Sunday, 23 September 2018

Much In Little by Susan Price -

I usually post for Authors Electric and, a little while ago, my colleague, Griselda Heppel, wrote there about how annoying it is when people make wild unsubstantiated guesses about Shakespeare's life, based on very little evidence.

For instance, he left his wife his 'second best bed,' so, obviously, he didn't think much of her. And she was eight years older than him so, obviously it was an unwanted marriage of convenience. And he went away to be a playwright in London, so quite plainly, he hated the sight of her.

Any of these statements may be true. But it's just as likely that they aren't. They are much made out of very little.

The idea that Bill didn't get on with Anne because he was young and carefree and she was such a grumpy old hag is based solely on a line in Twelfth Night: 'Let still the woman take an elder than herself.' This is seized on as a hot-line to Shakespeare's heart. Aha! This is him regretting his unwise marriage and letting slip what he really thought.

Never mind that Shakespeare was putting words into the mouths of characters and making stuff up, never mind that it's just one among thousands of lines that he wrote. Perhaps he did believe that it was a mistake for a man to marry an older woman. But I have just as much evidence (none), to state that it was an in-joke between Shakespeare, Anne and their crowd. In my small circle of friends - to take a random sample - there are three very happy marriages where the wife is several years older than the husband. They sometimes joke about it - one older wife recently promised her 'boy' some pocket-money from her pension to buy sweeties.

Then there's the 'fact' that Shakespeare ran away to London to escape the crone. What's this based on? Nothing. We have exactly no idea how often Shakespeare went home to the country, or Anne made a trip into town. We have plenty of marriages today where one partner lives away from home for part of the time, perhaps even in a different country and yet some of those marriages survive. Travel was harder in the past, but people still travelled long distances very often - recent archaeology has shown that animals raised in the Orkneys were eaten during feasts at Stonehenge. How did these animals get from the Orkneys to Salisbury Plain? Clue: they didn't go by Ryan Air.

In the past there were also plenty of marriages where one or the other partner was absent for a long time. Ships made long sea-crossings, Vikings viked, fish-wives travelled from town to town, drovers were away for months as they droved cattle to market. It's certainly not out of the question that Shakespeare went home quite often -- and he obviously didn't cut all ties with Stratford, since he returned there and built himself a big house. His wife was one of those ties.

And that infamous 'second-best bed.' We only know of this bed because, in his will, Bill bequeathed it to Anne. From this, some people have concluded that, since he only considered her deserving of second-best, Bill didn't like Anne very much. Reading of this, my uxorious father commented, "Maybe it was the most comfortable bed." Which is entirely possible. Beds were a bit of a status symbol at the time -- if you were nobody, you slept on a straw-filled mattress on the floor. Or even, in pele towers, in a horizontal slot in the wall - where, I suppose, at least you were out of the draughts. The 'best bed' would have been the most showy and expensive, the one with the most carving and the most embroidered curtains. The one you put guests in. 'Best' doesn't always mean the most comfortable or the favourite.

It never seems to have crossed the minds of historians who take this line that Shakespeare may have discussed his will with his wife and the bed known in the family as 'the second-best bed' was the one she wanted. There is exactly as much evidence to back this view as the one that supposes it was Bill being spiteful.

Then there are all the guesses made about Shakespeare's 'lost years.' He must have spent them as an ostler because his plays reveal knowledge about horses. Some nautical terms are used in The Tempest, so he must have been a sailor. He mentions some weaponry and tactics, so he must have been a soldier.

I think anyone who's written any fiction can see through these arguments. Writers are experts in making much of little, so I doubt Shakespeare was a slouch at it.

I have myself been praised to my face for the knowledge of riding and weaponry revealed in my Sterkarm books and I don't know how I kept my face straight. Riding and weaponry -- two subjects of which I know even less, I would guess, than Shakespeare knew about sailing.

The Sterkarm Handshake

My reiver family, the Sterkarms spend a great deal of their life riding, so I knew I was going to have to mention horses now and again. There's one dodge always available to a fiction writer -- when something is so much a part of a character's life, they take it for granted and don't often gab on about it. As I type these words, I'm not thinking about the pros and cons of Microsoft versus Apple. So if the POV is Per Sterkarm, he's not going to detail every step in saddling and bridling his horse, or grooming it. He just does it, in his sleep if necessary, and goes on his way.

What's needed is not pages of detail but a few little telling points to mention in passing, to slip in between lines of dialogue, that will give many readers the impression that I know all of what I write, while, in fact, knowing almost nothing. Someone mounting, say, and then leaning down from the saddle to tighten the saddle-girth. And a bit of terming, like 'girth' helps as well.

Where do I find these details? Well, some are cribbed from books and, these days, from the internet. But the best little tid-bits always come from talking to people who know far, far more than I do. So, a big thank you from me to Karen Bush and Katherine Roberts of this parish, who are both excellent riders and know all sorts of good stuff. Karen, in particular, did me a big favour in reading A Sterkarm Tryst and correcting everything horse-related as well as giving me a few more details.
A Sterkarm Tryst

Shakespeare didn't have to work as an ostler to gain knowledge about horses. In his time and until quite recently, nearly all land transport involved horses. My grandfather was an ostler, which is how I  learned that odd word. ('Your grandad's first job was as an ostler.' -  'What's an ostler?') Grandad worked with the giant percherons who pulled the carts of a local brewery and I learned a few odd little horsey facts from stories about him. When Shakespeare needed a few similar pointers, I doubt he had to search very hard for an ostler to chat to. It must have been impossible to turn round without bumping into one.

The same goes for his 'knowledge' of ships and their ways. He lived in London. Wharfs and warehouses lined the north bank of the Thames near London Bridge and the Tower. Ships came and went all the time. There would have been sailors of different ranks in his audiences.

And my own vaunted knowledge of weaponry? For a while I was friendly with a couple of fellas who seemed to spend their every spare minute re-enacting. Most of the time they were Roman legionnaires and had impressive suits of Roman armour. But they often helped out another group at by pretending to be Americans in WW2. At the drop of a helmet, they would go and be Vietnam Vets. Now they were very knowledgeable about weapons. So I asked them: If it was necessary to equip mercenaries at short notice and on the cheap, what weapons would be supplied?

Without taking a moment to draw breath, they said, "Kalashnikovs." And went on to explain why. And, generally, the pros and cons of kalishnikovs. They did even better -- they borrowed a replica kalishniknov and let me feel how heavy it was, and showed me how to take it apart and slam it back together.

I lost touch with them but remain grateful and hope they are still happily marching behind the eagle all these years later. I went home and wove all they'd told me in and out of dialogue and background in my book. I made much out of little.

The joy of it is, that people who know far more about these subjects than I will ever do, read these little asides and often conclude that I know as much about riding or weapons as they do.

Much out of little. I'd put money on Shakespeare being a master of it. No clues or hints about his life taken from his plays can be trusted. All you can conclude from some mention of horse-doctoring or cannonades or sails being shortened is that Bill had probably been chatting in the pub again.

"You know when you're out at sea and a storm blows up, yeah? Like, whaddaya do?"

Saturday, 22 September 2018

We're Going on a Witch Hunt by Catherine Hokin

Edgar Allan Poe Statue Boston
The schools having returned from their holidays, I've just been on mine - trust me the novelty of travelling during term-time will never wear off. We did an East Coast trip this year, visiting Boston and Washington, slightly on edge at the reports of Hurricane Florence although in the end we encountered only minor flooding. The architecture of the two cities shares commonalities - both retain pockets of beautiful nineteenth century clapboard houses and both have eighteenth century nods to ancient Rome and Greece although this is much more marked in Washington's neck-cracking take on empire. I've never felt more like an ant as I did on the Mall. 

Both cities are fabulous to visit, but the winner for me was Boston where the Gothic still lingers. One of Boston's most famous residents and one of my favourite authors, if not people, was Edgar Allen Poe who now has a statue at the Common. It's a wonderful thing - Poe's cloak flares all dramatic and a raven and a heart tumble from his briefcase. It is all, however, rather tongue-in-cheek. Poe is placed close by the Frog Pond which was at the base of most of the insults he threw at other writers and he is depicted as sour-faced and in the act of striding away from the city he was born in but hated. Poe described the people of Boston as having no soul (which surely should have attracted him), very dull and heartily ashamed of the fact that they were born in Boston in the first place. He was notorious for his loudly-expressed loathing of works by other Boston writers (including Emerson, Longfellow and Thoreau) and for comparing their ideas and writings to the croaking of the frogs which lived on the pond where he now resides, referring to the city's literary greats with parochial disdain as Frogpondians. It's rather a shame that the only frogs in the area now are sculptured ones: their chorus permanently tormenting the statue frozen in flight is a touch worthy of one of his own stories.

 Providence Athenaeum
Poe's home no longer exists and Boston is far more interested in commemorating renaissance man Paul Revere than its more ungrateful son. To get closer to Poe today you need to travel the short distance to Providence in Rhode Island. The side-streets positively teem with the kind of turreted and ivy-clad houses you expect to find a TB-ridden maiden fainting in. Which may explain why Poe went wandering there. Shortly after his first wife died, Poe started courting Sarah Helen Whitman of Providence who was a poet and spiritualist. He proposed and she accepted on the condition he would remain sober until the day of the wedding. He promised, couldn't do it and she broke the relationship off, although Poe blamed Whitman's mother for that, rather than his own behaviour. Despite Poe dying in Baltimore, he is now reported to haunt Providence, in the area round Benefit Street and the Atheneaum which he used to visit with Whitman. Apparently the ghost has a rather melancholy air and vanishes if you try to chat.

 The Witch House, Salem
Having done the ghosts and the Gothic and Boston being in the grip of a heatwave (and the kind of humidity which took my hair back to the 1980s), the logical next step was a visit to Salem for some witch-hunting. Salem is famous, or notorious, for the trials which took place in the town between 1692-93 in which over 200 people were accused of witchcraft and 20 executed. To put this in context, a witchcraft craze had rippled through Europe from the 1300s to the end of the 1600s with tens of thousands (the exact figure remains disputed) of supposed witches, mostly women, being executed. The outbreak in Salem came relatively late and, although there are many theories about the causes (including ergot poisoning through contaminated bread), it is likely that the trials had their roots in a more modern and cautionary tale: war, fear of others and the failure to integrate displaced people.

In 1689, England started a war with France in their rival American colonies. This ravaged regions of upstate New York, Nova Scotia and Quebec, sending refugees into the county of Essex and, specifically, Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These displaced people created a strain on Salem’s resources which aggravated the existing rivalry between families with ties to the wealth of the port of Salem and those who still depended on agriculture. To add to the problems, controversy also raged over Salem Village’s first ordained minister, the Reverend Samuel Parris, who was disliked because he was perceived as rigid and greedy. The very strictly devout Puritan villagers believed all the quarreling was the work of the Devil. Add into the mix some bored and hysterical girls (Parris's daughters and their friends), an old and vulnerable woman (Sarah Osborne) and a Caribbean slave (Tituba) who liked telling the girls voodoo stories to entertain them on wet days and you have a potent brew ripe for stirring.

 The execution of Bridget Bishop, Salem
In January 1692, the Parris girls and another local girl began to have “fits” - screaming, throwing things, uttering peculiar sounds and twisting themselves into strange positions, and a local doctor blamed the supernatural. On February 29th, under pressure from magistrates, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Tituba, Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, and Sarah Osborne. As Jess Blumberg put it in The Smithsonian magazine, With the seed of paranoia planted, a stream of accusations followed. Good and Osborne pleaded innocent but Tituba 'confessed'. She described elaborate images of black dogs, red cats, yellow birds and a “black man” who wanted her, and several other witches in the town who wanted to destroy the Puritans, to sign his book. All three women were put in jail and the damage was done, accusations snowballed. Despite the pleas for calm by people such as the minister Cotton Mather, by May 20 people were dead - 19 by hanging and one crushed by stones. It was a period of unstoppable madness and it was short-lived. The judges confessed their error, the trials were declared illegal and, less than 10 years later in 1711, the good names of all the victims was restored. 

 One of the many
Salem today is a masterpiece of marketing, full of witch-themed shops selling hokey souvenirs and more psychics than you can shake a stick at (available at the Harry Potter shop if needed). We went prepared for that and it was a lot of fun. What we hadn't expected was the relevance with which the main museum (the Salem Witch Museum) presents its trial exhibition. For all the use of the word 'witch', the emphasis was very much on paranoia and the damage it inflicts. You exit not through the gift-shop but past a giant witch-hunt wall which contexts the Salem experience in the simple, or not so simple, maths of human ignorance. Fear + instigator = persecution. The case was made with equal weight for the appalling treatment and consequent suffering of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbour, for the thousands accused of communism during the McCarthy era and for gay people during the early days of AIDS hysteria. There was a lot of space left on the wall. As I stood in Washington the following week and watched Trump's cavalcade leave the White House, biting my lip at every 'Make America Great' again t-shirt, I could have filled that space over and over. Some holiday souvenirs stay with you the longest.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Developing Histories by Imogen Robertson

Southwark Park

Over the long dry summer, shadows of Southwark’s past began to emerge in our local park. As lines and curves of yellow grass sketched out former ponds and buildings, it was as if we held a palimpsest up to the light and saw the ghosts of the previous parks under the one we knew. The long summer in fact provided a feast for archeologists as Long Barrows, Tudor Mansions and Bronze Age settlements revealed themselves on the parched landscape. And of course, aerial archeologists don’t need a plane anymore, drones have provided a quicker, cheaper way to get up in the air for a fresh perspective.
This sudden wealth of new evidence about Britain’s deep past is one instance of a larger truth. The study of history, just like the study of science, is a continual process of discovery and reassessment. This year it was the hot weather which provided us with a wealth of new information, but technological advances are constantly adding to what we can know about our ancestors, where they came from, what they ate and how they lived. It’s how we know that the pigs slaughtered at Stonehenge were raised in Scotland, and the Amesbury Archer probably grew up near the Alps. 

Food and Feasting at Stonehenge
© English Heritage (photo by Andre Pattenden)

And Lord knows there’s still plenty to find out. Whenever I start following a rabbity idea into the warren of secondary and primary sources, Old Bailey Archives, British History Online, Parish registers and ordinances, I’m amazed at how little we really know about periods, people, places, that seem to have been thoroughly studied already. Hallie Rubenhold’s upcoming book, The Five, is a case in point. I knew Hallie would bring a fresh eye and perspective to the study of the lives of the women who were murdered by Jack the Ripper, but I assumed that everything which could be known about them would have been studied in some detail already. I was wrong. Hallie’s found an astonishing amount of unexamined material which will, I’m sure, inform fiction and non-fiction writing on Victorian London for years to come. 

Hallie’s work also demonstrates the importance of the changing perspectives from which we view history. Reading histories from the 1950s, I’m struck not so much by the misogyny of some of the authors, though there is plenty of that, but the fact it never even occurs to many of those writers that women might have had significance, let alone intellects and abilities equal to those of the men on whom they built their ‘authoritative' accounts. We are, quite rightly, now asking about how the assumptions of previous generations have filtered out women, working people and people of colour from the cannon. We also find in our Alice in Wonderland journeys, that stories, repeated in books and articles as unquestionable facts can often rest on very questionable sources or interpretation.
Current events shift our perspectives too, when I was studying German history in the early nineties, it was quite common to find historians searching for particular reasons in the societal makeup of Germany to explain the rise of Nazism, the unspoken assumption being it could never have risen / could rise anywhere else. The rise of populism now, makes us reassess that idea, and our look harder at own histories. 

Writing about history in fact or fiction is a constant reminder to be yes, questioning and skeptical, but also empathetic, open-minded and imaginative. To study history and create stories within it is to be curious about past and present, to be challenged and be challenging, to open up, for better or worse, to the wealth of human stories, to judge and to be judged.
This is my last regular post for the history girls, and I give up my slot with much regret. I’ve learned a great deal from the other bloggers here, and very much enjoyed being part of these discussions. I hope I’ll be able to pop in for the Cabinet of Curiosities or other events in the future, and in the meantime I shall continue to applaud all of those writers and researchers who realise an enquiring understanding of the past deepens and enriches our understanding of the present, and of each other. 

Thursday, 20 September 2018

"A lovely country, rich in literary and historical associations" by Carolyn Hughes

I have already written in the History Girls about the long defunct Meon Valley Railway (MVR), a feature of this lovely part of Hampshire that is often part of my daily walk, together with the River Meon itself and the remnants of a royal hunting ground, the Forest of Bere. All that is left of the line now is an 11 miles (17.5 km) stretch of woodland track on which you can walk (or trot or cycle) from Wickham through Droxford to West Meon. But when it opened the railway ran for 22.5 miles (36.2 km) between Alton and Fareham, in part following the course of the River Meon.

Route of the MVR, adapted from the map
in R.A. Stone’s book,
The Meon Valley Railway, 1983,
Kingfisher Railway Productions.
The railway was authorised in 1896 and opened in 1903, making it one of the last railways of any size to be built to mainline standards in the United Kingdom. It was expensive to build – £400,000, which is the equivalent of about £51.2 million at today’s prices – and from an engineering perspective, very difficult, because of the nature of the terrain it had to cross. The stations were impressive, built out of brick in a mock-Tudor style, with Portland stone mullions and gables. The architecture included stained-glass door windows and tiled interiors. The lavatories were apparently housed in outbuildings styled like Chinese pagodas!

At its northern (Alton) end, the MVR joined with the Mid-Hants Railway to Winchester, the Alton Line to Brookwood (and, presumably thence to London) and the Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway. At Fareham it linked with the Eastleigh to Fareham Line, the West Coastway Line and the line to Gosport. But, although the MVR was intended to be part of a through route from London to Portsmouth, it never fulfilled that purpose.

When it opened, local residents and businesses apparently had high hopes for the new railway, and, in the early days, as well as taking passenger traffic, it was used extensively for shipping local agricultural and horticultural produce, about which I shall say more in next month’s post.

Unfortunately, the economies of the new railway were never fully viable and the expected London through-traffic did not adequately materialise and, in 1955, after only fifty years, passenger traffic was cut, and the line was closed altogether in 1968.

Nonetheless, when it was first in use, many local newspapers were greatly impressed by the line’s speed, the scale of its engineering works, the high standards of the stations and other structures, and the beauty of the scenery it passed through. Some papers wrote articles describing the route and its scenery in great detail, pointing out places of interest along the line, such as this snippet from the Hampshire Telegraph and Post, published in June 1903:
The line passes through a lovely country, rich in literary and historical associations.”
And it goes on to mention some of those associations, which I thought a splendid idea, and so decided to elaborate on some of them.

Travelling south from Alton, the Telegraph’s first-mentioned “association” is Chawton, a mile or so from Alton. Chawton is of course where Jane Austen lived and wrote for the last eight years of her life. It was in those years that she published all her major works. The house where Jane lived is now Jane Austen’s House Museum. She moved to the house, which was owned by her brother Edward, with her mother and sister in 1809. Edward had inherited the Chawton estate from his wealthy adoptive family, the Knights, and offered the house rent-free for life to his mother and sister. Jane died in 1817.

Jane Austen’s House Museum By R ferroni2000 [CC BY-SA 4.0
(], from Wikimedia Commons

The first stop on the MVR line is Farringdon Halt, and we are now in Gilbert White territory. Gilbert was a pioneering English naturalist and ornithologist, as well as a cleric. He remained unmarried and a curate all his life. Gilbert was born in 1720, in his grandfather’s vicarage at Selborne, a few miles to the east of Farringdon. He is best known for his writings about the village’s history, geography, climate and natural history in his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. After going to university in Oxford, Gilbert was ordained, and was curate in several parishes in Hampshire and Wiltshire, including Farringdon, as well as Selborne itself on four separate occasions. After the death of his father in 1758, Gilbert moved back into the family home in Selborne, which he eventually inherited in 1763. In 1784 he became curate of Selborne for the fourth time, remaining so until his death in 1793.

Gilbert White’s house is open to the public, and also incorporates The Oates Collections, devoted to the remarkable Oates family, in particular, Frank Oates, a Victorian explorer, and Captain Lawrence Oates, who accompanied Scott on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition to the South Pole. Lawrence Oates is famous for uttering the heart-rending line, quoted in Scott’s diary:
I am just going outside and I may be some time.”
Captain Lawrence Edward Grace Oates during the British Antarctic Expedition, ca 1911.
Reference Number: PA1-f-067-069-1, Alexander Turnbull Library.
By Herbert Ponting [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In 1912, on the return journey from the Pole, the party were facing appalling conditions, including exceptionally adverse weather, a lack of food, injuries and frostbite. Oates’ feet were badly frostbitten and he was weakening faster than the others. Scott wrote in his diary on 5th March: “The poor soldier is very nearly done”. On 15th March, Oates suggested that the others should leave him in his sleeping-bag, but they refused. So he walked a few more miles that day but, on the morning of the next day, he walked out of the tent into a blizzard, and was never seen again. It was his 32nd birthday. Scott recorded in his diary:
We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman”.
Behind the village rises Selborne Hill, topped by Selborne Common, a designated SSSI (site of special scientific interest), managed by the National Trust. These particular Hampshire hills are part of the series of steep-sided wooded hills known as ‘hangers’, because the ancient woodlands of beech, lime, yew and ash seem to hang from the high slopes. On the Selborne ‘Hanger’ is an extraordinary zig zag path, which is pretty steep. The top is 91 metres above the Selborne’s High Street from which there are wonderful views over the village and surrounding countryside.

The Zig Zag path up Selborne Hanger
cc-by-sa/2.0 © 
Hugh Craddock

Of the village and its setting, Gilbert said:
At the foot of this hill, one stage or step from the uplands, lies the village, which consists of one single straggling street, three quarters of a mile in length, in a sheltered vale, and running parallel with the hanger.”
A little closer to Selborne than Farringdon is Tisted station, serving the village of East Tisted, and then comes Privett. The station buildings of both Tisted and Privett survived the dismantling of the railway and were converted to private houses.

After Privett station comes West Meon, five miles from the site of the famous Battle of Cheriton of 1644, an important Parliamentarian victory in the English Civil War. The battle took place on 29th March and resulted in the defeat of a Royalist army, which threw King Charles I onto the defensive for the remainder of the year.

In the last week of March, 1644, the parish of East Meon was overrun by thousands (10000 or so?) of Parliamentary troops under Sir William Waller. 6,000 or so Royalists under Sir Ralph Hopton were camped on high ground, overlooking the Parliamentarians. (Stated numbers on either side vary but it does seem clear that the two sides were not evenly matched numerically-speaking.) There were skirmishes between rival patrols in and around the area, and on the 28th March, Waller withdrew, apparently via Vinnel’s Lane in West Meon, and marched to Cheriton, where he lodged himself at Hinton Ampner House, the home of Lady Stukesly, a Parliamentary sympathiser.

By 28th March, the Royalist forces were in Alresford and, thinking that battle might be engaged the following day, Hopton deployed his troops along Cheriton Lane, a road that ran along a ridge of high ground. The Parliamentarians were about a mile to the south.
Battle was engaged the next day, with the armies drawn up on opposite ridges with Cheriton Wood on higher ground to the east. At first, the struggle was for control of the Wood, but, later, fighting broke out around Hinton Ampner, and continued on both flanks throughout the day. At length the Royalists were forced down from their position and Hopton decided to retreat. It is thought that about 60 Parliamentarians were killed or injured, but as many as 300 Royalists.

Hinton Ampner house is managed by the National Trust, though it is a very different house from the one used by William Waller as his HQ, for it has been rebuilt a number of times since 1644. However, you can follow a walk from the grounds that takes you around the site of the battle and, if you stand at the bottom of the garden, you can look across towards where the battle raged, and a plaque….

This map, from the website shows well the juxtaposition of the battle site and the house.

Battle of Cheriton 29th March 1644 in the English Civil War: map by John Fawkes

An associate, although not a son, of West Meon is Thomas Lord, who played first-class cricket from 1787 to 1802, overall making 90 known appearances. He is best known as the founder, in 1787, of Lord’s Cricket Ground, in St John’s Wood, London. But it was to West Meon that Thomas retired, and he died there in 1832, and is buried in the churchyard of St John’s Church. There is a pub in West Meon named after him.

Another occupant of the churchyard of St John’s is Guy Burgess, the Soviet spy, whose family had lived in West Meon since 1924. Burgess died in Moscow in 1956, but his ashes were returned to England, and on 5th October 1963 were interred in the family plot.

Hereabouts, the countryside is also of great archaeological interest, for West Meon is just three miles north of Old Winchester Hill, confusingly perhaps 11 miles away from Winchester! At the top of the hill, which is about 650 ft high, is an Iron Age hill fort, within which are Bronze Age barrows, which date from 4500-3500 BC. The fort was probably built between 600 and 300 BC and abandoned around 150-100 BC. Old Winchester Hill is a SSSI and a National Nature Reserve. In March 2009, it became part of the South Downs National Park. The chalk downland is home to very many species of butterfly, and also several types of orchid, including fly, bee, frog and butterfly orchids, as well as the more common early purple, pyramidal, common spotted and fragrant orchids. I have myself seen very many both butterflies and orchids.

Old Winchester Hill is a wonderful place to walk and affords astonishing 360ยบ views of the surrounding countryside, as far as the Solent and the Isle of Wight to the south. But on a chilly day, it feels wild and bleak, and it must have been a challenging place to live for those Iron Age ancestors of ours!

View to Old Winchester Hill from MVR Line trail near MeonstokeHampshire.
By Pterre [GFDL (
or CC BY 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

After West Meon station, comes Droxford. I wrote about Droxford on The History Girls back in June, so I won’t repeat that here. But, as we have already had mention of Thomas Lord, I should not fail to mention also nearby Hambledon, only four miles to the south east.

Hambledon is home of the Hambledon Cricket Club, which started life in 1768 as a social club, but gained its fame for organising inter-county cricket matches from 1753-1781. By the late 1770s, it was the foremost cricket club in England. The club’s first ground at Broadhalfpenny Down is considered the “Cradle of Cricket”, although cricket as a sport predated both the club and the ground by at least two centuries. In 1782, the club had to move from Broadhalfpenny to Windmill Down, about half a mile away towards the village of Hambledon, because The Bat and Ball Inn, which is next to Broadhalfpenny Down (and well worth a visit for its wealth of cricketing history memorabilia), had been requisitioned by the military, although a couple of years later they moved again to another ground. Hambledon’s great days ended in the late 1780 when the cricketing world shifted its centre to London, and Thomas Lord’s new cricket ground was established as the home of the new Marylebone Cricket Club in 1787.

After Droxford, there is a halt at Mislingford, and then comes Wickham station. Wickham is another place I have written about for the The History Girls, so we will pass it by for now, except for looking at this postcard image of the station on the last day of passenger service on the Meon Valley Railway in 1955.

Wickham Station on the last day of passenger service in 1955.
Photo by Lens of Sutton
From Wickham, the line continues on to Fareham but, in 1907, a halt was built a few miles north of Fareham, at Knowle, to serve the village of Funtley and Knowle Hospital, which was opened in 1852 as the Hampshire County Lunatic Asylum, and became a psychiatric hospital that operated until 1996. The halt was little more than a platform and a shelter, yet became one of the first rural stations in Hampshire to be lit by electricity, taking its power from the hospital’s generators.

But for the area around Mislingford, Wickham, Knowle and Fareham, the arrival of the railway would provide support for the burgeoning fruit-growing industry. But more about this, and other commercial and operational aspects of the Meon Valley Railway, next month.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

The Kindness of Strangers By L.J. Trafford

Autumn is upon us. The summer is over. And I find myself reflecting on my holidays and my holiday reading.
One of my holiday reads was Eric Newby’s book Love and War in the Apennines. This is a memoir set during the Second World War and concerns a subject I knew little about prior to reading: the fate of British POW’s in Italy at the time of the Italian armistice in 1943.

Eric Newby was one such prisoner of war when on 8th September the Italians surrendered.
The British Authorities ordered the POWs to stay put in their camps thinking that the allied advance would be rapid. However, it was not and the Germans issued an order that all POWs should be marched northwards. 50,000 Allied troops were marched to new camps in Germany and Poland where conditions were far harsher than they had experienced in the Italian camps. Thousands died either from failed escape attempts or the harsh winter conditions.

Eric Newby managed to escape this fate. At his camp they had ignored the British order and the POWs had walked out on mass, their Guards letting them go. Though free of their incarceration they faced a new danger: the Germans
They had issued a proclamation that made their intentions clear:

“It is hoped the population will have the good sense to abstain from all inconsiderate activities - all acts of resistance - all acts of sabotage - all hostile acts against German Armed Forces will be constrained by severe counter measures.” 

With the Germans advancing Newby had to rely on the compassion and the help of the Italian civilians to avoid capture. A reward of 1,8000 Lira offered by the Germans per prisoner recaptured (around £4300 in modern terms) added to the danger faced by Newby and his fellow escapees.

But despite threats of execution for anyone caught harbouring escaped prisoners many of the Italian civilian population did offer help to those on the run. One Italian businessman Giuseppe Bacciagaluppi helped hundreds of British POWs escape to Switzerland. Bacciagaluppi was married to an English woman and with a home on the Italian/Switzerland border he was in prime position to help the escapees. He setup a network, with the aid of his factory staff, that helped the POWs cross over into Switzerland.
That Bacciagaluppi was betrayed by a colleague and arrested by the Gestapo in April 1944 shows the danger the Italian helpers were in. Indeed German proclamations stated clearly what anyone helping the loose POW’s might face.

4. Those giving refuge to Anglo-American escapees will be severely punished. 

5. Anybody that gives food, supplies or civilian clothing to Anglo-American escapees will be referred to the War Tribunal for the application of severe penalties. 

But help they did. As one RAF report said:
Italian civilians gave clothes, food, railway tickets and considerable 
sums of money to escaped POWs.

Iris Origo and family.
Iris Origo, an English biographer living in Italy during the war, recalls in her diary how four Englishmen were kept hidden by a Tuscan peasant:

“The peasant’s story is remarkable. He took in these four Englishmen at the beginning of October, when they were obliged to leave here, and fed and housed them –disregarding the danger as well as the expense – for over three months.” 

She herself assisted many allied prisoners of war evade capture.

This was the experience of escaped British POW John Mallen:

“I found what I considered to be good hideaways - one was a cave in an area of dense woodland and the other was a barn. It was just bare ground in the cave and I had just one blanket that I had been given. As I was still in the area I could still contact my Italian family through another person. The next night after I had done this, the 11 year old daughter arrived in darkness, at my cave. 'Giovanni, I heard... Camilla' And there she was with a big basket strapped onto her back loaded with meat, cheese, bread, a bottle of wine and a big bunch of grapes. Dear oh dear.... that was very welcome. Just imagine though a young girl going a mile and a half in the dark and taking that risk.” 

Newby himself evaded the Germans by hiding in the caves and forests of Fontanello in the Po Valley. He also experienced great kindness.

’No you can’t sleep in my hay," he said after another equally long pause. “You might set it on fire and where would I be then? But you can sleep in my house in a bed, and you will, too, but before we go in I have to finish with Bella." And he went back to milking her.

After injuring his ankle Newby was taken to the local hospital. Here he met a young Slovene nurse named Wanda. She gave him language lessons, a friendship formed. One which later became a romance.
But danger was ever present, as again John Mallen’s experience show:

“One early morning I was about to move off from my cowshed and I was looking around to see if anyone was around, any nasty people in German uniform, when I heard machine gun fire. The sound echoed round the valleys and it was hard to tell where it came from. Later I heard that a squad of Italian SS had tracked these Americans down to their hiding place. The sound I heard was them being shot. I was told by local people that it was the German SS.” 

Newby had his own encounter with the enemy up in the hills:
 “ I woke to find a German soldier standing over me.” 

Thankfully though this German’s interest was primarily butterfly catching. He had no intention nor desire to hand Newby over to his commanders.

Staying in multiple households, sometimes sheltered by shepherds, Newby evaded capture for five months. However, his luck ran out when he was betrayed by a villager and arrested. He spent the remainder of the second world war in camps in Germany and Czechoslovakia. After the war he tracked down Wanda and they married.

I found this book an engrossing read and formed a great admiration of the courage of both the POWs and the Italians who risked all to help them. 

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Piero della Francesca's Ideal City - Celia Rees

I began writing this blog in Italy, in a cafe in the small Tuscan city of Sansepolcro. I was lucky it was still there. The Rough Guide to Tuscany  tells us that in 1944, the British Eighth Army was ordered to bombard the town but a young artillery officer recalled reading an article by Aldous Huxley which said that within its walls was ‘the greatest painting in the world’. The officer ordered the bombardment to be delayed hoping the Germans would withdraw, which they did and painting and city were saved. The story is part of the memory of the city. A man on a bicycle told us the same story when he realised we were English as we asked for directions to Piero della Francesca's house.  

The Resurrection - Piero della Francesca
The painting was The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca. Recently restored, it occupies a wall in the Museo Civico and was painted in the early 1450s for the Palace of the Conservators, the town hall. The fresco has deep and profound religious significance but it was not painted for a church, or any kind of religious foundation. It served an arguably more important function, looking down on the deliberations of those who administered the city. Even today, it can be viewed by any citizen, day or night, either in the Museo, or after it closes, from outside through plate glass. It used to be visible from the street at all times but tour operators would bring their charges to view it for free instead of paying to enter the small museum.

Sansepolcro Town Shield
 Sansepolcro was Piero Della Francesca’s ‘burgo’, his town, his city. He was born here and although he travelled throughout Italy to work for patrons and fulfil commissions, he was never longer than three years away from his home. He took an active and energetic part in civic life. He sat with the other Conservators under the unsettling gaze that he himself had created.

For the last fifteen years of his life, he never left Borgo San Sepolcro, recognised and celebrated by his fellow citizens as simply, the Maestro. The Resurrection is on the town shield and the city appears in many of his other frescoes. Sometimes, as part of a mysterious, distant landscape, sometimes in the foreground as the setting for the events that are depicted. No matter that the city is supposed to be Jerusalem, in the fresco cycle The Legend of The True Cross contained in the Basilica of St Francis in the nearby city of Arezzo, the city depicted is Sansepolcro. The River Jordan in The Baptism of Christ (in the National Gallery, London) is the Tiber, the landscape the Tiber Valley and the tiny city in the distance is  Sansepolcro.
Detail from Piero della Francesco
 Baptism of Christ,
 National Gallery, London

Baptism of Christ, National Gallery, London

Piero della Francesca left behind no self portraits, but it is thought that he put himself in two of his works and both are in the Museo Civico in Sansepolcro. He has been seen among the sleeping soldiers beneath the feet of the Risen Christ and under the sheltering cloak of the majestic Madonna della Misericorda, the Madonna of Mercy.

Madonna della Misericordia
Detail from Madonna della Misericordia
Detail with geometric diagram

This study of the sleeping soldier shows another of Piero's obsessions, his fascination with form and perspective. In his youth he had trained as a mathematician and wrote several treatises on subject. His deep interest in the theoretical study of perspective is apparent in all his work, from the actual construction of his paintings, the landscapes and cityscapes which provide the backgrounds and the subjects themselves.

Exhibit in Piero della Francesca's House, Sansepolcro
 His knowledge of solid geometry can be seen in the head and face of the soldier at the feet of the Risen Christ, although no mathematics can produce the brooding majesty of the Risen Christ or the infinite sorrow and compassion on the face of the Madonna del Parto. 

Madonna del Parto, Monterchi, Tiscany
Piero della Francesca continues to be an inspiration. By one of those serendipitous holiday encounters, we were lucky enough to meet the artist Stefano Camaiti who lives a literal stone's throw from the front door of Piero's house. The house is now a small museum full of fascinating exhibits illustrating different aspects of Piero's life and work. Stefano's wife is the guide there but speaks little English. Her son, Giacomo, offered to translate and then took us to meet his father, Stefano, in his studio. With Giacomo translating, Stefano told us about his lifelong interest in Piero and showed us his own work. He was preparing for an exhibition to be held this September in Florence. The Places of the Rose would combine the artist's abiding interest in the works of Piero della Francesco, particularly the recurring motif of the dog rose, their shared love of the Tiberine Tuscan landscape and a series of works based on Dante's journey in the Divine Comedy. It was a rare privilege to be invited into his studio, to see his work and to hear him talk about it and I'm especially grateful to his son, Giacomo for his patient and able translation.   

Celia Rees

Monday, 17 September 2018


Last weekend, I was in London, walking beside the Thames in the sunshine and enjoying – despite all the new buildings - the city’s enigmatic sense of the past. History exist as a half-concealed code in so many place names: London Bridge, The Clink, Potter’s Field, Southwark itself, all with their own myths and stories, and there as glimpses along the way: old stonework, an architectural flourish, a memorial, all reminding me that all the old maps of London lie beneath the modern sprawl.

London and the Thames are often there within my writing. especially within the work-in-progress that I’m picking up after a long break. It was the city of my childhood, of my early self’s wanderings, and won’t easily release its hold in my imagination. The weekend, for many reasons was inspiring, and I have come back ready to revisit my fictional London and those grey, ever-moving river tides.

However, for me, writing needs good sleep and good words, so I have begun on some comfort re-reading. Last night I finished Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. and this morning, in bed, I started Black Hearts in Battersea, the second adventure in her trilogy set in the fictitious reign of James III.

“On a fine warm evening in late summer, over a hundred years ago, a boy might have been seen leading a donkey across Southwark Bridge in the City of London . . .  Halfway across the bridge, the boy paused, took and extra turn of the donkey’s halter round his wrist, and pulled out of his pouch a grubby and much handled letter. . . “
The letter, from his friend & artist Dr Gabriel Field, tells fifteen year-old Simon to come to Rose Alley, Southwark, where he has taken two rooms for them at the top floor of a house, which belongs to Mr and Mrs Twite and their brood:
“They are an unattractive family but I see little enough of them. Moreover, the windows command a handsome view of the river and St Paul’s. “
When Simon eventually discovers the house, there is nobody at home, other than: 
 “A shrewish looking little creature of perhaps eight or nine, with sharp eyes of a washed-out blue and no eyebrows or eyelashes to speak of. Her straw coloured hair was stringy and sticky with jam and she wore a dirty satin dress two sizes too small for her.”
This, friends, is Dido Twite, Aiken’s bold young heroine, created well before feisty was an essential publishing term. All Dido wants is a ride on the donkey. Simon, however, is far more concerned by the fact that the two rooms are empty and Dr Field- and all his belongings and artist materials – have totally disappeared, and so the quest begins. Set in an early, alternative nineteenth century, Black Hearts in Battersea presents an alternative historical world where two factions are still at odds over who is ruling Britain - it is fiction – and trouble is afoot in deepest London.

With Aiken’s work at my bedside, I thought about other historical fiction for children and young people set in London. Then, like Simon, I asked around and here, therefore, is a list of favourite London titles, many almost historical in themselves, that might interest you. Some are perfectly fine for nine year olds, while others offer stronger content, harsher settings and bigger reading experiences. You might, like Simon, check things out first – or is that a well-worn rule about London?
Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin, inspired by Thomas Coram's Foundling Museum as well as the links between Britain and the riches of India.

Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman: the first in his exciting Sally Lockhart series, as shown on television.
I, Coriander by Sally Gardner: historical reality overlaid by the magic of the fairy world and beautifully written.

The Raven Master's Boy by Mary Hoffman – a strong Tudor novel for teens while younger readers might enjoy Raven Boy by Pippa Goodhart. Same birds, different books.

 Slightly Jones and the Case of the London Dragon by Joan Lennon:
A lively girl detective discovers a fossil problem just as Queen Victoria is due to visit the Natural History Museum.

The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding, set in the world of the London theatre and music halls.

Nest of Vipers, set close by Newgate prison by Catherine Johnson, and Freedom, her novel about slavery.

The Shadow Web by Nicky Matthews Browne: definitely alt-history, where two identical girls somehow swap not-identical parallel lives.

The Mourning Emporium by Michelle Lovric, which begins in Bankside in 1902. A supernatural Venetian villain arrives in London to wreak havoc on a country mourning the loss of its Queen, and on the watery city that declared him a traitor.

The Armourer's House and The Witch’s Brat by Rosemary Sutcliffe, both still in print. Unfortunately, “Ring Out Bow Bells” and “The Load of Unicorn” by Cynthia Harnett  only exist as rare second-hand copies.

The Historical House books, written by Adele Geras, Linda Newbery and Ann Turnbull, re-issued as the “6 Chelsea Walk” series: Girls with a Vote – Polly’s Walk; Girls with a Voice - Mary Anne and Miss Mozart and Girls Behind the Camera: Cecily’s Portrait.All three titles are set at a different time within the same house.

Wartime London appears at the start of several evacuee books, including Michelle Magorian’s Good Night Mr Tom; Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carrol and Jimmy’s War by Lynne Benton for slightly younger readers.

There is also River Of Ink by Helen Dennis: the first of a new, time-travelling thriller series for middle-grade readers.

I have just heard about a time-slip novel that features the iconic Alexandra Palace:
The Pearl in the Attic by Karen McCombie. It must go on my list because where else did one go on a North London Sunday afternoon?

And, finally, two true London favourites of mine:

Smith: The Story of A Pickpocket by Leon Garfield, for the wonderful intensity of his characters, his sense of place and ear for language and dialogue.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens drawn from his own childhood memories of the London streets.

Have you any London-based historical novels for young readers or teens that you’d recommend? (Or any that, like Livi Michael’s The Whispering Road, celebrate another particular city and if so which?)

Penny Dolan

Author of A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E (Bloomsbury)