A new home for my blog!

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My blog has a new home on my new website!

Note: if you comment from this point forward on this blogger blog, I will likely not see it. All these posts are on my website now, so please comment there. Thank you!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Here's a quick round up of news on a wet day in Oxfordshire!

First up, thank you to everyone who entered yesterday's blog contest to win a copy of Whisper of Scandal and the beautiful bookmark kindly donated by Mary Gramlich. The winner, chosen as ever by Monty the dog, was Zaziah! Congratulations!

Next book news, and the lovely Renee Olsthoorn has let me know that Confessions of a Duchess has just been published in Dutch and the other Brides of Fortune books are to follow. Thank you, Renee! It's always great to hear about foreign editions because I usually don't know until my copies arrive.

Today it is pouring with rain but at the weekend it was beautiful weather and I had the pleasure of a visit from romantic comedy author and fellow history enthusiast Victoria Connelly. Here is Victoria and her adorable dog Molly at my all time favourite historic house, Ashdown (of course!) No, I wasn't holding the camera at an angle - the house really is built on a slope!

Today is my last blog post for a couple of weeks whilst A Passion for History migrates to my exciting new website. Please come and join me there (http://www.nicolacornick.co.uk/) when I launch the week of 23rd August! There will be the usual mix of history, news, contests and chat and I look forward to seeing old friends and making new ones. I'd like to thank all my blog visitors very much for making the Passion for History Blog such fun. See you soon!

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Regency Country Cottage!

Today I am blogging at the Word Wenches on the Regency country cottage and the fact that the "mean habitations" of the villagers were a far cry from the rustic prettiness of the "gentleman's cottage." Visit the Word Wenches blog here!

Meanwhile I have a giveaway here on the blog! Mary Gramlich "The Reading Reviewer" located at www.marygramlich.com has very kindly donated her Advanced Reading Copy of Whisper of Scandal along with a lovely book mark to celebrate the start next month of my new series. If you would like to enter the contest for this ARC please go to her website and tell me what there is a picture of at the bottom left hand corner of her home page. Clue: It's most appropriate for "The Reading Reviewer"! Email me the answer at ncornick@madasafish.com for the chance to win!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Wayward Women!

Thank you very much to all those who volunteered to help me test drive my new website!

Today I am blogging at the UK Historical Authors Blog about women travellers in the late 18th and early 19th century. Yes the photo is taken rather later than that (!) but I thought it summed up the intrepid spirit!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Plea for Help!

Hello! Today I'm asking for help with a spot of website testing. I have a brand new, gorgeous website coming soon and next week we need to test it to make sure there are no problems before launch. What I am looking for is people who enjoy reading historical romance books and who can also:

Spend 1-2 hours on the site, see if all the links work, surf around and report anything confusing, spot any errors or typos and give an overall impression of the site. I'll want people to be honest. I'm (not) thick skinned but I need to know anyway. Did you get bored? Did you get frustrated? Did you get lost? Did you love it? Did you want more? Is anything missing?

If you would like to help, please email me on ncornick@madasafish.com and I will send you all the details. I'm really excited about the site and want to make sure it's ready for launch.

And as a sign of my appreciation I am offering all my testers a small gift to say thank you for your work - an Amazon book token. Because you can never have too many books!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Lost in a Forest

There aren't many places in England (as opposed to the UK) where you can still get lost in a wilderness and there are even fewer ancient forests where you can wander for hours without seeing another person. Savernake Forest is one of those few remaining places.

Last weekend we were on another of our "butterflies and history" trips, this time in pursuit of the Purple Emperor, a fabulous gold and purple butterfly that lives in the tree canopy where it feeds on aphid honeydew. Occasionally it will come down to the ground to find sap or in the case of the male, animal droppings, carrion or moist ground to provide salts and minerals. Apparently people will often try and lure the males down from the canopy using everything from banana skins to shrimp paste. I hadn't read this when we set off and so had neither shrimps nor bananas and although we had our own animal with us there were no droppings so perhaps not surprisingly we didn't see a Purple Emperor but we did have a magnificent time wandering in the ancient woodland.

No-one can say how old Savernake Forest is. It pre-dates the Norman Conquest of 1066 and there is a reference to it as "Safernoc" in a Saxon Charter from King Athelstan in 934AD. After 1066 the wardenship of the forest was given to Richard Esturmy, a Norman knight, and Savernake Forest has passed down from father to son or daughter in an unbroken line for 31 generations, never once being bought or sold in a thousand years. Today it is the only Forest in Britain still in private hands.

