Holidays are for Family.


Taking a break from blogging to concentrate on meeting my deadline (way to go, Mari and David!), so I’m taking this opportunity to wish everyone a joyous holiday season. Enjoy it with lots of food, friends and family. This might well be the last year I’ll get to wish my mother a Merry Christmas, so do me a favor and hug the ones you hold dear. See you all next year!


It may be too late for mom, but knowledge and information always helps. Please click on the link below, spread the word and it may change someone’s life:

Hermitage Castle

My first impression of Hermitage Castle is that you’d have to really want to be there, to be there. Hidden deep in Border Reiver country, you have to go through narrow winding roads that disappear before inexplicably starting again until you pass by a lonely sign telling you to walk across the bridge and the castle would be somewhere over there.  Yep, that way, and a bit to the right. You can’t miss it, mate.

It’s  the most difficult place to find, rivalled only by the location of the bathroom in a stranger’s house party, and isolated in a “no one will hear your screams” kind of way.

Hermitage Castle c13th Century "The Strength of Liddesdale"

Hermitage Castle c13th Century.
“The Strength of Liddesdale”

Once considered as the “guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain,” Hermitage Castle has a history of being owned by distinguished noblemen no one seemed to like or trust, suspected of everything from treason and attempted regicide to witchery.

I’ve never seen a stronghold that reflected its history so much. It’s routinely described as one of the most “sinister and atmospheric”  castles in this country and, according to Radio Scotland, the embodiment of the phrase “sod off” in stone.

"Sod Off"

SO not going in there, dude.

Hermitage stands in the lordship of Liddesdale, held by the de Soules family in the 12th century. The first lord held the prestigious position of butler at the court of David I and the family moved to Hermitage after the second lord, Ranulf “the wicked Lord Soules”, was murdered in 1207 by his servants in nearby Liddel.

WP_002789 (2)

Castle Court and Zombie Apocalypse Refuge Centre

Because of its strategic location in the Middle March, Liddesdale was a sought after place during the Wars of Independence in 1296. Hermitage quickly fell into English hands, and so started the dispute of its ownership between the de Soules and their English enemies. But that’s not enough drama, so in 1320 William de Soules was accused of plotting to kill King Robert the Bruce and was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment, forfeiting his lands and titles to the crown.

In 1338, Sir William Douglas, “Knight of Liddesdale”, seized Hermitage and was described by the monks of Durham as “not so much valiant as malevolent.” He was a skilled knight and captured many castles for Scotland. His vaunted malevolence showed itself when his rival and compatriot, Sir Alexander Ramsey, started to become more liked by the king after Ramsay recaptured Roxburgh Castle in 1342, and the king took the office of Constable and Sheriff of Roxburgh from Douglas to bestow it upon Ramsey.


In a hissy fit, Douglas led a large force of men to Hawick, where Ramsey was holding court, seized Ramsey and tied him to a mule to take him to Hermitage. Here, Ramsey was imprisoned in the dungeon and starved to death, lingering for up to 17 days without food and water. His body is believed to have been found in the 1800s, when a mason broke down the walls and came upon a sealed dungeon, where a skeleton laid over a rusty sword.

cc060e91-8d10-4deb-beb9-551c1358cef2 (1)

By 1346, Sir William Douglas was captured in the Battle of Neville’s Cross and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he agreed with his captors not to impede English armies marching through Liddesdale if they let him keep Hermitage. Unfortunately, the Scottish King David II knew of the pact and gave Hermitage to his godson and namesake, who was already Lord Douglas (and future Earl of Douglas). Lord Douglas killed the Knight of Liddesdale in 1353, during a confrontation in the Ettrick Forest.

Eventually, Hermitage passed to Lord Douglas’s illegitimate son,  George, the Earl of Angus, and this guy built the corner towers we see today. Maybe it was like doing superficial renovations to a house before selling, because during James IV’s reign, the 5th Earl was involved in some intrigues with the English, and the castle was given to the Bothwells, who later also proved untrustworthy when the 3rd earl, Patrick, made a deal with the English that he’d hand over Hermitage in exchange for marriage to a princess. He didn’t marry a princess, but his son James, the 4th Earl of Bothwell, married Mary, Queen of Scots.

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell (1534-1578)

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell

No one liked this guy either. Sure, it didn’t help that he was a prat, but to be honest, by now any Hermitage owner could spend half his fortune to give away food to the poor and people would just mutter, “Bloody show off. Typical, if you ask me–which you didn’t, but what a slimey toff!”

Jimmy here bore the brunt of trouble with the borderers. In particular, there was this encounter in 1566 with famous reiver Little Jock Elliot who could care less that Bothwell was an earl. Elliot was so famous there’s a ballad about him that highlights his “screw you” attitude.  The refrain goes, “My name is Little Jock Elliot, and wha daur meddle wi’ me!” Bothwell might not have understood Elliot’s accent or why this cattle lifter was singing during battle, but when the earl returned to Hermitage injured and barely hanging onto life, only to discover he couldn’t get inside the castle because the Elliot clan had taken it over while he was away, we can assume he got the message.

So did his future third wife, Mary Queen of Scots, who in the middle of her annual progress (tour), heard of her rumored beau’s injured state and rode the 25 miles of difficult terrain to be with him. She only stayed a couple hours to quell the gossips and protect her reputation, but on the way back to Jedburgh , her horse stumbled on a bog and she contracted pneumonia which nearly killed her. Fortunately, she recovered from the illness so she can attend her beheading about a decade after Bothwell went insane and died in a Danish dungeon.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)

Mary, Queen of Scots

So, clearly, the borderers won this round, and the last family to own Hermitage was headed by the “Bold Buccleuch” and notorious reiver, Sir Walter Scott, a descendant of whom was the writer of the same name whose historical novels revived interest in medieval Scotland. So much so that in the early 19th century, the  5th Duke of Buccleuch, Walter Montagu Douglas Scott made certain that Hermitage Castle was preserved so it could still creep people out even after the property went into public ownership in 1939.


The Ladies of Llangollen

I wasn’t so sure about Wales. I’ve been there a total of once in my life before this trip, and from what I remember, all things were written in Welsh and then English, but everyone talked with a Northern accent. So you walk around feeling like you’re in the middle of a weird documentary about remembering one of your past lives. Only… in this particular lifetime, you were the village idiot and you can’t pronounce place names so you ask everyone to just meet you near the local Tesco. It’s like you’re in a foreign country where everything seems vaguely familiar.

It’s only “down the road” from Chester, yet driving past the sign welcoming you to Wales is accompanied by a sense of achievement that you got this far and as a reward, great events now await to redefine your life. Still, the voice in my head says I should trust this reassuring feeling as much as I would the statement “We’ll be welcomed as liberators.”  So, when I found out the exotic-sounding Welsh Rarebit is essentially cheese on toast, I have only myself to blame for ignoring the voice in my head as I bite into the delicacy that tasted a lot like disappointment.

welcome to Wales

But, it’s Welsh cheese on toast, see?

I wonder if things felt as peculiarly adventurous to the aristocratic ladies, Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and the Hon. Sarah Ponsonby (1775-1831), when they arrived in the Welsh town of Llangollen to start their life together after eloping from Ireland, scandalizing their prominent families and 18th century society.

The Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby

The Ladies of Llangollen,
Lady Eleanor Butler and the Hon. Sarah Ponsonby

Eleanor was 39 and Sarah was 23 when they eloped. Their first attempt wasn’t successful, but they eventually managed to escape unwanted advances from guardians, forced marriages and the prospect of a life in a convent.

They had to rely on the allowance given to them by family members, but they were free to live their lives as they pleased. And what they pleased was to live in a house in the country, so that’s what they did. If they’d been men, they’d probably have just made the requisite improvements to their new pad and spent their days hunting, but these were ladies, so of course they transformed the cottage up on the hill into an architectural marvel, renamed it Plas Newydd (New Hall) and did some gardening.

