the wiser now, except for the scarring.

Going back to the weather of 1963 and the aftermath – lying in my sick bed, sick of the newspaper, sick of reading, sick of playing clock patience, sick of cards .. et al!!! .. but bemused by the meltdown.. The snow melted during March and slowly gravitationally made its way to the rivers – the River Thames valley was flooded as far as the eye could see, as shown in the newspaper – these pictures did interest me.

The next year we knocked down part of the old house, probably a cottage, added on over the years, and it may well have been a small dairy farm – remember even though we were only 25 miles from Oxford Street in London, in those days we were in the country ... suburbia and “Greater, greater London” had not pushed its tentacles out beyond our house in Surrey, as it has now. In the rafters as the demolishment took place, the builders found a piece of wood which had burnt into it “1848 is very cold”!

A walker admires a giant wall of icicles in Teesdale – icicles cling from the overhanging shrubbery and stretch around 15 feet to the floor into the freezing water below. Courtesy of North News & Pictures Ltd – Daily

As we were starting to come along in the late 1940s and early 1950s family and friends came to visit – out house was not warm! Though to be fair I don’t think anyone had really warm houses. We were born in January or February – rather cold months in England – as they’re proving now. My father’s elder brother often remarked to me over the years .. that visiting me as a new born was pretty awful – I might have been a joy to behold, but even I couldn’t warm up his freezing heart .. he couldn’t wait to get home!

So as we’re now living under the same sort of conditions – the house is warmer: thank goodness! – but like then everything is grinding to a halt – though a great many of us are suffering similar fates as I hear and see similar thoughts being gently posted around the blogosphere. There are differences that have occurred through the ages.

Over a 30 year period, Gordon Manley (1902 – 1980), an English climatologist, assembled the Central England Temperature series of monthly mean temperatures stretching back to 1659. This was no mean feat and is considered a notable example of scientific scholarship and perseverance, which has proved to be extremely valuable to meteorologists and climate scientists from the time it was published in 1953.

Big freeze cars 1963... Then Siberian winds delivered inches and inches of the stuff! c/o BBC London - Big Freeze 1963 Gallery

At times of extremes the public tend to get a little excited by figures representing events we have experienced, or events we feel we can understand a little better through the representation of numbers, and most often are grateful we were not present.

Manley recorded the winter months of 1683 – 1684 as an extremely harsh winter with an average temperature of -1.17C, the 1962 – 3 winter was the third coldest, with an average of -0.33C. The Little Ice Age had three minima periods beginning about 1650, 1770 and 1850 as often depicted by the painters of the day.

On 10 January 1982 Braemar, a Scottish village, recorded the lowest temperature in the UK of -27.2 degrees Centigrade, while two days ago the lesser temperature of – 22.3C at Altnaharra is on a similar temperature to Antarctica, and last week temperatures in parts of England and Scotland been lower than Norway and Finland – I’m glad I live in the south!

Winter skating on the main canal of Pompenburg, Rotterdam (Holland) in 1825, shortly before the minimum, by Bartholomeus Johannes van Hove

The Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy RN (1805 – 1865) achieved lasting fame as the captain of HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin’s famous voyage, as a pioneering meteorologist who made accurate weather forecasting a reality. He was an able surveyor and hydrographer – bringing all of his talents to bear when, in 1854, he was appointed “Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade”, which department was the forerunner of the modern Meteorological Office, and was set up as a service to mariners.

Since then times have changed – The Times Newspaper published the first daily weather forecasts in 1860; forecasts were broadcast by BBC Radio in 1922; Forecasters advised General Eisenhower of a 36-hour ‘weather window’ for the D-Day landings. "Probably the only day during the month of June on which the operations could have been launched," President Truman later declared;

Then of course there’s the net to check things now: and I do remember on 11 September 1981 in Johannesburg (at the start of Spring) that suddenly while we were all work we had four inches (10 cms) of snow! An unseen sight and everyone was amazed – I worked for a large organisation in our own head office with a large car park and it was full of South Africans with paper cups full of the white stuff – touching, tasting, dancing around and having snow ball fights!

What amazing sights of white stuff do you remember, were you involved in ..?

