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.



I’ll start with a conclusion: we paid £9, and our tour guide hid something from us.

My awareness of this fact came at the end of a journey through one of the estates purported to be the house of the Green Knight from Arthurian legend.


The Green Knight’s “Castle of Hutton” in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th Century romantic poem.


In the poem, Sir Gawain rode “into a deep forest that was wonderfully wild.”

Now, I understand bad family history does not need to be dredged up over and over. Guests invited to the family reunion don’t want to hear about how Gran fell out with her mother again. It’ll make people feel awkward, they’ll be obligated to take sides and it will only cause a row. But the guests only feel that way because what happened between Gran and her mom does not affect them. If it’s revealed that Gran fell out with her mother over how to properly dispose of a live bomb that’s sitting in the attic, I doubt anyone would say, “Gran, will you stop talking about the possibility of a bomb exploding in the attic? It makes people feel awkward. Now, please can we just sit down and have a good time until it detonates and blows us all into smithereens?”

Yet, by not acknowledging even the existence of bad blood, this was essentially what our tour guide wanted us to do. Sure, it’s amusing to speculate whether or not the enigmatic Green Knight was a good guy, considering he sent his wife to seduce Sir Gawain just to “test” him. And yes, I’m glad to be informed the owner’s ancestor was a younger brother to Parliamentarian leader Sir Henry Vane the Younger, who fell out with Oliver Cromwell and was beheaded during The Restoration because Charles II considered him “too dangerous a man to let live.”

Sir Henry Vane the Younger (1613-1662) Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sir Henry Vane the Younger (1613-1662) Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

But when the house’s current owner is Lord Inglewood, and the barony is so named because the baron’s ancestors ruled in the second largest royal forest in England that covered most of mid-Cumberland, the question of legitimacy becomes everyone’s concern. And by “everyone,” I mean those families living in the villages deep in the Royal Forest of Inglewood, at the onset of the Highland clearances just a few miles up north. Those people trying to pretend they weren’t there because living there was illegal. The ones whose lives depended on the clemency of whoever is leading the Fletcher-Vane family in Hutton. Those who feared the mantraps spread on the estate, yet braves it out in a bid to prevent death by starvation, poaching the deer these nobles loved to hunt and mount on their walls.

If it was a matter of life and death, yes, I would like to know if the gentleman deciding my fate actually had the right to make such a decision. So, anyway, the bad blood starts here:

Sir Frederick Fletcher Vane, 2nd Baronet (1760-1832). Photo unavailable.

Sir Frederick Fletcher Vane, 2nd Baronet of Hutton and Armathwaite Hall (1760-1832)

There is a portrait of him in Hutton’s website and guidebook, where he is succinctly described as a “colourful, if not disagreeable” character. When our tour guide pointed to his portrait in the house, gave us the same description, and then hastily moved on without elaborating, it was clear something was off. Immediately, I made a mental note to look this up as soon as I got home, right after I finish playing a game called “Where is that smell coming from?” with the back of our fridge. Like the unfinished and forgotten takeaway from a long-ago Friday night I found behind the yoghurt, Sir Frederick Fletcher Vane’s story only stinks because everyone in the house pretends it’s not there.

So, this guy was apparently a lazy and corrupt representative of Carlisle who was hardly ever in Parliament. Okay, that won’t raise eyebrows–he was an MP, so he was required to be those things. But he wasn’t supposed to marry his mistress.

On the 9th of March 1797, Sir Frederick married Miss Hannah Bowerbank, who demanded he finally fulfil his oft-repeated promise to do so. Distraught and heavily pregnant with their third child at the time, she threatens to take the children and leave him if he reneges once more. Ever the gentleman, he produces a special license and tells a surprised Hannah to get ready because they would marry the next day. The news shocks Hannah. She starts experiencing what looked like labour pains. Time slows, and everyone is guilty of overacting as they anxiously stare at each other. The credits run and a rousing theme tune plays to signal the beginning of our costume drama series’ pilot episode.

BorderTV presents: The Bastard of Hutton Hall.

BorderTV presents: The Bastard of Hutton Hall.

The next scene opens in a courtroom in the year of our Lord 1876. A wig-wearing judge strides in, then sits in a no-nonsense fashion as he sends a warning glare to the crowd in a wordless reminder to be silent, while the clerk utters the first line.

“All rise!”

Our main character, Sir Henry Ralph Vane, stands while the clerk drones on about the proceedings. Visibly struggling for dignity, Sir Henry’s pained gaze shifts to his accuser, his own dear Uncle Fred. He is claiming to be the rightful heir to Hutton Hall estate, which Sir Henry inherited at the age of 12 when his father, Sir Francis, died.

Uncle Fred’s claim rests solely on proving that the late Sir Francis was born out of wedlock. If Sir Henry’s father was illegitimate, Uncle Fred would be the oldest legitimate son of Henry’s grandfather, the late, “colourful” Sir Frederick Fletcher Vane. There’s no doubt of Uncle Fred’s legitimacy–he was born several years after his father finally deigned to marry Hannah Bowerbank, who at the time was pregnant with Henry’s father. The emotional Hannah exhibited signs of oncoming labour and Sir Frederick married her the same day.

Although Sir Francis was raised as heir apparent, there had always been rumours of his alleged bastardy. In the official documents, it’s stated Sir Francis was born almost four weeks after the marriage, but the date of birth on the certificate was written in a different-coloured ink to the rest of the document, leaving the possibility that it had been tampered with. Witnesses were called and cross-examined, but just as the audience began to lose interest, Uncle Fred suddenly concedes that he was in the wrong and apologises for all the inconvenience this whole debacle caused.