One of Savernake's claims to fame is that it was here, at the fabulously named Wolf Hall, that Henry VIII courted Jane Seymour (although they apparently met at Littlecote House nearby). Wolf Hall, referred to as Ulfela, in the Domesday Book of 1086 was the ancestral home of the Wardens of the Forest, first the Esturmys and then the Seymours, who came to it via the female line. Local tradition states that Jane and Henry married in the ancient barn at Wolf Hall although it is more likely that a wedding feast was held there in celebration. The barn survived into the 20th century and when it burned down in the 1920s it apparently still had the hooks on which the wedding decorations and tapestries had hung. The Seymours had left Wolf Hall to live in Tottenham Lodge by 1575 (for a while it was given over to servant accommodation) and in 1665 it was partially demolished to help rebuild Tottenham Park after fire damage. The picture above left is a postcard of Wolf Hall from the early 20th century and the one on the right is the 16th century barn. The name Wolf Hall could have several derivations: either from "Wulfan -heall" (Wulfa's hall or palace) or "wulfan-healh" (a corner of land frequented by wolves). Wolves were common in the Savernake Forest until the 14th century, a fact which is all too easy to imagine as you walk along the leafy paths deep within green darkness.

By the 18th century the forest had come into the ownership of the Bruce family through marriage with the Seymours and a "new" Tottenham House was built in 1742 to a design by Lord Burlington. The family rose in prominence and Thomas Brudenell-Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury, was Governor to the Prince of Wales (later George IV) and Prince Frederick. The Earl employed Lancelot 'Capability' Brown to plant huge beech avenues in Savernake Forest including the Grand Avenue which runs through the heart of the Forest and at 3.9 miles (dead straight) stands in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest avenue in Britain. Capability Brown's intention was that the forest should be made part of the parkland of Tottenham House. The scattered coppices, meadows, scrub, and heath should be united, into "one great whole." Ancient ponds and wooded glades for animal grazing were all turned into landscape features and other drives and avenues cut through the forest. In 1820 Tottenham House was redesigned again, this time as a grand Palladian mansion, building a much larger structure around the older Burlington house and covering the old bricks with blocks of Bath stone. In 1870 two large symmetrical wings were also added completing the extraordinarily grand house that still stands today.

Facing Tottenham House, on a hilltop at the end of another long avenue, is the Ailesbury Column, erected in the 1770s to commemorate the restoration "to perfect health from a long and afflicting disorder" of his majesty King George III. I blogged about this recently on the UK Regency Authors' Blog in a post about the celebrations on the recovery of George III. This was where we stopped to have our picnic in the sunshine. The view down from the hilltop towards Tottenham House was stunning.

On our walk back through the forest (using GPS to find our way back to the car!) we passed a number of the huge, ancient oak trees for which Savernake is also famous. The oldest of these pollarded trees is the Big Belly Oak which has a girth of 11 metres and is 1000–1100 years old. Of a similar age is the Duke's Vaunt Oak, and other veteran trees we saw included the King Oak, the Queen Oak and the Pointing Oak. Savernake apparently has the largest collection of veteran trees in Europe and it is an amazing feeling to be walking amongst trees that would have been standing when King Henry VIII came here to hunt over this same ground.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Off to the Regency Races!

Here is a picture of Manchester racecourse during the nineteenth century. Today I'm blogging over at the Word Wenches about the Georgian and Regency experience of the races and race-going. As this is a blog about gambling there is an ARC of my new book Whisper of Scandal to be won! Please come and join me!

Monday, July 26, 2010

The case of the rival 17th century swimming pools!

Yes, I'm blogging about swimming again, which for someone who is afraid of water seems a bit odd. It must be all the hot and sunny weather we're having. But something caught my eye when I was reading the newspaper over the weekend and sent me off researching the gardens of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, a mysterious and secret world that is fascinating to explore.

And so to Emmanuel College Cambridge which claims that it has (probably!) the oldest swimming bath in the country that is still in use. This glorious little pool was in use as early as 1690 or possibly even earlier. A changing hut in the classical style was built about 1745 and the present thatched hut dates from the mid-19th century. By 1745 a 'plunge' was regarded as good for headache, and 'against the vapours and impotence'. In living memory the water in the pool was dark green with algae, so dark that a Fellow who liked to swim the whole length along the bottom complained that he lost his way. A line was painted to help him and known as Jones's Line. That sort of water quality doesn't sound very tempting and it's good to hear that these days the water is purified and re-circulated.