Guess where the rooves are? Eastbourne - from my attic bedroom window - the four spires: far left is the Catholic Church; Town Hall with clock at 10.00 a.m. on 7 January 2010; and the two flags fly high(ish) over the central police station.

Dear Mr Postman – I went up to my mother today and was able to show her some of the pictures of a snowy Eastbourne and chat about the 1963 winter. We haven’t had a huge amount of snow down in the town and today we’ve had a bit of a thaw – though another snowstorm is due .. we wait and see!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Wednesday 6 January 2010

How are the Incense Trail, Skyscrapers and the San Francisco fishing fleet connected?

It is surprising that the value of sap from a gnarled tree growing high in the mountains of Oman spawned a 2,000 mile trading route, now known as the Frankincense Trail. Presumably pre-historic man overcome with the pungent, aromatic, sweet odour of the burning branches, realised that the sticky sap once hardened, would be easier to carry as a valuable trading good – and was not that a wise choice – just as Caspar, one of the Wise Men, carried Frankincense to welcome Jesus into the world.

A panoramic view of the great hypostyle hall in the Precinct of Amun Re, Karnak

Oman’s climate is extremely hot and dry with a vast gravel desert plain covering most of the central region, surrounded by mountain ranges in the north and south . The city of Salalah is known as the perfume capital of Arabia due to its natural attractions of the nearby mountains and abundant stands of frankincense trees.

These trees have been able to grow in the fog strewn mountain valleys, as the moisture-laden winds of the summer’s southwest monsoon, blow across the Arabian Sea; as the wind rises over the mountains, the slight drop in temperature is sufficient to create great banks of cloud and mist.

From mid June to mid September the region assumes the appearance of a leaden grey autumn in England, the damp clinging to every standing object – be it plant, animal or man.

The Boswellia Sacra (Frankincense tree) grows in the dry wadis (valleys) on the desert side of the mountains where the cooling effects of the monsoon winds can still be felt but their moisture has been sucked dry by the desert climate –the Boswellia tree has adapted to this harsh environment.

Arabian Peninsula Map - courtesy of myMidEastThoughts Blog, with the map being provided by jepeterson Site Builder - Arabian Peninsula map.

Frankincense comes in a surprising range of shades between brown and an almost translucent milky white colour that is the sign of the finest quality of Frankincense, in fact the Arabic name for Frankincense, Luban, refers to this pale milky white colour. The sap exudes naturally, but for commercial collection the tree is cut and is harvested during the peak of the summer months.

Frankincense’s value has been because it was used in religious rites for thousands of years, as well as now being used for perfume, as an air freshener, an insect repellent, a fragrance in homes, and as an essential welcome to guests all of which continue to this day.

The camel trains following the trading routes criss-crossed Asia from the Mediterranean, Persia, Ancient India and into Ancient China and were important paths for cultural, commercial and technological exchange between traders, merchants, pilgrims, missionaries and nomads for almost 5,000 years.

Historically camels were the only real form of overland travel as they could survive for a month without needing water, while at the same time providing the nomads and travellers with all their needs – skins for clothes and covering for tents, meat to eat, milk to drink, providing shelter with their bodies against the dust storms, transport for both man and his goods, and they could take heavy loads. The camel trains as they are known were the lifeline for many peoples, and are still revered today.

A footbridge in Shaharah, Yemen

The original journey from the high Dofar range in Oman went through the mountains into Yemen, along a track that has been used for millennia, through a walled gate where taxes were collected for over 1,000 years. The city of Shibam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has houses made out of mud brick, about 500 of them are tower houses, which rise 5 to 11 stories high – it is often called “the oldest skyscraper city in the world” or “the Manhatten of the desert” – some are over 100 feet (30m+) high.

In recent times due to tribal insurgents the route now goes south to Aden, which has over the centuries become rich on the sea trade. Trading by sea only really became possible with the advancement of seafaring about 1800 years ago and it certainly speeded up the trading route, camels would take twice as long.

However camel trade continued across and into the Arabian Desert a huge Sand Sea larger than the area of France, with thousands of constantly moving sand dunes (they do move and quite quickly! – I saw the evidence in Namibia). This Desert has one of the harshest environments on earth.

