Books I read over the Christmas holidays

As I mentioned in an earlier post my Christmas holidays included the following activities

A walk every day

We managed a walk most days but with our visitor in his eightieth year the walks were sometimes quite short ones.  However we did get to connect with the natural environment every day.

Lots of board games

We played scrabble, whist, dominoes, rummikub, trionimos, charades, settlers of Catan, zombicide and plague (a brand new game). The last three were my son’s games.  I approached them as a duty, but found all three really good fun and would recommend them to anyone not put off by the titles. I bought a set of pick up sticks for a few pounds, as a stocking filler and these proved to be very popular. We also tried charades but the three of us understand each other so well there is not much mystery. I also bought some wooden puzzles that kept us occupied on Christmas morning.

Reading a long list of books

I have read a blog (Dovegreyreader Scribbles if you are interested) recommending Robert Macfarlane’s Book ‘Landscapes’ and had bought a copy. After the first sentence I was hooked and ordered all the other books by this author I could find from the library.


My favourite book so far by this author is ‘The Old Ways’ where he explores ancient ways on foot looking at the landscape, natural history, archaeology, and history. I was completely mesmerised by the language, and the mental images they engendered.


The smallest book by Robert Macfarlane is ‘Holloway’ an exploration of the hollow lanes of South Dorset. Written in memory of Roger Deakin another great writer of natural history, it had all the beauty of lyrical poetry. The artwork was stunningly beautiful. Of all these books it is the one I would most like to own. I still have ‘Mountains of the Mind’ and ‘Wild Places’ to read. I also need to order ‘Underland’ an exploration of the world beneath our feet. I cannot express how much pleasure these books have given me my mind traveled to all these wonderful places and I could picture them so clearly thanks to the excellent writing.


Dovegrey reader scribbles also recommended a publisher porsephone books. Accordingly I searched the library catalogue for books from this publisher and came across ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ by Winifred Watson. This proved to be a real Cinderella story set in the 1930s. Some of the scenes resembled a French Farce but it was charming and light. I loved seeing this very moral and repressed spinster gradually softening and becoming more human.  Who could not like a frothy book for the winter when outside the rain is lashing the windows and the wind is howling.



From the same publisher came Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd. An elderly spinster is rescued from a desert island where she has been marooned for four years and arrives home in the middle of the second world war. Her struggles to re adjust are both funny and poignant. I enjoyed it thoroughly. The end papers are truly lovely.

‘Saplings’ By Noel Streatfeild was also on the list. Most famous for the childrens’ novel ‘Ballet Shoes’, this novel examines the effect of the disturbance and uncertainty of the second would war on the lives of children. More specifically the children of a seemingly perfect middle class family. It was rather long but very moving. The trouble is it is hard to get too emotional about the trauma of a perfectly nice middle class family, when at that time people including children were literally starving and being murdered. Despite this it was thought provoking.

I read ‘The Miniaturist’ by Jessie Burton. This was gripping and as a thriller quite a page turner.It is beautifully written and the denouement is quite a condemnation of the Calvinistic attitude prevalent in Amsterdam at the time. At this time a similar intolerance is present in the world and the parallels were quite startling. It has the distinction of making me cry something very few novels manage to do these days.


I also read ‘Various Pets Alive and Dead’ by Marina Lewycka. her first novel “A Short History on Tractors in Ukrainian” was a fantastic book. I had forgotten so much of my childhood and that book brought it all back from the pet words, to the mind set of the father and the attitude of Ukrainian women of that era. the clash between Ukrainians now and then is sympathetically protrayed. Her next two books I found disappointing. However in this latest novel the clash of attitudes and lifestyles is again explored and her voice is back as clear as ever. This novel is the story of a group of adult children, of a couple of hippies. Having grown up in a sort of commune in the 1970’s, the adult children rebel or reinvent themselves or try to move on. Their troubles and conflicts were both funny and sad. I couldn’t put the book down and finished it in a day. So what a wonderful fortnight of reading.


Swimming wherever possible. I managed this on several occasions revelling in being nearly the only person in the pool. Despite the cool temperature of the water I find the joy of swimming and having the time to meditate at the same time delightful. Some people sit to meditate others run, however I swim and as I pace the lengths of the pool I reflect on my day, my life and any problems I have. I clamber out tired but refreshed.

Good meals

I cooked any number of roast dinners and desserts, not to mention all the bottles of wine we drank. All were eaten by my family and friends. As always, it took hours to cook everything and a matter of minutes for them to be devoured. Still we didn’t eat too much rubbish food, as a result we are facing the new year feeling a lot healthier than we usually do.

Playing some music every day I managed 2 days when I played so an abject failure there. I did manage to play a Haydn sonata this afternoon. I bought myself a book of Haydn piano sonatas as a treat and have just commenced playing the easiest ones.

So this was my Christmas and New Year. New Years day was rounded off by the first of the new season of Sherlock. Pure escapism but very enjoyable all the same. I hope that you have all had an equally pleasant Christmas Holiday and I wish you all a very happy New Year



Liverpool The Walker Art Gallery

When We visited Liverpool we had not got an agenda for the afternoon so there we were at the Albert Dock with three and a half hours before we would be picked up again. It was raining the sort of rain that doesn’t seem that heavy, but before you know it you are soaked and getting very chilled  so our first priority was to keep dry.

Here is a rainy Liverpool. It is difficult for anywhere to look appealing when it is wet.

We visited the tourist information office for a map and a look at the bus timetables but the centre was so crowded we decided to walk to the Walker Art Gallery. I know the Liverpool Tate was closer but I don’t really understand most modern art and some of it irritates me. I wanted to enjoy my time in this city so we headed out to the gallery. So here we are outside the gallery.


It was free which is always a lovely surprise with a great high ceiling and central space downstairs. As you can see the building is reminiscent of the Natural History Museum and Science Museum in London and not too different from The Natural History Museum in Oxford. Perhaps they built all these buildings from a common template.


I really wanted to see the Pre-raphaelites so we made our way to the 19th Century gallery.

Here is Echo and Narcissus


And here is a cross dressing page


When I find out how to rotate this I will. This is from the story of Dante and Beatrice. In this painting she is ignoring him, but her friend is quite obviously checking him out.


This is Isabelle from the Prom Isabella and the pot of basil by Keats. If you don’t mind growing your basil in a pot containing your dead lover’s head it is a fine tail. Looking at the picture and the expressions of her brothers it isn’t really difficult to tell who is responsible for the loss of his head.  I did think if you were to wear tights that are that close fitting you shouldn’t try to kick the dog IMAG3286

I rather liked these two women of Phoenicia. They look more substantial that the picture above more like real women that the fantasy of some anaemic idealised figure. I also like the fact they are not looking out at the observer. I think this was painted for the drapery.


This is earlier and more idealised but still she appeared more real than many of the figures.


Another picture painted for the drapery. Her face is totally closed and expressionless.


This isn’t a great photo despite not using flash the lighting bounced off the picture . I liked that they were all playing music.


More angelic musicians here. Is it me or do they look a bit pallid and unhealthy?


Finally one that puzzled me. Any ideas?


I found a few Dutch old Masters the old man is by Carl Fabritius and he young man is  a Rembrant self portrait. There is such calm and poise and space in these paintings. I hadn’t expected to find 17th century Dutch masterpieces her so it was a lovely surprise.


Here is the famous Hans Holbein portrait of Henry VIII. Those little piggy eyes and huge jowls just make me shiver. I heard last week on a history programme that 72,000 people were executed during his reign.

The final portrait I photographed is an impressionist painting of a poor woman ironing. No posh clothes or fine jewels but I felt closer to her than the grand beauties. Isn’t it always the case that behind the scenes there is some impoverished woman cleaning or ironing or cooking unnoticed and unrecorded for the most part.


This is a modern work of two girls dancing. There is such an expression of abandon and movement and excitement I had to photograph it.


When we emerged it had stopped raining and look how much more attractive it suddenly becomes.


This was a wooden installation in the middle of the streets and shops. Isn’t it fun.


Back at the docks we took yet more pictures. The swans are a species unique to this area apparently.



Hythe The military canal and history

Whilst we were staying in Kent, every morning we would get up early for breakfast and then go for a walk for about an hour after our evening meal we would go for another walk. Many of these walks were taken either along the beach or along the military canal. The  canal was built in the early nineteenth century in order to defend the  coast against invasion.


The Romney Marsh had been left virtually undefended in the belief that it could be quickly flooded and the subsequent boggy ground, criss-crossed by drainage ditches, would be impassable. The threat of Napoleonic invasion led to questioning of this  view. After much deliberation Lt-Col John Brown, Commandant of the Royal Staff Corps, decided that flooding the marshes was unworkable, it would take too long, if the threat proved a mistake many homes and much farmland would be destroyed. Therefore he suggested that a canal be built from Seabrook, near Folkestone around the back of the Romney Marsh to the River Rother near Rye, a distance of 19 miles. The canal system would have sources of water from the sea and the River Rother. It would be 19 metres wide at the surface, 13.5 metres wide at the bottom and 3 metres deep. The excavated soil would be piled on to the northern bank to make a parapet, behind which troops could be positioned and moved out of sight of the enemy. The canal would also have ‘kinks’ to allow enfilading fire along the length of the canal, if the enemy attempted to cross it. I know it seems a bit silly to think that an army that had marched across much of Europe would be stopped by a deep ditch.


On October 30 1804 excavation of the Royal Military Canal was commenced. Harsh winter weather and severe flooding, as well as difficulty in attracting labourers called navvies delayed the completion and by May 1805 the canal project was close to disaster: only six miles had been completed and work had stopped.  The Prime Minister William Pitt intervened: the contractors and Rennie were dismissed.

The project was put in the hands of the Quartermaster-General’s department with Lt-Col. Brown in command. Navvies dug the canal, while the military built the ramparts and turfed the banks. Flooding continued to be a barrier to progress and hand pumps were used day and night to keep the trench from filling with water. Eventually powerful steam-driven pumps were used to clear the water.

Here is a picture of the monument to the navvies who built the canal



At its peak there were 1,500 men working on the canal. The canal was dug entirely by hand, using picks and shovels and the soil was carried away in wheelbarrows. Once the canal was dug it was lined with clay. The change of command and the greater work force speeded progress so that by August 1806 the canal was open from Seabrook to the River Rother.
However, the original dimensions of the canal were greatly reduced due to increasing problems encountered by the builders and pressures of time, so that for most of its length the canal is half its projected width.

Iden Lock was completed in September 1808, which linked the canal to the River Rother and Rye Harbour, effectively turning the Romney Marsh into an island, but it wasn’t until April 1809 that the canal was actually completed.

Plaque to the canal



By the time the Royal Military canal was fully ready for use, the threat of invasion had long since past. Napoleon’s plans for invasion suffered a major setback following his navy’s defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He withdrew his troops from the French coast and focused his intentions on central Europe.

Map showing the route of the canal obviously we did not walk the entire length, but used it as a base to explore the town and its surroundings.


The fact that the canal was never used for its intended purpose, cost £234,310 (a huge amount in Georgian England)  meant that the canal became an embarrassment to the Government – it was considered to be a huge waste of public money. It was cheekily called Pitt’s ditch after the then Prime Minister William Pitt

The radical journalist William Cobbett, who toured the country on his Rural Rides during the 1820s, was typical of the critics of the canal: ‘Here is a canal made for the length of thirty miles to keep out the French; for those armies who had so often crossed the Rhine and the Danube were to be kept back by a canal thirty feet wide at most!’

The Government desperately needed to find ways of recovering some of the money spent on the canal and in 1807 opened it to navigation and collected tolls for the transportation of produce and goods. In 1810 the canal was opened for public use and tolls were also collected for the use of the military road between Iden, Rye and Winchelsea. There was also a regular barge service running between Hythe and Rye, which took around four hours to complete.

Despite these efforts, traffic was never heavy, and the opening of the Ashford to Hastings railway line in 1851 further decreased its use. The Government was struggling not only to recoup the money invested in the canal but to meet the costs of maintenance.

Consequently, during the 1860s the stretch from Iden Lock to West Hythe was leased to the Lords of the Romney Marsh for 999 years at an annual rent of one shilling, while the the town of Hythe purchased the remaining stretch, that ran through the town, for conversion to ornamental waters. The canal west of Rye was sold to four individual owners. By the late nineteenth century the canal trade had all but gone. The last ever toll was collected at Iden Lock on December 15 1909.


Despite previous doubts surrounding the canal’s usefulness for defence in the nineteenth century, it was quickly requisitioned by the War Department in 1935 as war in Europe became increasingly likely. The banks were lined with pill-boxes as the nation awaited invasion, this time by Hitler, but once again there was no invasion.

This is one of the Martello towers along the beach the red flag shows that the shooting range is active which is why the photograph is somewhat distant.


Despite never being used to defend the nation it is a very beautiful place to walk or cycle. There are boats that  can be hired. Trees flank the water and the usual assortment of ducks, geese and swans live on the waters. Herring gulls in all stages of maturity use it as a place to wash and clean their feathers not to mention scrounge any food from passing individuals.


and it is much pleasanter to walk into Hythe along a beautiful tree-lined peaceful waterway that along a noisy dirty road with extremely narrow pavements. There are some parklands.


Unlike the canals here in the midlands there are considerable more pleasure boats but considerably fewer supermarket trolleys, old motorbikes and other debris.

The town of Hythe has a long connection with the defence of the country. Hythe was originally one of the cinque ports (from the French for five, but pronounced sink), they comprised Hastings, Hythe, Dover, Sandwich and New Romney. However when New Romney silted up Rye took over as a cinque port. The earliest known charter to the Cinque Ports collectively (a general charter) was granted by King Henry III in 1260, but there is evidence that the Ports acted together from an earlier date.  It was found from the terms of those charters and other evidence, including the Pipe Rolls of Henry II and the Domesday Book (published in 1086), that the Ports had enjoyed common privileges in return for their service to the Crown since the 11th century and were already known collectively as the Cinque Ports. Until the 16th Century, each of the Five Ports was required to provide the Crown with a specified number of ships, for 15 days every year; each crewed by 21 men and a boy. If their service was required for longer than 15 days in any year, they were entitled to payment for the additional period. Hythe supplied five ships. In return they were first granted important legal and fiscal privileges, as well as valuable commercial benefits and social status (see footnotes if you are interested).

As the fortunes of the head ports changed over the centuries, so the contributions of their limbs varied. Coastal erosion, silting-up of harbours, foreign raids and the Black Death took their toll on all of the ports at different times and to varying degrees.  At one point it was discovered that Hythe had only supplied two ships and the King threatened to revoke the town’s privileges.


Hythe’s military history dates back to the Roman times. It was the original home to the School of Musketry. Today, Hythe Ranges is a major training area for the Ministry of Defence. Beside the canal are the remains of military barracks and an unusual war memorial.


The Ports enjoyed  rights and privileges in return for their ship service. These varied over time and from one port to another, according to the particular charter, but the rights and liberties most commonly granted were:-

Early royal charters confirmed their customary right to land and dry their nets (den and strand) on the shore at Yarmouth, in Norfolk. The Portsmen also assumed responsibility for the administration of justice at the Fair. It was the need to defend and manage this vital economic interest which led directly to the development of the Court of Brodhull, which assumed responsibility for the appointment of bailiffs (magistrates) from the Ports to keep order at this often unruly gathering.

●Freedom from pleading ‘otherwise than as the barons of … the Cinque Ports plead’, that is to say, in their own courts of law.

●Freedom from a wide range of taxes which were payable in the course of travel and trade during medieval times; including custom, toll, lestage, passage, rivage and sponsage.

●Freedom from fifteenths and tenths (national taxes levied by the Crown).

●The right of withernam – if a Portsman was owed a debt by a resident of another town or if he was unjustly charged a toll or levy elsewhere; a warning letter would be sent to the offending town demanding (re-) payment within 15 days. If redress was not forthcoming, the next visitor from that town would be arrested and, after a hearing, sent home with notice of the judgement against his townspeople. If that failed, the next traveller from the defaulting town was liable to be detained and his goods confiscated and sold to cover the outstanding amount.

I used this website initially,_Kent#The_Cinque_port_Court_of_Shepway

and these ones

Much of this information was supplemented from this website which I used to research the origins of the canal.

Going to Kent

Well I thought I would update you on our summer travels. This year I decided we would visit Kent. I have never been to Kent before and I thought it would be an adventure to visit somewhere new. It took most of the day to arrive. The traffic on the M25 is already notorious so the least said about it the better. I slept for most of the way with my usual narcolepsy.

The Hotel is almost on the beach literally adjacent to the beach. It had been built in the 1930s so looked a bit like a Poirot set from the outside.



It looked a lot better in the sunshine.



Inside it was alright not too much of the modern minimalism but a bit pseudo Elizabethan downstairs wooden beams heavy doors etc. we were on the second floor the stairs were narrow and twisted so we opted for the lift. The lift could barely contain a single person so the pair of us with cases was challenging. In the end it was like playing an impromptu game of twister especially when we tried to reach the lift controls.

Our room more than made up for the rest with a balcony two huge windows and lots of light we overlooked the beach and the road.






The beach is shingle but with a concrete path to the side. This makes walking a great deal easier. The only birds visible were a few house sparrows and the occasional flock of starlings. Herring gulls patrolled the beach looking for a meal and we did spot a lesser black backed gull.

Along the edge of the beach four brave/foolhardy blokes were attempting to swim in the sea. A short distance away a group of herring gulls watched them avidly. I am almost sure I saw one of the gulls nudge his companion as he singled out a particularly cold looking individual as his next meal. I reckon these vulture/ herring gulls were just waiting for hypothermia to set in, before they attacked. One of the men appeared to have turned blue from the waist down, although that could have just been his shorts. Unfortunately the predatory gulls put me off swimming in the sea. After all my carcass could feed considerably more gulls, for a long time. Besides the Japanese are still carrying out whaling, so, swimming could put me in considerable danger. This is what the beach looks like but in the interests of not bringing the human form into disrepute I have omitted the hypothermia victims.




Well that is all the news for today.

I will tell you more tomorrow!

Continue reading Going to Kent

History of the uses of Nettles

History of the uses of nettles

Fabric woven of nettle fibre has been found in burial sites dating back to the Bronze age. A Bronze Age (2200 – 700 BCE) body was discovered in Denmark wrapped in cloth made from nettles.

Ancient Fabric from Denmark made of Nettles

ancient nettle cloth

Human settlements that have long since been abandoned can be spotted by archaeologists as nettles still grow there.
Nettles at Danehill Fort

nettles at Danehill fort

The plant is listed as one of the Anglo Saxon nine sacred herbs. Samuel Pepys enjoyed nettle porridge on 25th February 1661 and Sir Walter Scott wrote about the gardener in Rob Roy raising nettles for use as early spring kale (Mabey 2010).

The Romans are said to have brought Urtica pilulifera to Britain where they used them to relieve rheumatism and arthritis by flogging themselves with small branches of them tied together, this stimulates the blood. They also used them to keep out the cold of the damp British climate. However this species of nettle is not common in the United Kingdom.
Urtica pilulifera

Urtica pilulifera

Nettles Urtica dioica have been used to make cloth, paper, fishing nets, sails, tablecloths, ropes and textiles since the Neolithic times. The German army used nettle for their uniforms in World War 1 However it took 40kg of nettles to make a single shirt. In the Second World War the leaves were used to make the green dye for the military uniforms.  Today nettles are again being used to make cloth as they are Eco-friendly and easy to grow. The tough fibres from the stem are used to make the cloth. It is reported that it is stronger than cotton and finer than hemp. People used to sleep between the sheets made from nettles.

Nettle Cloth

nettle fabric

 Nettles can also be used to make paper, however the process is complicated

Nettle Paper

nettle paper

There are records of nettle fibres being spun into ropes.

Nettle Rope

 The roots can also be made into a dye that is yellow (Mabey 1977).
The chlorophyll is used as a green dye and is listed as a food colorant (E140) by the European Community.