Emmanuel College's pool has a rival, however. In the paper this weekend was an article about the refurbishment of the pool at Christ's College. Archives there suggested that their Fellows' Bathing Pool was dug from the alluvial soil in a corner of the college garden in the mid-17th century. It was known to be in use by 1688, pipping Emmanuel by two years. The design of Christ College's bathing pool is classical with a perimeter decorated by busts of Christ's scholars including the astronomer Ralph Cudworth, poet John Milton, mathematician Nicholas Saunderson and polymath Joseph Mede.

Until its renovation earlier this year, Christ's pool was fed by Hobson's Conduit, a 400-year-old water course originally built to bring clean water into a disease ridden town. Over the past twenty years the pool had slipped into decline with various alternative uses being suggested including turning it into an ornamental duck pond. However it is now restored to its original beauty.
I like the idea of the rival colleges feverishly digging away in the mid 17th century to see who would be first with the bathing pool. Or possibly of Emmanuel College Fellows peering over the wall at Christ's College, envying them their new swimming pool, and wanting one of their own. No doubt the issue of which college, Emmanuel or Christ's, has the most ancient waters will continue to provoke debate!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Academic Crush of the Week - Doctor Who

Well, it's a sort of academic crush of the week plus the opportunity to post some lovely pictures. I missed this debate when it happened a month ago and have only just caught up with it but apparently at the Annual TV Lecture at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Stephen Fry, broadcaster, presenter, comedian and much more, criticised the BBC programmes Merlin and Doctor Who as being "like a chicken nugget. Every now and again we all like it … But if you are an adult you want something surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong... You want to try those things, because that's what being adult means.... The only drama the BBC will boast about are Merlin and Doctor Who, which are fine, but they're children's programmes. They're not for adults. And they're very good children's programmes, don't get me wrong, they're wonderfully written … but they are not for adults."

I like Stephen Fry very much. I think much of his work is witty, clever, thought-provoking, savoury, sharp, challenging and many of those other words he used above. I particularly admire him for the visibility he has brought to mental health issues and all the work he has done to combat prejudice in that area. But on this particular point, as both a writer and a viewer - oh, and as an adult - I think he is simply wrong.

First of all, a general point that a lot of commenters on this subject seem to have missed. We don't all like the same things in either our reading or our viewing. This doesn't make them right or wrong, it just means that some people don't like science fiction or westerns or thrillers or romance or whatever. The problem comes when people decide that because they don't like a particular genre it must mean that there is something wrong with it or that it is in some way intrinsically inferior. Now that really is wrong and patronising and snobbish and discourteous.

But back to Stephen Fry's comments. Personally I could (almost) live on a diet of chicken nuggets but I don't actually see either Doctor Who or Merlin in those terms. They are surely family shows for a start, neither exclusively for children or for adults but with a crossover appeal in the same sense that the Harry Potter books have crossover appeal. Some people "get" them, some don't. It doesn't mean that they are infantile. Besides, a childlike as opposed to childish perspective is not necessarily inferior to an adult one. Children see life in a very different way and I find that interesting. I'm frequently floored by questions from my nephews and nieces because their approach to the world is so different from my "adult" view. This alternative perspective can be stimulating and challenging. Let's not assume it's simplistic.

Okay there have been times when I have plotted myself into a corner and wished that I was a science fiction writer who could invoke the space time continuum to get me out of the situation I've got myself into. But the reason that I love both Doctor Who and Merlin is that they can be surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong. I care about the characters. They are multi-dimensional and strong. The stories have fundamental truths to tell. The characters have difficult, even heartbreaking, choices to make. On top of that the episodes are fast-moving, they are funny and they are clever. For me that's the heart of good storytelling. The penultimate episode of the most recent series of Doctor Who was one of the best pieces of writing I've ever seen. Of course a balanced diet is important in many ways. But stories such as these are far more than junk food.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I was tidying up my study and came across this article on gargoyles and it was so interesting I thought I would share it. Aren't they pretty!