Crossing the Red Sea to connect with the Nile became essential to satisfy the huge trade with the Pharaohs. A traditional Frankincense boat made from palm trees, known as the Felucca, is still used today as it skims across the fast flowing current of the Nile.

Feluccas at Luxor

An aside: Americans are largely unaware of the fleet of lateen-rigged feluccas that thronged San Francisco’s docks in the late 1800s, and were built by southern Italian immigrants. The light small manoeuvrable feluccas were the mainstay of the fishing fleet of San Francisco Bay!

The Pharaohs had an insatiable appetite for frankincense and burnt it on a huge scale, which increased its value (it was more valuable than gold); they burnt it day and night for feasts and burial rites. Karnak, perhaps could be described as God’s home on earth, as the site covering two square kilometres, holds nearly every Pharaoh’s legacy. Frankincense in huge quantities has been burnt here every day and night for over 4,000 years.

The route continued on through Arabia into Sinai, on to the Middle East and to the Orthodox Churches further north, into Egypt and along the Mediterranean coast satisfying the ritualistic demands of all religions, some of which continue to this day.

Map of the Arabian Desert. Ecoregions as delineated by the WWF. Satellite image from NASA. The yellow line encloses the ecoregion called "Arabian Desert and East Sahero-Arabian xeric shrublands", and two smaller, closely related ecoregions called "Persian Gulf desert and semi-desert” and "Red Sea Nubo-Sindian tropical desert and semi-desert". National boundaries are shown in black.

The connection of a spice trail, mud skyscrapers, and the palm felucca design being taken to San Francisco by the Italians ties this human race of ours in so many ways and over so many years.

Dear Mr Postman .. delivering post has been difficult today – down here we have mostly had slush, but tonight it will be different as it gets colder and the roads become icy; other parts of the country have had heavy falls .. personally I remember the 1962 – 1963 winter and so far there can be no comparisons: though I did see today an Eskimo hut being made from blocks, and we made one in 1963 of blocks of snow - obviously” the right sort of snow” for making igloos!!

My mother was sleeping and as I’m now driving an automatic – it made life interesting! I’ve made sure my neighbour, who fell the other day, has all she needs and I’ve stayed put this afternoon ... though have offered my services to the Home should they need an extra pair of hands .. as I’m in the town and only just over a mile away.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Three Wise Men – Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh and Chalk

What's the connection with chalk, wise men, the stars and three valuable commodities - well it is the Feast of the Epiphany.

Magi, a plural term in Latin, or based on the word in ancient Greek, Persian and English ‘magus’, which since at least the 4th century BC denotes a follower of Zoraster – a person able to read the stars.

Byzantine depiction of the Three Magi in a 7th-century mosaic at Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

Among the ancient Medes and Persians, the Magi were members of the priestly caste credited with great occult powers, and deriving their knowledge from the Brahmins of India: this was chronicled by Ammianus Marcellinus (330 – 391AD), a Roman historian and by the earlier Arrianus (86 – 146 AD) in his account of Alexander the Great’s foray into India, expressly called the Brahmins “magi”.

The Three Wise Men of the East, in Christian tradition, brought gifts to the infant Saviour guided by the Star of Bethlehem. These Three Kings as they were also known, and recorded in the popular carol “WeThree Kings of Orient Are” brought gold, frankincense and myrrh as offerings.

The first king of the east, named Melchior – meaning “King of Light”, offered Gold, the emblem of royalty; as a symbol of kingship on earth, or more generally described as symbolizing virtue.

Gold crystals

Caspar – meaning “the White One” – the second king, offered Frankincense in token of divinity; the incense is a symbol of priest-ship and prayer.

While the third king, named Balthazar – meaning “The Lord of Treasures”, offered Myrrh in prophetic allusion to the persecution unto death which awaited the “Man of Sorrows”. Myrrh is the embalming oil, symbolising suffering.

These three gifts were all extremely valuable to the communities of those days: gold came from the Nubia region of southern Egypt and northern Sudan and was claimed (in Egyptian hieroglyphics (2,600BC)) to have been “more plentiful than dirt”. (Similarly gold was found in other areas such the Indus valley and middle America, reflecting early man’s use of the precious metal).

