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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?

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Lady Writing Contest!

Does the idea of a romantic short story set against the background of a historic house inspire you? If so then The Lady magazine is running a short story contest especially for you! The Lady has joined forces with Harlequin Mills & Boon and the National Trust to sponsor a writing competition and a series of creative writing workshops around the country. I am very excited to be running one of these at National Trust headquarters at Heelis, Swindon, on 28th June, when I will be sharing my top hints and tips on writing romance but also pictures and stories of my most inspirational National Trust sites.

The writing contest is for a short story set against the background of a National Trust property - a historic house, a romantic ruin, a stretch of coastline or any other Trust venue you like. The stories should be in the romance genre and between 1500 - 2000 words. Details of the contest are here on The Lady website. The winner will be published in The Lady magazine. The runner up will receive a hamper of books worth £200.

Information on the creative writing courses can be found on the National Trust website here. And for all those who can't make it to one of the courses I would be very happy to email my writing articles, hints and tips. Just drop me a line if you would like any of these - they can be found on my website here!

Good luck to everyone who enters!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

House of the Week - Most Haunted!

This is East Riddlesden Hall in West Yorkshire, our last port of call on our recent canal holiday. At the end of the 18th century, the Bingley to Skipton section of the Leeds to Liverpool Canal cut right through the estate, bringing vast changes to what had up until then been largely a rural landscape and way of life. These days the house and grounds are a small oasis in the urban sprawl of Bradford.

For me East Riddlesden Hall has it all. It's small enough to live in without rattling around like a marble in a vast box (see Hardwick Hall), it's ancient (a medieval hall was first built there in the 14th century), it's eccentric, it has atmosphere in spades, it has a romantic ruin attached, it has a falcon mews and several resident ghosts. Who could ask for more? It is in fact so haunted that it has been featured on the TV programme Most Haunted. Only the week before I visited, the Grey Lady had been sighted in the tea rooms. Apparently she is the ghost of a Tudor lady whose husband returned home unexpectedly, found her with her lover, starved her to death in her chamber and walled the lover up. I was told that Most Haunted had discovered the ghost of a dog at the top of the stairs; I hung around there for a while hoping to meet the ghost dog but no luck. That really would have made my day. I love dogs and was really hoping this one would recognise me as a kindred spirit (sorry!)

Confusingly there is also supposed to be the ghost of a white lady as well as a grey lady. The white lady was thrown from her horse into the lake and drowned. Also lurking about the lake is supposed to be the spirit of a coachman. My favourite ghost, however, was most definitely the "assassin-dishwasher" a servant who was a dishwasher in the kitchens by day and went out murdering people by night. He is supposed to pop up if you are feeling depressed.

I liked East Riddlesden Hall so much that I went around it twice, much to the amusement of the staff who very kindly said that I could go round all day if I wanted. Despite the reputation for hauntings it had to my mind an exceptionally warm and welcoming atmosphere. The staff were the friendliest I have ever met (I know, I sound like a National Trust mystery shopper!) It was a hot sunny day, the gardens looked stunning, the tea room people made me a take out picnic and the gift shop was excellent. You can even get married at East Riddlesden Hall - if you don't mind sharing the occasion with a few uninvited guests!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Quotation of the Day!

"Only Mills and Boon can rival British intelligence," says MI5's official historian. This fascinating quotation was in The Guardian newspaper today, as related by Charlotte Higgins from the Hay Festival. She goes on to write that Christopher Andrew, who spent years as a member of of the service whilst he undertook the research for his book Defence of the Realm, claimed that the human resources consultants employed to discover the levels of job satisfaction at the British domestic intelligence service had found that there was "only one organisation they had investigated that had a higher morale: Mills & Boon." A Spooks/M&B collaboration must surely be in the offing. Of course this confirms for those of us in the know what we already knew: romance books make you happy. And so does spying. Allegedly. http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/jun/02/christopher-andrew-mi5