The gargoyle originated as plumbing. They can be traced back to Ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome when decorated terracotta waterspouts depicting lions, eagles and other creatures were common. Today they are still visible on the Parthenon in Athens and at the ruins of Pompeii. The word "gargoyle" comes from the French gargouille (throat) from which the verb to gargle also derives.

The gargoyle was, however, a rather splashy way to dispose of rainwater and in 1241 King Henry III invented the drainpipe, instructing the Keeper of Works at the Tower of London "to cause all leaden gutters... to be carried down to the ground." Lead drainpipes began appearing in quantity in the Tudor period. At the top of these pipes where the gargoyle had originally sat, there was often an open-topped box known as a rainwater head. In the great houses this was often decorated with a coat of arms. It took until 1724 however for the drainpipe to catch on in cities. Prior to that a Londoner venturing out in a downpour would run the risk of a hundred water spouts cascading onto his head.

It was around 1220 that the gargoyle as decoration really leapt to fame, clinging to the corners and roofs of buildings. Medieval carvers let their imaginations run riot and created fantastical figures, animals, humans, some half and half. Magdalen College Oxford has a collection of hippopotami, wrestlers, a jester, a griffin, a greyhound, a camel and several monsters.

Some gargoyles were intended to ward off evil spirits. The gargoyles on Notre Dame in Paris are said to watch for drowning victims in the Seine and fly down at night to rescue them. I thought this picture was enough to inspire a paranormal romance! Some gargoyles display the physical characteristics of the devil including wings, fangs and clawed feet. A few gargoyles also represent real people, including those on the church at Winchcombe where the gargoyles include the Lord of the Manor.

The Victorian age saw a revival in gargoyles with many churches and country houses from the era bedecked with them, including Knightshayes Court in Devon and Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. Gargoyles also found new homes on the churches and skyscrapers of New York, Washington and Chicago. Washington National Cathedral has 112 gargoyles including one of a hippie, one of a crooked politician and one of Darth Vader!

So which gargoyle is your favourite?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Recipe of the Week - Do you like Piccalilli?

I almost didn't post up the recipe becaue I don't like pickles and chutneys. Then I thought this is like licorice - just because I don't like piccalilli doesn't mean that there aren't hundreds of people who do. So here is the recipe for those who do.

The origins of this familiar mustard-coloured pickle and its name are open to conjecture. Recipes date from the 18th century and because of the inclusion of spices they may have developed with Britain's expansion into India and the East. The most likely explanation is that the name is a pun on the words pickle and chilli.

1lb peeled button onions
1lb 8oz cauliflour florets
1lb 3oz chopped cucumber or courgette
1lb chopped green beans
3 red chillis cut into strips
Half a teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons mild curry powder
2 tablespoons mustard powder
2 teaspoons turmeric
2 teaspoons allspice
2 tablespoons ground ginger
8oz sugar
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
3 oz plain flour
2 and a half pints of malt vinegar

Add 3oz salt to 2 and a half pints of water and bring to the boil in a large pan. Add the vegetables and blanch for 5 minutes then drain well and run under cold water to cool. Put the sugar, flour and spices (except for the peppercorns) into a bowl with 3 or 4 tablespoons of vinegar and stir to form a paste. Put the rest of the vinegar, the peppercorns and the spice paste into a large pan and bring to the boil, stirring all the time. Lower the heat and cook for a little while until the sauce begins to thicken. Keep stirring! Take the pan off the hob and let it cool, stirring to get rid of any skin that may form. Combine the sauce and the vegetables in a clean bowl and leave in a cool place for 24 hours. After that make sure that the vegetables are mixed in well and covered by the sauce.. Bottle and label. For best results leave the mixture to mature in a cool, dark place for a couple of months.

Now that does look tasty...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Blogging with Deanna Jewel!

Thank you to everyone who helped me reach the 50 blog followers milestone this week!

Today I am blogging with the lovely Deanna Jewel at http://deannajewel.blogspot.com/ Please drop by to say hello and join us for tea and cakes in the virtual parlour of Ashdown House. There is a set of the Brides of Fortune trilogy books up for grabs too!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The RNA Conference - Seminars and Shoes, Ceilings and Ghosts!

“Romantic fiction, at its best, has a lot of truth to say about the human heart. It gives readers the chance to dream and aspire.” So said Joanna Trollope, keynote speaker at this year’s RNA Conference summing up two of the most enduring and appealing aspects of the genre.

Yes, I’ve just returned from the Romantic Novelists Association annual conference, this year held at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London. As if the conference itself is not inspiring enough for a writer, to be in the surroundings of this extraordinary historical site was enough to take my breath away. Permanently. For the entire three days.

In Tudor times Greenwich Palace, reputedly Henry VIII’s favourite palace and the birthplace of Elizabeth I, lay on the site. Then in 1694 The Old Royal Naval College was established by charter with the aim of providing relief and support to seamen and their dependents. The site was planned by Sir Christopher Wren and during the first half of the eighteenth century various illustrious architects, such as Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart completed the design. The outcome is magnificence on a vast scale as you can see here on the ORNC website.

The conference took place in Queen Anne Court, built between 1696 and 1733. To be walking (and enjoying our Saturday night barbecue!) in a place with such a long history and such illustrious connections was staggering. I attended the most stimulating and inspiring talks from, amongst others, jay Dixon on adding colour to your manuscript – literally a discussion of the effect that different colours can have on a story – and Susanna Kearsley on the fascinating byways of historical research. Sarah Duncan did one of the best presentations I have ever seen on the most common mistakes in manuscripts (and after my last book I needed that!) Kate Hardy was incredibly helpful to a pantser like me with her guide to planning your manuscript.

But it wasn’t all work! On Saturday afternoon I played truant from the conference for an hour and went to take a look at The Painted Hall. Christopher Wren had submitted the designs for the hall in 1698, and the roof and the dome above were already in place five years later. James Thornhill's decoration, however, took nineteen years to complete. For his ‘great and laborious undertaking’ Thornhill was paid by the yard – and eventually knighted. While Thornhill worked, more and more pensioners were coming to Greenwich. They couldn't eat in the Hall while he was working and once it was finished it was both too grand and too much of a tourist attraction to be used for regular dining.

The allegorical theme of the huge and exuberant Lower Hall ceiling is apparently the triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny, and it pays due tribute to William and Mary and British maritime power. Within the oval frame are the four seasons represented. the most interesting is Winter, which was modelled by one of the Greenwich pensioners, John Worley, an energetic fellow who was still being punished for drunkenness and swearing at the age of 96. Beyond the arch in the Upper Hall (you can just see it in the photo) Queen Anne surveys the continents of the world. America is reputedly represented by an image of Pocahontas. On the west wall Anne's Hanoverian successors, George I and his family, are shown in sober glory. The whole Hall is overwhelming in scale. Fortunately mirrors are provided to help visitors avoid neck strain so we could all enjoy looking at the ceiling without the danger of injuring ourselves!

Once The Painted Hall was completed it stood empty until January 1806, when the body of Admiral Lord Nelson was brought here to lie in state after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar. It felt extraordinary to be standing on the spot where Nelson had lain and where so many people had come to pay tribute to him and his achievement.
In 1824 the Hall became the ‘National Gallery of Naval Art’ or Naval Gallery for short – and remained so until 1930s, when its contents were transferred to the newly created National Maritime Museum. By 1939 the Painted Hall was once again in use as a dining room. It remained in daily use until the Royal Navy's departure in 1998. On the day that we visited there was a wedding reception taking place in the hall which I should think would be the most memorable venue imaginable!

Our own dining was in no way inferior. On the Friday night we held our Gala Dinner in the Trafalgar Tavern. Built on the site of the Old George Inn in the year of Queen Victoria’s ascension, 1837, The Trafalgar Tavern is a stunning late Regency building. We took our pre-dinner champagne outside on one of the elegant balconies and for dinner I was lucky enough to sit in one of the bay windows with a view across the Thames to the City of London.

Oh, and a word on the accommodation. There wasn’t enough room for all of us in the purpose built new university accommodation so about 15 of us were in Devonport House, a five-minute walk away. I later discovered that the lawns fronting Devonport House used to be the main burial ground for the Greenwich Hospital and that there are still some monuments there plus the odd grave or two. This was a purpose-built graveyard that already included a mausoleum for officers built by Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1713 and 1714. When it was first built it had open arched columns but they were filled in sometime about 1820 and the whole building re-roofed, possibly to deter grave robbers. Admiral “Kiss me” or “Kismet” Hardy was buried there in 1837 as was Tom Allen, Nelson’s personal servant. When building work took place at Devonport House in the 1920s, 1247 skulls and 58 boxes of bones were dug up for removal to East Greenwich. Which puts an entirely different complexion on the things that went bump in the night whilst we were staying there!

All in all a fabulous time! Here I am at the barbecue with my wonderful editor Kim Young and last but not least, here is a pair of my conference shoes!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

July Website Contest

I'm mentioning my July website contest here on the blog because it is a very special one. I'm celebrating the fact that next month I will have be launching a beautiful new website - so this is the very last contest on the current site. The prize is an ARC of my new Regency historical Whisper of Scandal which is out in October. There's also a silver charm bracelet up for grabs. So if you would like an advance copy of Whisper of Scandal just click here to enter!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Butterflies and Battlefields

A couple of weeks ago I played truant from the writing and went on a trip to Somerset. Somerset is one of my favourite places. I lived there for seven years in my haunted cottage and it's a place I love re-visiting whenever I can. It's a county that feels particularly steeped in history and folkore.

On this occasion I was combining some natural history with some English Civil War history. We were on a trip to find the Large Blue Butterfly at Collard Hill, a few miles from Glastonbury. The Large Blue died out in the UK in 1979 but has been brought back from UK extinction as a result of the re-introduction of butterflies from Sweden combined with some very hard work on the part of the National Trust to make sure it has exactly the right habitat and conditions to flourish. At Collard Hill visitors are allowed to wander freely trying to spot this rarest of butterflies.

We had a hot day for our visit and our sense of anticpation rose as we toiled up the hill in the sunshine. I was looking around for something the size of a Morpho, such as I had seen in Costa Rica. After all, this was called the Large Blue butterfly, clue in the name. As it turns out, the Large Blue is tiny. But it is bigger that the Small Blue so that makes sense. We spotted quite a number of them and they are exquisite. It was difficult to get a good look at them because they didn't keep still for long. It was even more difficult to get a photograph. They weren't really opening their wings much either as it was a breezy day and they are so small that when the wind blew they would get carried away. Even so it was a wonderful experience and lots of fun.

After the butterflies the battle, and we went to visit the site of the Battle of Marshal's Elm, August 4th 1642. This was one of the earliest battles - or more properly a skirmish - in the English Civil War. The Royalist Sir John Stawell led a troop of eighty horse to prevent the MP John Pyne and a troop of 600 Parliamentarian foot soldiers from reaching Shepton Mallet. Stawell drew up his troops on Walton Hill as the Parliamentarian column approached and sent dragoons to take up positions in quarry-pits at the foot of the hill in preparation for an ambush. The Parliamentarians faltered when the Royalist dragoons opened fire, then Lt Colonel Henry Lunsford led a charge down the hill with the rest of the cavalry. The inexperienced Parliamentarians broke and fled, leaving seven dead and twenty wounded. This was the start of a very active period in the Civil War in the South West of England. This is Walton Hill today (above) a place where the present tranquility hides a rather more martial past.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk about life during the Tudor and Stuart period in the villages around North Wiltshire. (Cue excuse to show a picture of Prince Rupert of the Rhine!) One of the most interesting slides was a graph showing death rates (it doesn't sound fascinating but it was!) So there would be peaks at times of national epidemic, such as the plague of 1665, and also local epidemics of influenza, cholera and typhus. But in the early 1640s there was the most enormous spike in deaths in the area which co-incided with the English Civil War. The nature of the war was as described above; there were some big set piece battles but a lot of the action was skirmishes between small groups of soldiers, which couldn't account for the huge increase in death rates in small villages. Most people weren't fighting - they were trying to go about their daily business. In fact only one person in my local village was killed by a soldier during the Civil War period. The speaker explained that the huge rise in the death rate was because of the Royalist and parliamentarian armies travelling through and occupying the area. Not only did they bring disease with them, a seventy percent increase, but they also stripped the countryside of all resources so that people were starving and so were far more likely to succumb to illness. This more than anything brought home to me the effect of something like a Civil War on the ordinary population.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Bit of a Chill!

Okay, I'm cheating now and cross posting something that I put up on the Ashdown House blog a month or so ago. I've closed the Ashdown blog down now and I'll be posting stuff here instead in future and also posting archive articles I hope will be of interest. Then, in August, it will be all change again when my NEW WEBSITE and BLOG are launched - exciting times!
But for now, here is a piece I hope is interesting. It's also topical at the moment with temperatures in the UK set to hit 30C today and tomorrow. So pour yourself a cooling drink - iced tea? - and read on for a bit of a chill! Readers in the Southern Hemisphere might want a hot toddy instead, of course!

In Ashdown village there are the remains of an icehouse. Trust me, they really are under this pile of weeds! A weed covered mound is now often the only evidence for the existence of an icehouse on an estate. There are similar enigmatic bumps in the grounds at Lancing Manor in Sussex and at Sherborne in Gloucestershire, although at Sherborne some of the brickwork is still visible too.

Ice­houses predate the refrigerator as a means of storing ice for preserving food. They consist of chambers wholly or partly subterranean and suitably insulated from above. The practice of building ice houses came to England in the 17th century via France following the Restoration, one of the first ones being located in Upper St. James' Park, now known as Green Park, in 1662. By the eighteenth century it became increasingly common for major houses to have their own icehouse. The one at Petworth, for example, was built in 1784. A spell of several hard winters towards the end of the 18th century also encouraged their use as ice was freely available in the UK for storage. Later, in the nineteenth century, the demand had increased and ice had to be imported from Scandinavia.

The ice would have been collected from the nearest convenient lake or pond and dropped into the pit of the icehouse, possibly layered with straw to make removal easier. The ice was used in the larder to keep foodstuffs fresh, in cooling drinks and for making cold confections in the kitchens. In the kitchen of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton there is a menu on display for a dinner dated 1817 and of the 22 sweets no less than 7 were made using ice. The Prince Regent had one of his icehouses in a chalk pit at the top of North Street in Brighton. In 1789 it was referred to as a "new-erected building called an Ice House with Tea Room and Summer House over." Naturally the Prince needed a bigger ice house than most people and he had two ice wells in North Street, another in the grounds of the Royal Pavilion and a third at the Castle Tavern. Details of all of these icehouses are on the wonderful Ice Houses website.

Most icehouses comprised a rectangular chamber that is situated at the same level as or very slightly below the level of the entrance, which has a single door. This is probably the type of icehouse that existed at Ashdown since there is little evidence to suggest that much of it was subterranean. Some of the more extensive icehouses, however, were several feet below ground with a flight of steps down and more than one door to increase insulation.

In the cold surroundings, the ice should be capable of being stored for more than a year, and an experiment was carried out at Levens Hall in Cumbria in 1980 when ice was kept in the icehouse for 13 months under conditions similar to those prevailing in earlier times.

The location of icehouses in relation to the main house was often quite arbitrary. This picture is of an extant icehouse at West Wycombe. In most cases they seem to be neither close to the source of the ice nor to the kitchens. A distance of several hundred metres is not uncommon. This is one of the reasons why there is no point in shouting for help if you accidentally got locked in there! I used this idea in my book Wayward Widow where the heroine gets trapped in the ice house and the hero, intent on rescuing her, manages to lock them both inside.

At Ashdown the icehouse was by the stables, a quarter mile from the main house and the kitchens, and the main mystery is where the ice was sourced. There are no lakes or ponds in the vicinity of the estate now although there would be some occasional pools in a wet year. It's not an appealing thought, however, that you might cut your ice - and find pond weed in your dessert or your drink! It makes me particularly grateful for the fridge and the freezer!

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Brief and Selective History of Swimming!

I've taken a longer-than-expected break from the blog over the past couple of weeks due to a terminally stubborn set of book revisions that simply refused to work. I knew there were problems with the manuscript and, hard as I worked to fix them, my writer's intinct told me that there was still something wrong even when I had finished draft 2. I tinkered, I re-wrote, I changed one thing which led to another which brought the whole thing down like a pack of cards. I had a fabulously helpful set of revision notes from my editor but still I could not do it. I cried. I comfort ate. I didn't sleep. Now I have draft 3, a sleep deficit, and no idea whether the book is any good since my judgement is shot to pieces. I love being a writer.

Anyway, now I've emerged into the daylight I see it is a beautiful hot sunny day so to get back into the blogging I decided to post a piece about aspects of the history of swimming, some of which is taken from an article I read in the Daily Telegraph newspaper over the weekend and the rest from my own researches. When I was a child I used to go swimming in the open air at the Ilkley Lido. It was fabulous; very bracing! The popularity of lidos faded with the arrival of chlorinated indoor heated pools but outdoor and "wild" swimming still appeals. The Serpentine in Hyde Park in London is fed by a natural well which keeps the water fresh and one of the places I go to walk and take the dog swimming is the source of the River Lambourn which is fed by springs that rise in the chalk downland. The water is pure and clear and on a day like this you just want to jump straight in!