Frankincense is an aromatic resin obtained by tapping the Boswellia genus of tree and is particularly used in incense, perfume, as well as being an essential insect repellent. This hardy scraggly tree is unusual for its ability to grow in environments so unforgiving that they sometimes seem to grow directly out of solid rock.

Omani frankincense is said to be the best in the world, although the fine resin also comes from the Yemen and along the northern coast of Somalia. Recently the Frankincense Trail or Incense Road has shown the value of frankincense because of this long trading route through southern Arabia – see my next post.
Indirect burning of frankincense on a hot coal

Myrrh is a reddish-brown resinous material, the dried sap of a number of trees, but primarily from Commiphora myrrha, which is native to Yemen, Somalia and eastern parts of Ethiopia; while the sap is obtained from other Commiphora and Balsamodendron tree species in Jordan and Eastern India.

Myrrh was imported by the Ancient Egyptians as far back as 3,000BC when they used it to embalm their dead, as an antiseptic and burned it for religious sacrifice. It was also used as a constituent in perfume and incense. The Eastern Orthodox Church still uses myrrh to scent the “holy oil” used when performing the sacrament of “receiving the Myrrh”.

In Ancient Rome myrrh was priced at five times as much as frankincense, though the latter was more popular – because it was cheaper?, and often myrrh was worth more than its weight in gold. Myrrh has become synonymous with the word for “perfume”, and Pliny the Elder refers to it specifically as the “Royal Perfume”.

Over the centuries, differing churches and sects of Christianity have changed the actual traditions, time frame and their interpretations; in the western Church this period of the twelve days of Christmas and festivities known as Christmastide now traditionally ends on January 5th, before the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th.

Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, i.e. to the Wise Men from the East. The Christians fixed this date quite early in their history. The earliest reference to Epiphany as a Christian feast was in AD 361 by Ammianus Marcellinus, where he asserts that January 6th is Christ’s “Birthday; that is His Ephiphany”.
Journey of the Magi (top) and Adoration of the Magi (side) on a Limoges champlevé enamel châsse, ca 1200 (Musée de Cluny, Paris)

On the Feast of the Epiphany, the priest, wearing white vestments, will bless the Epiphany water, frankincense, gold and chalk. Chalk being used to write the initials of the three Magi over the doors of churches and homes. The letters stand for the initials of the Magi (Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar) and also the phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, which translates as “may Christ bless the house”.

According to ancient custom, the priest announced the date of Easter on the feast of Epiphany. This tradition dated from a time when calendars were not readily available and the church need to publicise the date, since many celebrations of the liturgical year depend on it.

Somali Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha)
Easter is a moveable feast, meaning it is not fixed in relation to the civil calendar, but is set as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the vernal equinox. Ecclesiastically, the equinox is reckoned to be on March 21st, and the date of Easter therefore varies between March 22nd and April 25th. This year (2010) it will fall on April 4th.

So now comes the clever bit! In my recent post on Blue Moons, I mentioned the nineteen year period, when a thirteenth or blue moon appeared in seven of those calendar years. This period of 19 years is used to determine the date of the Paschal Full Moon each year, because it produces a set of civil calendar dates for the ecclesiastical moons that repeats every nineteen years, while still providing a reasonable approximation to the astronomical facts.

This Metonic cycle has been named after the Greek astronomer, Meton of Athens, when he introduced a formula to harmonise the calendar with the solar year, circa 432BC. The cycle’s most significant contemporary use is to help in flight planning (trajectory calculations and launch window analysis) for lunar spacecraft missions, as well as serving as the basis for the Hebrew calendar’s 19 year cycle, while also as previously mentioned the setting of the Christian Feast of Easter.

Dear Mr Postman – my mother seems to be sleeping quite a lot recently – and I don’t blame her tucked up warm and cosy in her bed. The cold, ice and snow do not abate – and the country is slowly grinding to a halt today – we have had a flurry here on the south coast, but the clouds were foreboding, and the weather forecast does not make kind reading.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories