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.


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.




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?


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.


Gretna Green

The month of June is over, so today I’d like to talk about weddings. Gretna Green is a famous  historical destination for eloping couples and is featured in countless historical romances. Because nothing says “commitment” like the unwillingness to keep trying to convince a girl’s parents to give her hand in marriage, or even waiting until both partners are over the age of 21. They gots to get married and they gots to do it now!


The Old Blacksmith’s Shop in Gretna Green, a village just outside of Carlisle and just inside Scotland, was the place for drive-thru weddings since The Marriage Act of 1753 was passed in England.  Along with officially making it impossible to wed before the age of 21 without parental consent, the law also stated that either banns should be read before a wedding or a special license must be procured.  Like most things England enforced in her complicated relationship with Scotland, the Marriage Act didn’t fly with the Scots. Their reaction was basically, “Screw that!” and hence the elopements.

Gretna Green didn’t have casinos like Vegas, but it did have drunken anvil priests and there’s a large inn in the village where the couple could stay to make sure the “deed is done” before furious family members of either the bride or groom could arrive to prevent a clandestine marriage.

The deed would be done in a room like this.

The deed would be done in a room like this.

...or a coach like this, if they're so inclined.

…or a coach like this, if they can’t get a room. And, btw, get a room!

The best thing about it is that the weddings provided a living for the working class people of the borders. Not everyone over the age of three can be employed in the mines or the mills. One of the first anvil priests was Joseph Paisley, an ex tobacconist and smuggler.

Joseph Paisley, sketchy character, at yer shervish.

Joseph Paisley, sketchy character, at yer shervish.

His granddaughter’s husband, Robert Elliot, not only described Paisley as “grossly ignorant” but also a “mass of fat” who “drank a good deal more than was necessary to his thirst.”  It’s said Paisley was so drunk during one time when he was performing two weddings that he ended up marrying the wrong brides to the wrong grooms. The couples were probably equally drunk, or they would have tried to stop him before the ceremony ended. When the mistake was finally brought to his attention, he is quoted as saying, “Ah weel, juist sort yersels oot.” No wonder he was so sought after. I’d have loved to have this dude perform my wedding. It would have been a riot!

There’s a collection of 19th century carriages in the museum, but for me the main draw for The Old Blacksmith’s Shop were the anecdotes like the one above. You see, in one of the elopement stories, someone died. The year was 1771, Jean and John from Carlisle were itching to get married, so they tried to evade Jean’s father by crossing the border by boat through Solway Firth (an estuary) during a violent storm. One of the seamen who helped them drowned. It wasn’t a good way to start a married life together, but somehow John managed to convince his intended to go ahead. I can imagine how he did it:

Jean: Oh, John… a man died because of us! We practically sent him to his death. Surely this is a sign from God. We’re not only disappointing our families, we’ve affected someone else’s!

John: Sweets, if we don’t get married, that man would have died in vain. Is that what you want? He helped us, he believed in our love. And now you want to dishonor his memory by not seeing this through?

John would have made a good lawyer. No word on whether he made a good husband, though. The couple was “sorted oot” by Paisley.

I’d like to say my husband’s family would have accepted me as the newest member of their family if he and I met in the 1800s. They’re lovely people, but… this would have been the 1800s and things were a little different in those days. In fact, we probably wouldn’t have met at all, because there’s no way I could’ve gone to university. But, if by some strange turn of events we did meet and fall in love, then…we might have eloped, too. I probably wouldn’t have minded being his mistress, but to have children who would grow as both “half-breeds” and bastards would have been just too cruel.

I should have worn a bonnet.

We don’t have kids, but that’s beside the point.

A trend in many of the stories about couples like Jean and John is that they were evading pursuit of angry and disapproving family members, who would often get there too late. Thankfully, not all of them involved a death but there are stories of cross-dressing Lord Chancellors and an impoverished earl marrying an heiress whose granddaughter also ended up in Gretna Green…some days there are even re-enactments of such events. There wasn’t one during our visit, so we tried to do our own version:




The Isle of Mull

“Nobody born in any other parts of the world will choose this country for his residence.” — Dr. Samuel Johnson, Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.

With this quote in mind, I went on holiday with my family to the same place that Dr. Johnson visited sometime in the 18th century and formed the above opinion. After a forty-five minute ferry, I arrive in Mull and this is what I see:

Would YOU live here?

Am I missing something?

The Isle of Mull is one of the largest in the Hebrides, a group of islands off the Scottish mainland, the same place where, in 1588, it’s said a member of a little known fleet of ships called the Spanish Armada docked to get provisions and exploded into what I can only assume was a riot of colors.

The colors were later immortalized in the children's TV show, "Balamory."

The colors were later immortalized in the children’s TV show, “Balamory.”

I have no idea what Dr. Johnson was complaining about. There are certainly worse places in which to live. In fact, today many citizens in the Isle of Mull were “born in other parts of the world,” mostly (and understandably) hailing from a certain part of the world’s armpit called Newcastle. We stayed in Mull for a week, and in that time I never once saw a “true local.”

Seriously, where are all the Scots?

Seriously, WHERE are all the Scots?

This is the cost of the Highland Clearances, and it’s never been more obvious than in this remote Hebridean isle. The place names are Gaelic, but none of the island’s inhabitants speak it. It’s a beautiful place filled with romantic medieval castle ruins, deserted white sand beaches, peaceful lochs, white-tailed sea eagles, otters, golden eagles, corn crakes, deer, puffins, whales, seals… and the most a lot of people could say is that it’s their second home.

Everywhere there are remnants of Highland life–you can almost see a buffed, red-haired laird from historical romance, but the clans have long since left. It’s no longer illegal to wear tartan, but somehow I doubt those bleating sheep and fat cattle these lands were cleared for would have any use for such garments.



If there was anything left of traditional Highland life after the Jacobite Risings in the 17th century, the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution got rid of it much in the same way a washing machine would clean a stain from your shirt. How the stain got there, and the lessons learned from the stain, is soon washed from memory. It happened in another time, another era in your life. So, by all means, next time you wear that shirt, feel free to eat spaghetti bolognese without a napkin.

Holiday homes in Bunessan, Isle of Mull.

Holiday homes in Bunessan, Isle of Mull.

It is easy to condemn the English, or the increasingly wealthy landed gentry, for the decimation and forced migration of a culture amused by caber-tossing that even the Roman Empire failed to subjugate.

But notions that our version of “progress” and “civilization” are the best and good for the world, and that the country is running out of space due to immigration, of how unfettered investments and globalization is good for the many and not the few, are still mostly unquestioned and often win elections. When it comes to greed and ambition, to hoarding resources, I think we all remain guiltier than a puppy standing next to a puddle.

That puppy is called Rusty.

That puppy is named Rusty.


Johnson, Samuel. Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Transcribed in 1775.

The Old Operating Theatre

Located in the attic of an English Baroque Church, not far from London Bridge Station, is Britain’s only surviving 19th century operating room. The patients here were all women and they were all poor. You get a sense of going through a time portal as soon as you try to negotiate the steep and narrow spiral staircase that leads to the entrance.

Here be dragons.

Here be dragons.

Adding to the feeling of time travel is the price of admission. If you’re in the area and have £10, you’d be able to visit this place, and still have enough left for a pint afterwards–in case you feel a need to “take the edge off.”

This is what separates the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett from other medical museums.  Yes, you’ll find the usual rusty medical tools, jars filled with preserved entrails and fetuses that are so common in other venues dedicated to the history of medicine. But it’s more than just a sterile, commercial environment to satisfy the public’s morbid curiosity for what most would describe as barbarous medical practices in the days before the concept  of sanitation became synonymous with the term “hospital.”

It makes no excuses for its odd location in the attic of a church. It is what it is, standing where it has stood since 1822, and it’s not going to change just to cater for your 21st century sensibilities. It’s  almost as if it’s saying you have no business being here if you are not aware that St. Thomas’ Church used to be connected to the old St. Thomas’ Hospital, so of course it makes sense this place was rediscovered here, largely undisturbed after a century of somnolence, where time stood still while the outside world was too busy in its relentless pursuit of “progress”  to notice it. It looks exactly like it did before its closure in 1862.

The Herb Garret.

The Herb Garret.

The entrance leads to the herb garret, and immediately, scents you’d associate with an 1800s apothecary assail you. Dried herbs hang from the beams and the floorboards creak in protest with your every stride. There are recipes for known “all-around cures” such as snailwater and laudanum. You expect to see a bearded man sporting a pipe and a waistcoat to appear, looking offended by your trousers and suggest your malady can be cured by a bit of bleeding, and assure you that he has just the freshest leeches for the job.

Only the threat of being sent to Bedlam stops you from demanding the man keep his filthy hands to himself, to point out that there will come a time when both poor and rich people have equal access to the same quality of medical facilities and services. Of course, you don’t specify when such a ludicrous thing would happen, since you haven’t seen it happen in your own lifetime either. Perhaps you should be sent to Bedlam, after all.

The museum is a place where you can scoff at 19th century atrocities that are so prevalent in the modern world, we’ve become numb to it. This is the place where grim things happened, not just a tribute or reminder of it.

The Old Operating Theatre, picture taken a few years ago. For me, it's also a reminder to refrain from indulging too much in fried chicken.

The Old Operating Theatre, picture taken a few years ago. For me, it’s also a reminder to refrain from indulging too much in fried chicken.

It’s a given that the medical world today is more advanced than the crude practices of the 1800s, when students watched from the stands in a crowded room to observe an operation taking place. These days, at least the students can observe and giggle about the procedure in a separate room. Perhaps one of the medical students would even look like that girl from Grey’s Anatomy, so we can’t be too offended when they start flirting with Dr. McDreamy as you lie exposed to the world.

It’s hard to imagine that in the days before disinfectant and antibiotics, a poor person could be treated by some of the best surgeons of the day (many of them pioneers in their field), for free, as long as they agree to being observed by students. No, the operation does not happen in a plush private kitchen, but you can’t expect luxury treatment from the NHS, either. You do get treated, though. We’re able to cure more diseases now, but being turned away from the ER because you have no health insurance is not unheard of.

Back then, there was no concept of germs and sanitation, so many people died of infection rather than the initial injuries that caused them to be present in the operating room in the first place. With the advent of disinfectants, I’m certain there is no possibility that any in-patients would get worse because of an infectious and undetected virus spreading in the hospital any more. And with the discovery of penicillin, no one relies on medicinal herbs or alternative therapy any more, either.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) is also associated with this place. Most people know her as the one who popularised hygiene in medical practices and her nursing school, which elevated the reputation of women as nurses, was in St. Thomas’ Hospital. Because of her, it’s now acceptable for a woman to be a practising nurse, with qualifications as valid as any male nurse, and no one is going to claim their sex is the reason they’re incompetent or that they’re stealing the men’s jobs, not aloud anyway. It’s political correctness gone mad. She might not have known it then, but without Florence Nightingale, the sexy nurse costumes that have become a staple for Halloween would not even exist.

Thanks, Florence!

Thanks, Florence!

I won’t say anything about “bonking someone in the head” as a form of anaesthesia, though. Like leaving scissors in someone’s stomach, some things are just indefensible.


Hartside Pass

Standing proud at 1,904 feet above sea level, the sign at Hartside Summit proclaims that this section of A686 is called Hartside Pass. It ascends from Cumbria’s Eden Valley and according to AA Magazine, it’s one of the top ten drives in the world. With a steep gradient and notorious bends it provides a zigzagging  journey to the heart of the North Pennines. From this viewpoint, you can see across the Solway Firth and straight to Scotland. No matter where you look, you’ll be greeted by magnificent views of barren, windswept fells and big skies, as well as rolling fields dotted with grazing cattle and contented sheep.



I am “Zenned.”

Hartside Pass is within the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and as I sat on that wooden bench to contemplate the scenery I found myself agreeing with the smug claim. It’s no wonder so many poets and writers found their inspiration with the landscape in this part of the country. It is so peaceful and isolated that it’s hard to imagine people ever went up there for anything other than serenity and maybe to clear the voices in their head and put everything back into perspective. But as I look out from the summit’s viewpoint, what really impresses me about Hartside Pass is that it’s associated with this guy:

John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836)

McAdam was born in Ayr, Scotland and the word “tarmac” is named after him (for Tar McAdam) to honor his contribution to the field of road construction.  He is credited for designing the world’s first modern roads. McAdam was an engineer involved in the colliery and ironworks business. Sometime in the 1820s he was tasked by the Alston Turnpike Trust to build Hartside Pass to provide an efficient means of transporting products of the mining companies operating in the area. According to Craig David, McAdam

“discovered that massive foundations of rock upon rock were unnecessary, and asserted that native soil alone would support the road and traffic upon it, as long as it was covered by a road crust that would protect the soil underneath from water and wear.”

The method made roads a lot cheaper to build. There was still a need for surveying routes, but the actual labor could be performed by unskilled locals who’ll work for a pittance during their free time–when they are not working at the mines. Just see these charming guys here, lovingly and not at all condescendingly depicted bearing their exploitation with a grateful smile:


I bet they loved this.

Hartside is near the border between England and Scotland. Transport was difficult, unimproved until the 17th century because of the unstable relationship between the two countries, plus there were the border reivers.

So McAdam, a younger son of an impoverished baron, was responsible for the greatest advancement in road construction methods since the Roman times. The “macadam” principle is still utilized today for road maintenance, mostly with asphalting. Considering the unremitting rugged condition of the Pennines, Hartside Pass is a remarkable human achievement.

McAdam was undoubtedly a brilliant man, but as I look around from my spot at the summit to take in the harsh and poetic scenery, my thoughts are occupied by the  anonymous villagers depicted on the viewpoint sign. Their names are lost in history, their lives remain mostly untold, but the road they built is still here. I doubt they made much money for all their toil, but I give them a silent thanks before making my equally unnoticed but infinitely less significant journey back home.