Plas Newydd (New Hall)

Plas Newydd


View from Lady Eleanor’s Bower

Then as now, people were fascinated by their lifestyle. History books and contemporary accounts invariably describe their lifestyle as “eccentric,” and speculated on the nature of their relationship. They called each other “My Beloved” and “My Better Half”, habitually wore men’s clothing, had short hair and slept in the same bed. It wasn’t uncommon for people during that time to have “romantic friendships,” so no one can tell with absolute certainty if they had a sexual relationship or not, and this seems to be the main draw for people visiting them.

Quote from the Ladies' Journals posted at the garden's gates.

Quote from the Ladies’ Journals posted at the garden’s gates.

They were accepted in the village and were referred to as “the ladies,” but pretty soon they had celebrity status all over Britain. People such as Wordsworth, Byron, Lady Caroline Lamb, Percy Shelley, Sir Walter Scott, the Duke of Wellington, Anna Seward, and even the royal family became friends and visitors. They entertained daily, showing off their house and their devotion to each other. It wasn’t until last week, however, that they would have been able to say they had the great honor of having me there.

The pleasure is yours.

The pleasure is yours, Ladies.

Having servants, fine wines, loads of books and constant house remodelling meant they were often in debt to maintain their lifestyle, which, to me, is a more “eccentric” aspect of their lives than whether or not they had sex with each other. Most of us (even some priests) have sex at some point in our lives, but these ladies had an allowance of £300 a year (more than most people could expect to have during that time) and still they managed to get into debt. It’s a common theme in aristocratic families, and considering these were the people who were expected to reign over the masses, you’d think the least they could do is learn to balance the books.

Sarah and Eleanor spent the rest of their lives together in Plas Newydd. They never did learn to budget during their more than 50 years together. The house is now run by the Denbighshire County Council, and people still go here to learn about them and be inspired because, whether they were in a lesbian relationship or not, it’s clear that these women managed to defy social convention and live their lives in a manner that few others in their lifetime could have imagined possible.


Corbridge Roman Town

Winter is taking over. Daylight is becoming scarce as the season claims more hours for the night, giving us opportunities to indulge in activities more animal than the civilized ways of the morning. It’s easy to let yourself go when there’s no danger of being found out. That’s probably why what has traditionally been called The Dark Ages seem to be especially violent and primitive.



We’re not really sure about the details of what happened to mankind from the time the Roman Empire collapsed until Michelangelo decided to decorate buildings during the Renaissance. People from the Dark Ages didn’t leave many records, as many of them seemed unable to write. It’s a pity, as it was during this time that the Anglo-Saxons displaced the truly “native” inhabitants of Britain, instead of merely concentrating on the aristocracy as the Romans did. Constant invasions of Angles and Vikings during the Great Migration would have surely left an indelible mark on both the cultural and racial make up of the country, but we don’t have enough records about this time in our history.

Archaeology has shed some light on how people lived during the 5-10th centuries, but not much on how they thought. So, it’s difficult for us to discern the culture during this era, and historians are left to make suppositions that aren’t readily corroborated. One book can say, “The Vikings must surely have felt confident as they arrived to make a new home in Britain” while another can say, “The Vikings must have been worried about the new challenges they would face as they arrived to make a new home in Britain” and the statements would be no less difficult to prove when I say, “The Vikings must have been relieved to leave their longboats and steady diet of rotting fish as they arrived to make a new home in Britain.”

The lack of cultural output led to stereotypes of a savage, barbarous and backward era, and it was easy to accept these depictions because unlike the Romans, these people did not conform to our idea of what civilization means. Literature, architectural improvements, legal systems and scientific discoveries–these are some of the things we take into account when speculating how advanced a society is. How alike are they to our civilized selves? If this is the measure of humanity, then Rome had it in spades. Togas and laurel leaves can be easily disregarded.  In Corbridge, remains of a Roman town (nicknamed Coria) tell us the Romans actually introduced to us the very concept of urban settlement.

Corstopitvm (Coria) AD79-AD410

Corioopitum (Coria)

It’s the only place in Britain where you can walk on the original surface of a Roman “High Street.”  Originally a fort, the town developed into a civilian settlement over the course of many centuries and emperors.  Designed in the familiar form of a grid, the excavated remains reveal granaries, markets, a fountain house, workshops, military compound and temples. The site is thought to have originally housed a unit of about 500 auxiliary cavalrymen. Since a child’s grave was also found here, we can assume the soldiers lived with their families, prompting the area’s development.

It looked kinda like this.

It looked kinda like this.


You are free to explore the site, and an audio guide will suggest interesting places to look at. With appropriate background music and narration, you can walk along its main street, Stanegate, which ran from east to west between Solway Firth and the river Tyne, connecting to the only road to Scotland, and immerse yourself in all aspects of Roman life. It’s only a couple miles from Hadrian’s Wall, and it was a major regional centre in the North East. It provided entertainment, supplies, liquor and everything a weary soldier might require.

From personal letters that have been discovered, we know that soldiers requested time off from their post at Hadrian’s Wall to go to Corbridge. Things we associate with modernity, like a good drainage system, piped water and underfloor heating, were available in this Roman town.


The granaries had raised floors for air circulation and to deter vermin.

From Apicius, we know the Romans are familiar with the concept of fast food. They even had their own version of the hamburger, only they called it Isicia Omentata because it sounds fancier. Latin was the standard/official language, so everyone sounded smart. They lived just like us, had birthday parties and made grocery shopping lists. Our version of Gladiators may lack lions and can be a bit more kitsch than theirs, but the important aspects of what we call civilization are easily recognizable in the Roman Empire. But as with any empire, whether it’s British, Roman or American, this quality of life was not enjoyed by all. Like many civilized societies, it was built on a foundation of huge inequality of wealth and exploitation. Their slaves worked in farms and villas, ours work in Vietnamese sweat shops.

Just like us.

Just like us.

The sophistication of a society provides a veneer of peace and stability over the brutality that exists within. The Roman Empire was led by murderous regimes that are comparable to any dictators today. Julius Caesar had 400,000 people massacred in his campaign in Germany. In this town, slaves were worked to death, their owners’ initials branded on their forehead, and just beyond Hadrian’s Wall, there existed the “painted people” who refuse to be vanquished. In Britain, the rebellions made fortifications a requirement for any city the Romans established. This may be accepted standards of warfare, but somehow I doubt people from 3 AD would say, “Don’t impose your modern morality on us. Things were different in our day. We don’t hate being massacred at all.”

When advancement or progress is built on snobbery and inequality, the injustice and exploitation it breeds create resentment and all those things that eventually lead to either a war or a revolution. Of these “painted people,” the Caledonian chief Calgacus summed up the Roman system thus:

“Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.”

It’s remarkable how quickly Celtic life reasserted itself after the empire’s collapse. After four centuries of occupation, the Romans seemed to have very little impact on the British way of life until they were rediscovered hundreds of years later by aristocrats who made their family motto even more boring by writing it in Latin.


Lanercost Priory

I wasn’t stealing.  But if anyone saw me furtively taking more than my fair share of the packets of condiments offered at Lanercost Priory’s cafe, I’m sure they’d think I was acting unlike anything but a thief. And they would be right.

Lanercost Priory

Lanercost Priory, established circa 1169.
(B&B, Cafe, Parish Church, Medieval Ruins and Cultural Events Venue)

Eyes to the ground, I finished lunch and made my way to the lady at the gift shop and ticket area, who looked exactly how you’d imagine an actress playing the part of “overly kind lady of a certain age at the ticket area” would look if there ever was a play in production that required such a character. She spent fifteen minutes telling me all the information I needed to buy an entrance ticket to this English Heritage site: when the priory was built, how to tell which of the stones were from Hadrian’s Wall, how best to traverse the area and everything but how much this was going to cost and if she had change for a tenner. But she was kind, so I nodded and uttered the occasional “Ah,” while I tried not to sweat, being very aware of the ill-gotten packets of ketchup and mustard in my purse.

The Priory Nave. 800 years. Still a church.

The Priory Nave.
800 years. Still praying.

There’s something about churches that always succeeds to make me act guilty. We’re expected to wear our Sunday best and observe proper behavior, and anyone who messes with the rules should expect a sound smiting. Because, inevitably, they will know, you will repent and they will deliver justice.

I don’t know who “they” are, but I’m a coward and I’m scared. The possibility of spending an eternity anxiously looking over your shoulder and feeling observed is indeed a close second to hell. After the ticket lady finally handed me my ticket, I wondered if this was how the border raiders felt during the many times they ransacked this priory throughout the Middle Ages. I only hope they had enough money to fund their prayers.

Located on the border between Scotland and England, Lanercost Priory has a violent and turbulent history. I suppose that can only be expected when a religious structure is erected during the reign of a monarch who’s known for having Thomas Becket killed. Several centuries later,  Edward I and his second wife Margaret made this former Augustinian priory their home for 5 months in 1306-7, making it a royal palace while he worked on vanquishing the Scots and depleting the priory’s funds. In 1311, Robert the Bruce made the priory his headquarters for three days and in 1341 Robert’s son King David II felt like entering a “holy place” with haughtiness, so he ransacked and desecrated the buildings. Hopefully, they all funded prayers for their immortal souls afterwards.


Can you afford to do that, Your Highness?

They gave it their best shot, but border warfare isn’t the reason that the only part of this priory not in ruins is the nave, and that it still serves as the village’s parish church. Like many other abbeys/monasteries in Britain, it’s mostly in ruins because of Henry VIII‘s love/hate relationship with the church. Lanercost was given to the Dacre family, headed by the baron, a Knight of the Garter who fought in many wars including the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Lord Dacre owned more than a hundred thousand acres of land by the time he died in 1525, and although he was a closet Catholic, he had the king’s favor. So, naturally, his son William assumed he’d keep Lanercost after inheriting the barony. All Dacres were buried there, after all. Yeah… too bad the king didn’t like William as much as he did the old baron. In May 1534, William was committed to the Tower, along with 2 other people, under suspicion for treason.


They were all acquitted in July, but something happened during their incarceration that was big enough to cause a fallout between William and his co-prisoner, loyal servant and illegitimate brother-from-another-mother, Thomas. Let’s go straight to the action:

Thomas: My name is all I have, William. I don’t have your lands, or money, or the respectability of a title. I don’t even know who my mother was. And now your shenanigans has tainted my name with treason! Seriously, bro, WTF? Gads, and I thought was the bastard in this family…

William: Thou art a varlet and a knave, unworthy of all but cleaning the chamberpot! Get thee from my sight. I’ve no need of thy presence and thy filthy blood.

Thomas: That’s just fine by me, Billy. From now on, you can clean your own crap! Good luck with that, yer lordship.

Soon after, Thomas (who was a Protestant) was serving under the new guy the king was promoting in the North West, Wharton, to counterbalance the powerful and Catholic Lord William Dacre. Thomas’s skills in border warfare was recognized after he made a stellar performance in the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542. He was knighted, and granted the Lanercost Priory estate, becoming known as “Sir Thomas Dacre of Lanercost.” He made improvements and converted part of the priory into a respectable country house that he called Dacre Hall. It was practically next door to his half brother Lord Dacre, who lived at Naworth Castle.

Dacre Tower, Lanercost Priory

Dacre Tower, Lanercost Priory

Maybe it was all part of Henry VIII’s plan to use the Dacre family’s issues to his advantage, but now we know he managed to have two different men competing for favors in the problematic border area, instead of being reliant on just the one man. I was hoping for a Hollywood ending where the family reunites or Sir Thomas becomes wealthier than his half-brother, but life rarely has happy endings. In some situations there isn’t even any ending at all, and many people around the world are desperate for closure or someone to tell them it wasn’t their fault. Sir Thomas married 3 times, all to women from the local gentry, and had 3 children plus 1 illegitimate son.

He was able to gain independence from the Dacre baron, but never gained enough money or influence to escape the family’s scorn, and Sir Thomas’s sons were often harrassed/bullied in court. Especially after the Dacres married into the Howard family (through the Duke of Norfolk’s sons in a Brady Bunch kind of way) and eventually gained the earldom of Carlisle. The rift was never mended, but Sir Thomas, the previous barons Dacre, and many Howard Earls of Carlisle are all buried in Lanercost, so at least in death there is equal treatment, the past is buried and there’s no obvious signs of discord.

The priory passed on to public ownership in 1929, giving people a discreet access to unlimited supply of condiments.


St. Michael’s Mount

It could have been a dragon’s lair. At the very least, it should have been the headquarters of a company owned by an evil gazillionaire genius who tries to avoid dealing with his daddy issues by screwing with the world.


St. Michael’s Mount, Low Tide.

St. Michael's Mount, High Tide

St. Michael’s Mount, High Tide

But this was Cornwall, so the legend surrounding this castle/priory/country home situated on a tidal island off the town of Marazion, needed to threaten elements close to the Cornish heart, if the story were to have any impact on the population.

When I found out that the resident mythical being preying on the village’s sheep was a giant, I admit to being a little disappointed. Dragons and evil geniuses meant dramatic fight scenes and maybe a heart-wrenching back story, but a mutton-loving giant called Cormaron? It couldn’t have been more trite if the hero was called David. Unless he was called Jack. And he was. Considering the pattern of stories involving giants and boys named Jack, Cormaron didn’t stand a chance.

Sure enough, the poor sod was dead two paragraphs into the story, when he fell into a pit that Jack was able to dig without waking him up. Perhaps Jack had a magic shovel instead of beans, but we just don’t know and there’s no explanation why no one thought of digging up a pit before, and it’s even more impossible to find someone who cares to find out. Considering that the brilliant writer/journalist Edward St. Aubyn is part of the family that still lives in this National Trust-managed property, I somehow expected a more captivating tale than the half-baked one about Jack the Giant Killer.


The buildings date back to the 12th Century, making me wish for a conical head dress.

St. Michael’s Mount was occupied by Perkin Warbeck  in 1497, and owned by Sir Robert Cecil during Elizabeth I’s reign. It was where the first beacon to warn of the Spanish Armada’s approach in 1588 was lit, but since all that achieved was give Sir Francis Drake enough time to finish his game of bowls, it’s not really enough of a history highlight to take the focus away from the screwed up St. Aubyn family, who have owned and occupied it since 1659.

Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St. Aubyn
(Has Daddy Issues)

Another Edward St. Aubyn (1799-1872) was a “Sir” in the nineteenth century, and is the ancestor of the Barons St. Levan of St. Michael’s Mount.  Although Sir Edward wasn’t repeatedly raped by his father or became a heroin addict like his journalist/writer descendant,  he did become a baronet in his own right because he was illegitimate and couldn’t inherit his father’s title.

Sir Edward’s father, Sir John (5th and last Baronet St. Aubyn of the first creation), is one of the most distinguished members of the St. Aubyn family. He had a keen interest in science and the arts. Having ascended to the title by the age of 14, he served as High Sheriff of Cornwall at age 23. He was a well-known fossil collector and constant patron of the painter John Opie. Sir John was a fellow of the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, Society of Antiquarians, the Geological Society of London, the Society of Arts, was a Member of Parliament and a Grandmaster of the Freemasons.

He was smart, rich and cloaked with a sensitive aura evidenced by his appreciation of the arts and his eclectic taste in women. He had 13 (acknowledged) illegitimate children from the two women he lived with (5 children born to a woman from an old, respected Cornish family named Martha and the others–including Sir Edward–were from the woman Sir John eventually married in 1822, who was a blacksmith’s daughter named Juliana). He died without a legitimate heir, since the only child (his 14th kid) who was born after his marriage in 1822 was a girl. Considering that this was only 6 years before Sir Edward’s own marriage and Sir John was 63 and his wife 53 at the time, this was no mean feat.

It’s quite impressive, actually, but also confusing. What would have been the point of marriage at that late date?  If he intended to marry her all along, why didn’t he do it sooner so that his children could inherit without problems? Was he just unconventional or was he a brilliant but self-indulgent arse? Strangely enough, it’s the same questions people ask about the journalist/writer Edward St. Aubyn.

Sir John St. Aubyn, 5th Baronet 1758-1839

Sir John St. Aubyn, 5th Baronet

Maybe the giant Cormaron had it easy, after all, with his simple pleasure of feeding on sheep. Freed from the worries of poverty and survival, the St. Aubyns seemed to start worrying about everything else, heaping problems upon problems on each others’ lives. Having too many options can be just as daunting as having none at all. St. Michael’s Mount is a beautiful property, but I guess growing up in a place like that, with the remains of ancestors’ lives and expectations in every corner, makes it difficult for a person to appreciate the magnificent coastal view that it offers. Instead of waking up everyday grateful for the inspiring sight of the ocean, you see nothing but the glare from the crashing waves that surround you.

Still, you’d be able to have anything you want for breakfast. Anything at all–it’s your stomach, just be brave enough to make a decision and stand by it.



The Maid of Buttermere

It takes a lot of work to be cynical in a place like the Lake District.

With its quaint villages and spectacular views, it has inspired painters, poets, writers and all sorts of artists to capture its magic in their work since the 1700s. It’s the kind of place that would make a man like William Wordsworth stop his vocal support for the French Revolution to focus instead on daffodils and lonely clouds.

Buttermere, The Lake District

Buttermere, The Lake District

How can anyone be miserable when presented with this bucolic view? Even the village drunk looks friendly. In here, life seems fresh and simple, and there’s a sense that it’s always been this way. Returning from a walk in the fells, you can imagine asking someone where the parking lot is and the farmer would say, “Parking lot? But, dear lady, it’s October 1802.”

Why 1802? I don’t know…it just seems like the kind of year in which fairy tales can happen. Certainly, that’s what Coleridge thought when he wrote to the London Morning Post, informing the nation of the “romantic marriage” between a famous local beauty and a distinguished brother of an earl. It had all the elements of a once-in-a-lifetime love: a handsome aristocrat travelling in a remote town and falling for the pretty daughter of an innkeeper.

The local beauty was Mary Robinson (1778-1837), known to the nation as the Maid of Buttermere, the embodiment of unspoiled, natural beauty and guileless innocence that visitors of the Lake District sought.

Mary Robinson aka The Maid of Buttermere

Mary Robinson
aka The Maid of Buttermere

Mary drew the country’s attention when she was mentioned by Captain Joseph Budworth in his 1792 book, “A Fortnight’s Ramble to the Lakes in Westmorland, Lancashire and Cumberland.” Suddenly, Mary became one of the “must-see” attractions of the Lake District.

People would go to the Fish Inn in Buttermere specifically to see her, and among the admirers she had to entertain were the Lake Poets. This must have produced some of the finest discussions in pub history:

Coleridge: “Mary, do you think maintaining a connection with nature will help to ensure the moral health of an individual?”

Mary: “I’ve no idea, luv. Now, I have a question for you–do you want your beef with a side of salad or chips?”

We don’t know if Mary wanted all this attention or not, but we do know that odes were written to her beauty and budding artists wanted to sketch her. It’s no wonder, then, that the Hon. Alexander Augustus Hope, MP of Linlithgow and the Earl of Hopetoun’s brother, took one look at Mary and decided he had to marry the exquisite commoner. They were married within three months, after a whirlwind romance that Coleridge described as a “novel for real life.”

It was a fairy tale, and it stirred peoples’ imagination. Unfortunately, it also stirred the outrage of Charles Hope, the Earl of Hopetoun, who wrote to the Morning Post saying that his brother, the real Hon. Alexander Hope, MP, was currently residing in Vienna and was not happy that some bloke’s been using his name.

The Fish Inn, Buttermere

The Fish Inn, Buttermere


At the very least, this development would bring about some very awkward moments for Mary. How do you confront your husband of less than a year with these allegations? How do you even address him, since his name is clearly not Alexander? Who is this man you wake up with every morning?

It’s kinda hard to know when the right moment is to own up to a lie. Even if it’s just with friends you wanted to impress when you first met. When do you say, “By the way, guys, technically, I didn’t graduate from Harvard. It was a dick move, but at the time, I just thought it made me sound cool.”  Finding out that Mary’s husband was lying about his identity makes you wonder why he even married her in the first place. She wasn’t rich, and she drew too much attention.

His name was John Hatfield, and he’s made a career out of  smooth talking status-conscious men into lending him money, without any intention of paying them back. According to the Wanted notice that was printed in the papers, he was an impostor, a swindler and a felon.  Oh, he was also a bigamist. So the last thing he needed was a marriage to a darling of the press.

John Hatfield (1758-1803)

John Hatfield (1758-1803)

He was arrested in Keswick, but managed to flee to Chester until Bow Street Runners caught him somewhere near Swansea and brought him to stand trial in Carlisle. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge were there at the trial, where Hatfield was convicted and sentenced to die by public hanging on September 3, 1803.  He was demonized in the press as a corrupter of innocent maidens, and the trial was featured in national papers and Gentleman’s Magazine, and is mentioned in William Wordsworth’s The Prelude.

Maybe Hatfield and Mary really did love each other, we will never know. Life is never simple and straightforward, and idealized versions of it rarely provides substantial answers. What’s clear, though, is that when you marry into a fairy tale, then that’s all you’ll get.

Well, that… and a hard-earned lesson when reality comes back to bite.




Dunstaffnage Castle

It’s as difficult to find as it is to spell, but its location made it an ideal prison for the Jacobite heroine, Flora MacDonald.

Flora MacDonald 1722-1790

Flora MacDonald

Flora helped the incompetent halfwit Bonnie Prince Charlie to flee back to France where he came from after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden. Disguised as Flora’s maid, “Betty Burke,” the Young Pretender managed to escape, but because he was so lousy at his disguise (lifting his skirt high enough to expose his gender when crossing a river, etc), Flora was arrested on her way back home. Her imprisonment in Dunstaffnage defines its role in Scottish history. It’s a place associated with Scottish royalty, who were always either at war with the English or with other Scottish nobles.

Situated on a platform of conglomerate rock and surrounded by the sea on three sides, Dunstaffnage Castle is one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland (dating back to the 13th century), and it’s unique because it has a history of being run and occupied almost exclusively by middle management.

Dunstaffnage Castle

Dunstaffnage Castle

The first clue that the castle’s owners are not the “hands-on” type of boss is its half-arsed welcome sign, located near a nondescript parking lot that leads to a path which takes you to the castle.

Blink and you miss it.

That’ll teach you to delegate.

It’s a historically strategic spot, but it hasn’t been a family’s principal seat since Robert the Bruce took it from the clan MacDougall during the Battle of the Pass of Brander in 1308, so ownership of the castle went to the crown during the Wars of Scottish Independence. A hereditary Keeper (from clan Macarthur) was left in charge of it, a post which must not have been easy, because during this tumultuous time the crown had an on-again-off-again relationship with England, made complicated by a third party called “Other Scottish Nobles,” who regularly flirted with both Scottish and English Monarchy.

As a royal stronghold, this ever-changing relationship status with England must have been hell for the castle staff. They never knew whether they were going to be served Spotted Dick or Haggis at meal times. And then the hereditary Keeper ran out of male heirs, and control of the castle passed on to that Keeper’s daughters, both of whom married into the Stewarts of Lorn. To add anxiety to the staff’s confusion, the MacDougalls never ceased trying to regain their stronghold. At one point they attacked a Stewart Keeper, John, while he was on his way to marry his pregnant mistress to make the child legitimate. He managed to make it to Dunstaffnage chapel, living just long enough to recite his wedding vows. John had a younger brother, Walter, but with the child’s legitimacy in question, no one knew who was in charge. The child had the locals’ support, and the disputes lasted six years, until Walter decided to bail.

No wonder the whole thing’s now a ruins.

Inside the ruins

Inside the ruins


In 1470, ownership went to Colin Campbell, 1st Earl of Argyll, who was married to a daughter of the last Stewart Keeper, the murdered John. Colin never stayed here, but he appointed a cousin as hereditary Captain to oversee the castle as it was used as a base for government expeditions.

It stayed in the Campbell family until 1958, when it was handed over to Historic Scotland, who tries its best to recreate the castle inhabitants’ pervading sense of bewilderment by hiring people who go on extended lunch breaks, leaving visitors with no one who could accept their entrance fee payment.

If you’re lucky (like us), you could end up going there for free, and you will leave feeling like you had the authentic “castle history experience” , when you go back to your car with a sense that you were part of something that occurred that just wasn’t right.


The Carlisle Cursing Stone

Hey, remember when we were all up for welcoming the millennium? Just beneath the atmosphere of forced revelry and jubilation, lurked the fear of the millennium bug and a possible end of the world as we know it, or worse: that we will wake up the next day and nothing has changed other than we all gained a bit of weight from all the partying.

Cities around the world came up with their own little gift to this infinite presence that we call Time, and for its 2000th birthday, we offered it commemorative infrastructure to show we care: hundreds of millennium bridges, millennium halls, millennium parks… I mean seriously, what would this Time fellow have done with it all but who cares let’s put some flowers on it so it looks pretty for the pictures, now go smile and look crazy but happy!

Millennium fever also gripped the UK border city that is Carlisle. Keen to prove they can be as hip as anywhere else, the council had a meeting to come up with ideas about how to welcome the new millennium.  Maybe a monument, or a church or a new hospital? How about something to represent our industrial heritage?

No, wait, I know, let’s put a gloomy underpass between the museum and the castle, call it the millennium gallery and decorate it with a 14-ton block of granite inscribed with one of the longest curses in history. I really think that, when the Archbishop of Glasgow, Gavin Dunbar, made the curse to condemn the border reivers (who lived in and around the Carlisle area) in 1525, he thought, “Well, I hope to make enough impact with this statement so that someday, these words will be in a boulder, and bored teenagers can smoke around it as they make their way back to Wigton.”

It was a team effort, really.  This curse belongs to all of us.

Any town can produce a scientist or Prime Minister, but achieving “cursed” status demands the dedication of the whole community.

Depending on the historian and the time their book was written,The Border Reivers were either violent villains, infidels and thieves or crafty, unconventional heroes who managed to flout authority, and find their own way of making a living in the Debatable Lands where they reside, located around the border between the perpetual frenemies, England and Scotland. They’re like the helpless children of a marriage where mom and dad don’t get along, and took advantage of the situation by asking the parents for birthday and Christmas presents separately, so the kids get two sets of gifts each time.

The living conditions were harsh in the border region during the heyday of the reivers. The land was not very fertile, the roads were either bad or nonexistent, and near constant wars between England and Scotland lay waste to the fields and ransack towns. Inhabitants often had relatives from both sides of the border, and when hired as mercenaries, they were not above changing sides even in the midst of battle.

It’s hard to care about whatever noble ideas and chivalric notions were being fought for when the “dying part” is delegated to those who would be left destitute, whichever side won. So you just try to not get hurt–things were already going to be bad enough as it was AFTER the war, when you’re left with a stinky field and it’s raining. So it’s not surprising that in the battle of Pinkie Cleugh (1547), it was observed that ” Scottish and English borderers were talking to each other in the midst of battle, and on being spotted put on a show of fighting.”

But border history isn’t all just wars and bloodshed. There were also hangings, treachery, pillaging, abduction and murder. Men reared in war can be dangerous at times of peace. The borderers fought each other, raiding each other’s lands in a never-ending cycle of vengeance and retribution.



Reiving was deemed a profession, so there were rules that separate reiving from plain robbery. The aggrieved party had 3 days to make retribution or reclaim what’s been stolen (usually cattle). And a person who happens upon the avenging party must either join it or be assumed as one of the original raiders. These rules makes you think reiving was so prevalent that there must have been people who were just popping out for tea, and ended up joining the violent Maxwell clan raiding the local Tesco.

Damage at Your Own Peril

It wasn’t a culture built from the bottom-up, but more of a remnant of the ancient border way of life not much different from the Highlanders. Reivers were from all social classes, and though there’s no doubt that these practices helped to preserve a person during such demoralizing times, they also show an unwillingness to participate in the wider community.

In the end, the reivers were eradicated by countless executions instigated by authorities who rob and pillage legally.  Perhaps this is what propelled famous Border Reiver Johnnie Armstrong‘s last words, which amounted to claims that whatever his crimes, he was at least honest about it. That statement makes Johnnie almost likeable, until you remember that he should not have committed his crimes AT ALL.  It’s like saying, “Yes, he’s a rapist, but at least he’s a humble rapist.”

This is the problem with settling for choosing the “lesser evil.” Doing it opens up the possibility of a world where there is no GOOD, only varying levels of bad. When that happens, you get an archbishop known for physically attacking a cardinal, and sentencing martyr Patrick Hamilton to burn alive at the stake for six hours, to curse YOUR evil way of life.

I’ve no idea if this is the lesson that the artist who made the Carlisle Cursing Stone was trying to give as the new millennium dawned upon the world, but that’s what I’m going to take from it.


New Lanark Mills

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain. Although exactly how and what started it all is difficult to determine, the country was able to bumble through rapid major technological advancements, abandoning the countryside to work in factories in new cities, and eventually banding together to produce a youthful gang of loveable pickpockets telling us to “Consider Yourself.”

If Oliver Twist went to New Lanark (one of the largest cotton mills in the country), his life wouldn’t have been as dramatic and poignant, but it would be no less inspiring. He would have been taken in by this man:

Robert Owen (1771-1858) Mill Owner, Social Reformer and Father of the Cooperative Movement

Robert Owen (1771-1858)
Mill Owner, Social Reformer and Father of the Cooperative Movement

The first daycare centre and co-operative store in the world was in New Lanark. There were no beatings, no verbal abuse, no squalid living conditions for the steam-powered mill’s employees and residents (it was also a village). Not only was there healthcare available, but children were educated and taught not only maths, science, literature and history but also music and dance.

Children at New Lanark school


And yet there was commercial profit.  It survived the steady decline of the cotton industry during the Napoleonic Wars. There was so much profit, that people from all over the continent went to this place to satisfy their curiosity about this “model town” that defies the stereotype of cruel factory-owners in the bad city. Enough profit for Owen to be able to buy back the factory when his partners, outraged that he wanted to open a school for children, put the whole thing in auction with the bidding starting at £60k.

The mill closed in 1967, but is still flocked by tourists today.

The mill closed in 1967, but is still flocked by tourists today.

The schoolroom.

The schoolroom today. Look, it’s the “same” banner!

Owen bought his partners out at a little over £100k. In early 19th century Britain, this might as well have been a gazillion pounds. Wouldn’t you know it, it seems a happy worker really is a productive worker. The employees were so happy when they heard the news that when Owen returned, they went into a fit of jubilation and unhitched his carriage horses, pulling the equipage along themselves.

Everyone in New Lanark loved this guy. He had a long, happy marriage, his children grew up to be geologists, professors and even a representative of Indiana responsible for the bill that paved the way for the foundation of the Smithsonian Institute–and all of them were against slavery.

Undoubtedly, Robert Owen was a good man, of good character who believed the world can be a better place. Based on how his children lived their lives, we can assume he was also genuine–he lived what he preached:

“What ideas individuals may attach to the term “Millennium” I know not; but I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little, if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold: and no obstacle whatsoever intervenes at this moment except ignorance to prevent such a state of society from becoming universal”. – Robert Owen, 1816 speech.

So, why is it that this utopian village is not what comes to mind when we think of cotton mills?

Yea, why?

Yea, why?

To be honest, all those things–education for the poor, healthcare, decent working conditions, savings, living wage…well, those are all well and good. But where the heck is the village pub?


Spinning Machine

Alcohol was frowned upon at New Lanark. And the absence of the village pub to me symbolizes the problem with New Lanark. The ones who make the decision about laws and statutes are not the adoring employees. And for someone who isn’t worrying about whether or not he gets to eat, or someone who assumes he will be provided education, who doesn’t worry about how he will buy his clothes, New Lanark would have seemed incredibly, totally boring.

And so was Robert Owen.

He was a pioneer. And his heart was in the right place, but man, did he just go on and on and on about the damn poor people and education and labour laws… that quote from him posted above? It wasn’t an address to the House of Commons. He said that to New Lanark residents. On New Year’s Day. In a speech so long there had to be a musical intermission between the parts. He had the support of Quakers, philosophers and economists (including Jeremy Bentham)–but these were people who were already of the same opinion as Owen.

They wouldn’t recognize a joke if it bit them in the arse and said “Knock Knock.”

Robert Owen's House.

Robert Owen’s House.

The fact that people paid attention was a sign of the changing times, and not of Owen’s irresistible charm. There was a recent Revolution in France. America gained independence. There were riots in the streets.

If Oliver Twist grew up in New Lanark, he would have had a better life than he could expect otherwise. But would there be a musical based on his story? Would anyone watch?

I probably will. But only if there’s free beer.


The British Museum

It’s the first national museum in the world and it’s still one of the biggest–a structure built to house historical artefacts for the edification of “curious and studious persons,” belonging neither to King nor Church.

The British Museum

The British Museum

Admission has always been free, from the moment  it opened in its original location at Montague House in 1753.

Montagu House

Back then the collection mainly contained objects that belonged to physician Sir Hans Sloane, but it got so popular that by the 1820s not only did  the collection outgrow the building, but everyone already knew where the restrooms were. This was not acceptable. To rectify this problem, construction for the current site began and thanks to architect Sir Robert Smirke, the tradition of tourists wandering around yet another wing of sculptures, desperate for the bathroom, continues.

Admission Ticket from 1790

Admission Ticket from 1790

Today, it is lauded as a “museum of the world,” housing things of historical importance from many different parts of the globe that the (mostly) British had “collected” from their “travels,” miniatures of which could be bought for a tidy sum at the gift shop.

I got a Rosetta Stone bookmark.

I got a Rosetta Stone bookmark.

It’s an uncomfortable testament to British Imperialism. The way that many parts of the collection were procured (like, say, the Elgin Marbles) is considered controversial. There’s no doubt the pieces are well cared for and treated with respect, and maybe the fact that they’re in the museum is the reason many of these things still exist in their preserved state.  If they’re not here, how will people learn about the cultures their country once exploited? On the other hand, if a person from one of those countries (say, Egypt) wanted to see a piece of their heritage kept in the museum, how difficult would it be for him to get a visa and plane ticket to Britain?

It’s a conundrum. If someone took the roof of your shack, will it be better to let that person take your furniture to their mansion as well and save it from rain damage, or will you keep your stuff and sleep on a bed that will become wet, mouldy and of no use to anyone, including you?

And no, you can not live in the mansion until you can afford to rebuild, whether or not you give up custody of your furniture. However, you are welcome to visit the mansion to see your furniture any time. Everyone is welcome, but good luck getting past the butler with those sodden clothes. Why don’t you sort yourself out, you loser?

british museum ivory sculpture

And, while you’re at it, can you help us find the bathroom?


Hoar Cross Hall

There is nothing new about royal affairs.

It’s easy to be riveted by titillating details of an affair when staying at a place connected with someone who had extramarital relations with a future King. But we have to ask ourselves if this fact is really anything of import in the grand scheme of things–did it change the course of history? Is there more to what happened than just broken hearts and stained sheets?

Not these sheets, thankfully.

Not these sheets, thankfully.

Hoar Cross Hall Ex-Tory seat, now a hotel and spa.

Hoar Cross Hall
Now a hotel and spa!

The real scandal is not that there was a royal indulging in sexual relations outside of marriage with a woman who was part of the Ingram family (headed by the Viscount of Irvine) that owned Hoar Cross Hall, but that society expected this girl who married a man seventeen years her senior when she was just 16, to be faithful. Or, how about the fact that she is mostly blamed as the reason her lover, the future King George IV (1762-1830), turned Tory and abandoned his Whig friends, like Charles James Fox, during such a time when Catholic emancipation was being debated at Parliament, and yet it’s almost impossible to find quotes from her so we can hear her side of the story?

The Prince.

I just can’t get enough. Of everything, really.

It’s like we’re taking it for granted that this woman who had the Prince of Wales’ ear had nothing going for her but sex sex sex, so let’s focus on the fact that contemporaries described her as handsome, tall and elegant (if a little portly), and never mind what she has to say.  That, surely, is the real scandal here, and is worth a blog post more than any details of a married prince’s sex life.

Anyway, so the Prince Regent apparently liked big butts, because he was with Isabella Ingram-Seymour-Conway,  Marchioness of Hertford, from 1807 to 1819. They most likely met through Isabella’s husband, Francis (1743-1822), who noticed the Prince was smitten with his wife and sent her to Ireland to give the man’s ardor some time to cool.

(Bad) Dramatization of Affair.

(Bad) Dramatization of Affair.

We can only imagine what heated dreams the Prince of Wales had to get him through the nights. And man, would we like to imagine them, because his “love” showed no signs of abating, and soon enough he was a regular guest at Manchester House (family’s London home and Tory headquarters). He gave her lavish gifts like Chinese wallpapers and the Moses Tapestries, and slept over on several occasions, even when the marquess was in residence.

The lady had a crowded marriage.

All the (not so) single ladies…

I don’t think Lady Hertford’s affair was solely to blame for the failure of passing any bills regarding Catholic Emancipation during the Regency. The lady was against it, for sure (unlike her husband), but it’s a bit of a leap to lay the failure on one Tory woman’s vagina. If we do that, we’re forgetting that around the Prince were many powerful people who had their own ambitions, interests and prejudices.

Anyway, they never took their affair to Hoar Cross Hall, though they should have. Because if not for this affair, the only thing that makes the place’s history interesting is that it was home to a man who is considered to be the father of modern fox hunting. Now, would you like to hear about that? I don’t.


South Tynedale Railway

“There is a steam train-line not far from here,” my husband says, his eyes alight with anticipation, and I refrain from telling him that there is a steam train-line not far from any where in Britain.

Because he already knows. He knows so much more about trains than I will ever want to learn, so I swallow my smart ass reply and give him my most indulgent smile instead. I take a deep breath and prepare myself to enjoy reliving the harrowing moments that many people start their days with to get to the office–riding an expensive train that arrives late and is packed with unruly kids and bad-tempered adults. Only this time, because I am so loved, I shall have the privilege of going through this magical experience in slow-freaking-motion.

As a  bonus, we'll also be in the same place we were when we alight.

As a bonus,  instead of arriving somewhere else after the journey, we’ll also alight in the same place we started.

This is what it means to be married to a railway man, and not just to another guy who happens to work in the railway industry. My husband sees the whole experience in a different light. His excitement isn’t that of a yo-yo dieter, unable to suppress a spurt of wary optimism that says this time will be different. He knows it won’t be. But that is the “fun” of it.



If I were married to anyone else, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate the important role that transport plays in all kinds of civilization, or be as appalled at the utter, utter mess that we have made of a system that was invented to make things more convenient for the ones who are supposed to use it. It all starts here, with the trains. Oh, and this:

The Beeching Report, published in 1963.

The Beeching Report, published in 1963.

Like most other steam train-lines, The South Tynedale Railway in Alston exists as it does today because, at some point, the ones in charge decided that the train industry wouldn’t be efficient enough against the road transport industry unless some of the least-used railway lines were shut down.  Jack the Ripper might have agreed to that, and then he’ll add, “The fight against the sex industry won’t be efficient unless we butcher a few prostitutes.”

Let me be clear here: I am not saying Dr. Beeching is like Jack the Ripper.  The railway closures may have been nicknamed The Beeching Axe, but he didn’t butcher anyone. He only destroyed some livelihoods that the bus replacement services were unable to restore. That’s what happens when things that are supposed to be available for all in a society that promotes equality, like the mobility transport provides or even medical services that keep us alive, are run for financial gain.  When the chosen 4,000 route miles were closed (around a third of the whole network), the commerce for the communities those lines served suffered, and no less than 70,000 railway jobs were cut.

"...It was surgery, not mad chopping." - Dr. Richard Beeting (1913-1985)

“…It was surgery, not mad chopping.”
– Dr. Richard Beeching (1913-1985)

Maybe Dr. Beeching saw that the railways would be privatized in a few decades, and no one would be able to afford train tickets then, so we might as well start to learn to do without them. Those in charge were just preparing us for the future, as any good government should. It has nothing to do with the fact that the government that commissioned his report had strong ties to the road construction lobby and the administrations that implemented privatization received funds from people with ties to road construction associations.

The closures were, and still are, controversial. But this is a country where instead of staging a military coup, people simply opted to vote for a different government to establish a welfare state after World War II, and then carried on drinking tea with milk. Where events like railway closures would prompt bloody protests in some countries, in Britain it gives people the urge to volunteer dressing up as Victorian railwaymen and running the lines themselves.

It took years of marriage for me to understand that places like The South Tynedale Railway are not merely some tribute to Britain’s golden age of steam; some wistful determination to hold on to the glory days. For one thing, in here passengers sit in the same class carriages. Members of staff actually mean it when they say they’re sorry if a service is delayed, and I’d bet you won’t find such cheerful ticket issuing officers from any century. 

These places represent a very British form of defiance, run and staffed entirely by enthusiastic volunteers who spend their free time driving trains they’ve rescued from some shed. In here, trains are more than just vehicles for the goals of profit-driven CEOs. It’s a demonstration to equally enthusiastic families how Britons would like railways to be run.

I will probably never enjoy these places like my husband does, but I see where he’s coming from. And as long as he keeps buying me ice cream after the journey, I’ll do my best to keep the smart assery to a minimum.

south tynedale railway ivory


Penzance, Cornwall

After an evening spent on the rails, our train finally sputters to a halt. There was nowhere else to go from here. We’ve journeyed as far away from home as we possibly could without leaving England.


This far.

Penzance is quite literally the end, the side where things are supposed to look a bit different. Perhaps news of Royal babies won’t reach the place for weeks. Being a “Northerner,” I didn’t know what to expect from this coastal town other than there should be pirates. To this end, I was definitely not disappointed.



The town is teeming with pirate memorabilia. You name it, they have it: eye patches, wooden legs, fish and chip shops called “Pirates’ Rest,” boat trips on a ship sporting the Jolly Roger…the only thing missing were the actual pirates. As far as I could tell, the only pirate to have ever called this sleepy coastal town their home, is the character of Frederic  in the comic opera The Pirates of Penzance (c 1880). That is, if you don’t count the pirates who are like those living everywhere else–illegally downloading music and films. And I doubt any of them ever demanded a grog, as they would be a mite under age.

Penzance Pirates poster

Of course, like most coastal towns in the UK, there were the ever-present smugglers who performed their duty with such aplomb that almost none of them ever escaped their veil of anonymity. Either that or the smuggling involved everyone in town (quite a possibility) and no one likes a show off, so they get second billing to the imaginary pirates of old. It’s almost as if Penzance wants you to forget its most accomplished son is an ambitious chemist who proved that diamond is made of carbon while managing to inhale nitrous oxide (laughing gas) with famous junkies like Coleridge and Southey  for “research” purposes.


Duuuude, carbon? That’s far out!

Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) is one of the most famous chemists in the world. Not only is he the owner of a name worthy of any hip hop artist, he is also purported to be the first inventor of the electric lamp, discovered chlorine, and found a distinction between sodium and potassium that I dare you to remember. Mostly, he was famous coz he knew the right people, the ladies thought him handsome and charming, and he hosted awesome parties. I would hazard a guess that it was during one of these parties that he discovered nitrous oxide’s anaesthetic qualities.


Hee hee hee… man, I can’t feel a thing! Pinch me again.

But if you didn’t already know Davy was born and schooled in Penzance, you probably wouldn’t know it even if you visited the place. Considering how famous this guy was in the 1800s, it’s a little weird that he only has an unassuming monument in front of a Lloyd’s that’s visited mostly by seagulls.

It doesn't even have his first name.

It doesn’t even have his first name.

In fact, I wouldn’t have been able to locate his place of birth if I wasn’t specifically looking for it.

Found it!

Found it!

It took me almost a week to find this spot, mostly because it’s now an oxygen health club.

I’m sure Sir Humphry would be able to explain what an oxygen health club is. He’d probably be a frequent customer (for research purposes).

I guess chemistry isn’t as popular as it was during the Enlightenment, so I can’t blame the town for its lack of a Sir Humphry museum and choosing to bombard us with imaginary pirates instead. Then again, his homies were never in awe of this man who was born into an ancient but impoverished family and spent his life pursuing fame. His former schoolmaster is quoted to state in a letter that he “could not discern the faculties by which he (Davy) was afterwards so much distinguished.”

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that even with assistants like Michael Faraday, Sir Humphry’s most known invention, the Davy Lamp, has also been proven to be no superior at saving lives of countless miners and canaries to the Geordie Lamp, invented almost at the same time by someone who could neither read nor write.

George Stephenson Northern Inventor.

George Stephenson (1741-1848)
Northern, illiterate. Invented the Geordie Lamp and  The Rocket aka the world’s first passenger train.

Ouch. Needless to say, Sir Humphry didn’t like this Geordie one bit. He sued Stephenson more than once, but lost the case in the end. For those counting, the score is Street Smarts 1, Academic Druggies 0.

Ah, well, if it’s any consolation, Penzance has nothing dedicated to its other famous child, Thandie Newton, either. And people today have actually heard of her, lol. Sir Humphrey isn’t totally abandoned by his home town, the townsfolk just prefer to remember him in the time-honored British way:

Ball’s in your court, Stephenson.


Hampton Court

I thought I’d go all techno savvy and start my research for Hampton Court by checking out what people say about it on Twitter. I was expecting to read things like, “Spending the day with the kids at Hampton Court. Henry VIII was fat.” or “Chills down my spine at Hampton Court’s Haunted Gallery. Hang in there, @CatherineHoward! #beheading”

Those comments wouldn’t have any info I didn’t know already, but it would have given me an insight to what people thought of the place. Instead, I get hit with tweets like these:

“Hampton Court! HoooOOooOOooo!”


“I spent a cute day at Hampton Court!”

I was looking for information and I got it: these guys and I should NEVER hang out. I had no idea what they were talking about! I imagine the first tweet is some kind of code that is not worth breaking, and what is a cute day? Was the sun wearing shades? Were there puppies and kittens running around the palace? Was it fluffy?



The palace is most associated with Henry VIII of England, who visited the place when his right-hand man Cardinal Wolsey owned it and in true Henry VIII style, he figured he’d have it for himself. This guy was not kidding around. Just ask his wives. Well, those who still had their heads attached to their necks.  No alimony for the Larry King of Renaissance England. He’d have fit right in today’s dog-eat-dog world.

He'd have EVERYTHING for himself, because screw you.

I’ll have EVERYTHING I want, because screw you. I’m fluffy.

This wife-murdering king wanted sons to continue his line and silence the Plantagenets who’d been biding their time since the Wars of the Roses to take over once more. The fact that Henry VIII had six wives is not really historically significant, but how he achieved this feat is. Henry led England’s break from Rome during the Reformation–a government program that really took off because, as in all successful government programs, those in charge had lots to gain from it. It swept through England in a wave of new found patriotism. The British didn’t have to throw money and swear fealty to a corrupt Church to save their souls any more. Instead, they’d have to throw their money at a corrupt king. How their nationalistic hearts must have swelled with joy.

It is said that when Henry VIII died, his coffin burst open and dogs lapped at his blood. Because that’s what you get for being such a git. But as hard as it is to believe, Hampton Court represents something bigger than the larger than life (fat), ulcerous lecher who followed convention by having extra marital affairs because no self-respecting king would be expected to have sex with just his wife for the rest of his life. Never mind that this dude had six wives and 2 of them didn’t retain custody of their heads in the divorce proceedings. A king’s supposed to be a playa’!

The palace is divided into 2 parts: One represents the reign of the Tudor dynasty, and the other the reign of King William III and Mary II. The part that Parliament played during these two eras helped shape the country as we know it today.

“Really, Ivory? How’s that?”

I’ll tell you. Don’t interrupt.

During the Tudors, the King controlled Parliament–there can be no session until the King (or Queen) calls it. By the time of William III and Mary II, you can’t be King of Anything unless Parliament says you can. As with most things, it had to do with religion.

The notion of having a personal choice for what “spirit in the sky” to blame and pray to for all the stuff you get in life, then peacefully agreeing to disagree with other people so as not to seem racist, is something we still haven’t mastered today. Except back then, instead of merely starting wars, you also have the personal risk of getting a good burning at the stake in a morbid version of a state bbq. There were no two ways about it–England needed to be free. Of all Catholics. Including the Stuart King, James II. Stories involving fake heirs and bed pans were circulated and the King was effectively fired from rule during the hip-sounding event known as the Glorious Revolution. It is “glorious,” so don’t be a spoilsport and point out that England now has a foreign king with a foreign agenda.

William III and Mary II's side of Hampton Court.

William III and Mary II’s side of Hampton Court.

Mary II is James II’s daughter, and when Parliament decided Catholicism is out, it solicited the help of Mary’s husband, William of Orange. Since it was Mary who had the claim to the throne, William was willing to go Dutch (haha) and so started England’s first and only affair with a dual monarchy. In truth, Mary had very little say in decisions that did not involve color schemes for the bedroom and kitchens. Parliament thought this would be fine since the heir, once born, would have legitimate claim to the throne and meanwhile the country will be protected by a great military leader as intent on Protestantism as Parliament is. This plan went to the dumps when Mary died less than five years after coronation and William himself died in 1702, after his horse tripped on a molehill. Glorious.

The Great Hall at Hampton Court.

The Great Hall at Hampton Court.

hampton court great hall ivory

I’m not an active Catholic, can I sit on the throne? No.

This is probably why even though law books in the UK have nothing stating the separation of church and state (in fact, technically those two are one and the same), you wouldn’t see so many people going mental when laws like gay marriage are passed. The country seems to have had enough with tossing off policies in the name of religion. What is the point of killing each other for something no one is sure about because no one can prove/disprove it? Is there really a need to die in order to prove you’re right?

I mean, seriously, doesn’t an act like that just prove the opposite of right? I’m still not sure what a “cute day” is, but I’m pretty certain it doesn’t involve this.


Lowther Castle

I fell in love last weekend.

I was in Tesco, regretting buying a pork pie and browsing brochures when the one for Lowther Castle and Gardens hit me with this:

“There are no ‘keep off the grass’ rules here… we want you to explore, follow your nose, take away your own memories… We shan’t be rewinding the clock, restoring to what might have been. Lowther is made of many layers and that’s the challenge. Finding new layers for Lowther to reinvent its future.

I gotta hand it to them. I was SO there, as sold as the pork pie I ate and still trying to block from my memory like a shameful one night stand.

My castle is your castle.

My castle is your castle. Literally.

Anyway, I think I’ll put the bathroom over here…I’m sorry, what? Entry is £8? I see. So, not literally my castle then. Thank goodness I didn’t go there hauling tiles or it would’ve been awkward. That wouldn’t have impressed my new love.

The castle’s romantic ruins is still part of the Lowther Estate, owned by the Earl of Lonsdale. Obviously, he doesn’t live here any more, but why is he giving visitors free rein? Why leave the management of the grounds to an independent charity that lets commoners do things like this?



The Lowthers are a very rich family, like, “actually-owned-the-town-of-Whitehaven” kind of rich. Their family tree can be traced right to the time of Henry II (12th century), and from the time of Edward I (1239-1307), each successive head of the family in the medieval times was knighted.

Unlike their political rivals from Hutton Hall, however,  the Lowthers allow people to ramble through the thousands of acres that comprise their estate for free (just close the gates and keep dogs on leads so they do not scare the sheep), and they do not hide their dirty laundry. There’s a possibly necrophiliac ancestor. Another one would put Michael Jackson’s shopping habits to shame, and yet another who hated the castle and all it stood for so much that only petitions from the townspeople stopped him from demolishing it.

Now, that’s what I call “layers.”

And it’s haunted!

The restless soul is purported to be the 1st Earl of Lonsdale, Sir James Lowther. And no wonder–this man was bullied as a child and grew up to be known as “Wicked Jimmy”, “The Bad Earl”, “Jemmy Grasp-all, Earl of Toadstools”  and according to Alexander Carlyle, “A madman too influential to lock up.”

"Wicked Jimmy" 1736-1802

“Wicked Jimmy”

I guess some people just give off bad vibes. That can’t be helped if just part of your inheritance is worth more than £2 million and you control 9 Parliamentary boroughs in the Northwest (the Lowther “Ninepins”), but you leave an employee like Wordsworth’s dad to die while owing him £5000 in wages.

If this happened today, I’m sure his PR advisers would be able to put some positive spin on this with some photo-ops at an orphanage or making him a patron of some charity that has a mission of saving cats from tall trees. When he fell in love with the daughter of one of his tenants, made her his mistress and kept her in high luxury for the rest of her life, they could’ve been the century’s Wills and Kate. But this was the 1700s, and Britain had an equally loony king in the form of George III. When the earl’s mistress died, he wasn’t given a pamphlet entitled “How to Move On: The Art of Letting Go.” Instead, he went from being “wicked” to just plain “weird.”

He couldn’t accept that she was dead, and his servants weren’t allowed to point out this fact when he kept her body, dressing her himself and propping her on the dinner table and kept her lying in bed until the putrefaction became unbearable. Then she remained in a glass coffin for 7 weeks before finally being buried. No word on what her family thought of this.

Hard to believe he’s not the most (in)famous Earl of Lonsdale. No, that would be Hugh, the 5th Earl. Known as “Lordy” or the “Yellow Earl,” he was a second son who never expected to inherit and so joined the travelling circus. No, really.

The Yellow Earl 1857-1944

The Yellow Earl

When he inherited the earldom, he was like a lottery winner who couldn’t handle the “success.” He had scandalous affairs with actresses like Lillie Langtry, who’d also been mistress to Edward VII. Queen Victoria told the earl he must leave the country until the scandal died down. He went to the Arctic in an expedition so gruelling over 100 guides died,  gave the Lonsdale Belt to boxing, built a hot-house to grow the yellow gardenias for his button hole, had the Lowther coat of arms reproduced every day in the stable yard with colored chalk and freshly laid sand, and he also extended the estate (flattening 20 farms in the process). But there was still some money left, so he bought cars.

Many cars.

Many cars.

He founded the Automobile Association , so we can thank him for the indecipherable route finder maps that have caused countless arguments between couples on a road trip. He lived a long life and kept spending without making money, and it makes one wonder.  In the words of the band Cake,  “How do you afford your rock n’ roll lifestyle?”

The answer, of course, was he couldn’t. He died with millions of pounds in debt which was shouldered by the 7th Earl, a D-Day veteran who was a successful businessman and engineer before he inherited the Lowther estates from his grandfather, the 6th Earl.

James Lowther, 7th Earl of Lonsdale and the key to my heart.

James Lowther, 7th Earl of Lonsdale,  1st of my heart.

Maybe fighting along peasants in the war opened his gorgeous eyes, because when he came home, he made his contempt for the castle known:

“it was a place that exemplified gross imperial decadence during a period of abject poverty”.

He  offered the castle as a gift to 3 local authorities but they all turned it down. He would have completely demolished it, but the townspeople petitioned him not to. So he removed the roof and some smaller wings, but left the silhouette intact as a romantic ruins. He didn’t forget the tenants–for some years the front courtyard was used as a pig pen, part of the gardens was used as a chicken farm and the rest were planted with timber. He had a passion for land, and he was an avid conservationist–he led the battle to prevent Ullswater from becoming a reservoir for Manchester and later he became one of the main supporters for preserving the Lake District.

He's the reason I can do things like this.

He’s the reason I can do things like this.

He died in 2006, forever depriving the world of his sexy hotness. If ghosts are real and there is one haunting the castle, it wouldn’t be his. For those interested in numbers, The Sunday Times Rich List stated his net worth was around £80 million, and he is quoted as saying  that he anticipated his death would result in a payment of

“somewhere between £3 million and £5 million to the Treasury because it’s high time society had its chunk.”

Well, he won’t get any argument from me on that one.