Swimming is a natural human impulse; we have apparently been swimming for at least 10 000 years and babies are born knowing how to doggy paddle. (I never progressed much beyond that stage myself!) There is a rock painting in Wadi Sura, SW Egypt, showing swimmers 10 000 years ago and there are also depictions of swimming in art from the early Minoan, Incan and Babylonian empires. The Egyptians, Persians and Greeks were all keen swimmers with Plato going so far as to say that anyone who could not swim lacked a proper education. The Japanese were holding swimming competitions as early as 36BC. Medieval English knights used to swim in armour as one of the "seven agilities." (I'd love to know what the other six were and can't find any references - Can anyone help?) And Everard Digby, one of the Gunpowder Plotters wrote a book called: "A Short Introduction for the Learnne to Swimme" in 1595, a sort of self-help manual for anyone with access to a lake, river or pond who wanted to teach themselves the breast stroke.

Sea bathing became popular as a health cure during the Georgian period. The earliest bathing machines appeared at Scarborough in the 1730s and were basically a horse drawn carriage featuring an enclosed room with a collapsible hood at the seaward end to shield patients as they were submerged naked in the waves by attendants called dippers. Patrons would get in at the top of the beach, change out of their clothes as the horse pulled the carriage towards the sea and then step directly into the water from the front of the machine.

The resort and spa town of Brighton took off as a venue for both sea bathing and salt water drinking (!) from about 1750. And Queen Victoria had this delightful bathing machine (picture above), now at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. By now the bathing machine looked like very comfy beach huts on wheels and they could be hired for half hour periods. And people no longer bathed in the nude. This was the Victorian period after all! The picture on the right is a Victorian child's bathing costume. Ladies tended to wear more clothes for bathing than they did for activities on dry land!

On my visits to various historical houses I've also come across a number of plunge pools from the Georgian and Regency period. There was a Gothic bath house at Corsham Court which is very ornate (picture left) and still stands in the grounds and at Lydiard Park there is a plunge pool that was built around 1820 as an aid to health. Cold water cures were recommended for over-eating as well as a general aid to good health and apparently plunging into the lake at your stately home was thought to be as efficacious as sea-bathing with a very naughty 18th century poem promising it could reach the parts that other cures could not and even revive a flagging sex life!

Are you a swimmer or a paddler? Would you like your own bathing machine or plunge pool? I can't help thinking there was a lot of style in the way some of our ancestors bathed compared to today!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Books of Your Childhood.

This is a fantastic meme from Michelle Styles for anyone who loves to talk about books, especially the books that captured you when you were a child and are still with you now.

Name at least one book that you read as a child (ie 11 or under) that still exists in your memory as a perfect story. You can say why if you wish, or simply give a list -- your choice. It can be a story that you are now uncomfortable about having loved or were uncomfortable at some point and have now come back to or alternatively just one that you have always loved.

Here is my list:

1. A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley. History fascinated me even as a child, as did the idea of stepping back in time. I’ve been hooked on timeslip romance ever since!

2. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. I could name just about every Alan Garner book for this list. I was totally hooked on his writing. The combination of adventure, magic and something just a little bit strange and spooky fascinated me. Plus the fact that it was children having these fabulous adventures. I wanted to have adventures like that!

3. Fell Farm Campers by Marjorie Lloyd because I lived in a city and wanted to live somewhere wild and free and for me the Fell Farm books captured a love of the country.

4. The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell. Loved, loved, loved this series!

5. Cat Amongst the Pigeons by Agatha Christie. I don't know why this was the first Agatha Christie book that I read. I think I must have picked it up second hand out of curiosity because the title grabbed me. I still have the battered green hardback now. It's an excellent mystery story that led me on to read more Christie, of course, and also writers like Jospehine Tey. I was also intrigued by the hint of romance and the sexy guy from MI5 posing as the gardener - although at the age of eleven I was only vaguely aware of these themes!

6. All the books in the "wives of Henry VIII" series that Coronet brought out in a gold box. My grandmother had the set and I read my way through them. History, romance and a few executions... What more could you ask for?

What are the books of your childhood?