The costume drama is then abruptly cancelled. Sir Henry retains ownership of the estate, plants topiaries and remains childless but through him, Hutton eventually passes to his heir, the current Lord Inglewood’s father. No one hears of Uncle Fred ever again. What happened to him, and the reasons for his sudden recantation, no one knows. The story is not mentioned in any of the official merchandise, or brought up in the tour of the house.

It stinks, and no one acknowledges the stench. I feel cheated, especially when I think how much places like this charge for tea. But I console myself with the knowledge that, in our ignorance regarding the rest of Sir Frederick’s tale, at least, we and our tour guide remain equal.


Austin Healey Sprite

You know what they say about a man with big toes? Yep, dude won’t need a car.

I’m not sure when modes of transport began to be seen as an indication of a man’s size, but I’ve got a feeling it has something to do with the concept of manhood being measured by one’s ability to bring home the bacon. Even in the coaching days, owning a carriage means you’ve got the money. These things were expensive, so only the very rich can afford to have the top of the line stuff. As Roy Porter said,

Chaises could be hired, but the Englishman’s dream was to own his own.

But once you have a carriage, you’ll start seeing how it compares to others, and presumably the dick-measuring begins. Industrialization doesn’t seem to have had an effect on this perceived social measuring stick of a man’s worth. From the beginning, the British car industry was known for manufacturing premium sports cars: Bentley, Rolls Royce, Aston Martin… these were all toys for the rich boys. Too bad money couldn’t buy them big toes.

Except, except… it did. Money buys food, and food provides nutrition. It took two World Wars to erase the telltale physical marks of poverty in Britain, and now you don’t need millions to be tall,  have decent clothing or get a tan abroad. It seems fitting that a veteran of both World Wars would also be the one to make the sports car available for the newly upwardly mobile population.


Donald Healey (1898-1988)
Automobile Engineer, Rally Driver, Speed Record Holder and All Around Man’s Man.

Born in Cornwall, Healey served on the anti-Zeppelin patrols during the First World War. He studied automobile engineering after he was shot down by British anti-aircraft fire and then he opened a garage in 1919. A few years later, he was competing in the Monte Carlo Rally and soon he was the General Manager at Triumph Motor Company where he created the Southern Cross and Dolomite 8 models.

I do hope Mrs. Healey also liked cars, or she would have been terribly bored. Her husband was always thinking about cars and mechanical stuff. During the Second World War, when other men were telling everyone about their wives or what they’d like to eat as soon as the war is over, Donald Healey was discussing sports car design when he wasn’t busy being in charge of developing an aircraft carburettor (don’t ask) or working on some armoured vehicles for Humber.

After the war, he created Donald Healey Motor Company and produced a car claimed to be the fastest production closed car in the world (timed at 104.7 mph over a mile), the Elliot Saloon. By 1952, he’s in a joint venture with the British Motor Corporation and together they came up with the car that middle class teenage boys have been wanting for centuries:

1958 Austin Healey Sprite (Yay!)

1958 Austin Healey Sprite.
It’s like being a rich kid, but poorer.

It was a bargain–offered at £669 inclusive of purchase tax. No, it won’t break speed records (top speed is 84 mph) but for handling and reliability it was second to none. The Sprite’s chassis design was the world’s first volume-production sports car to use unitary construction (don’t ask), and it was an instant success. The chairman of BMC, a Brummie called Leonard Lord, was not only astute enough to recognize the potential of this emerging market, he was also smart enough to utilize Healey’s skills and reputation. The car’s iconic headlamps gave it the nickname “Frog-eye” in the UK and “Bug-eye” in the US, but it also embodies what the little Sprite is all about: cost cutting.

Healey’s original idea was to have the headlights pop out when on and the rest of the time to retract on the bonnet (hood), but budget constraints necessitated a compromise.  All other parts used to make the Sprite were already available on other BMC cars (eg. the engine was the same one used for the Morris Minor 1000).  When it also won several major international races and rallies, its “cool factor” was secured and it’s still one of the most popular classic sports car today.  It’s still a joy to ride, but now it costs more to hire the Austin Healey Sprite for a day than it did to buy the whole thing when it first came out.  After all the posturing and countless men feeling like they come up short, this nifty sports car proves that all you need to do is know how to use what you already have, no matter what size it is.


Porter, Roy. The Penguin Social History of Britain: English Society in the Eighteenth Century. Penguin Group, 1982.

Lichfield Cathedral

The problem with pointing out that Lichfield Cathedral is unique because it’s the only medieval cathedral with three spires, is that no one seems to know the answer to the follow up question of WHY.

"3 is a magic number. No more, no less. You don't have to guess..."

“3 is a magic number.”

Perhaps it’s because this is the third church to be built on this site.A Norman church was built on the same site in 1085, replacing the wooden Saxon one and in 1195 construction of the present church began.

But three is also a crowd, and like a crowd, the history of Lichfield Cathedral is full of rabble. There were three significant “rabbles” concerning the cathedral and the state. The first of which happened at the Council of Chelsea in 787 AD, often referred to as the “Contentious Synod” because King Offa of Mercia proposed that the Archbishop of Canterbury share powers with the new Archbishop of Lichfield. The proposal was vehemently opposed and although the king got his wish the Archbishopric of Lichfield was dissolved upon his death, presumably because he couldn’t pay the promised annual shipment of gold to the pope any more.

St. Chad’s bones are interred in the Saxon church beneath the present building, so Lichfield became a site of pilgrimage until the Reformation but it wasn’t until the Civil Wars that there would be another major “rabble” concerning the church. Most of the townsfolk were Parliamentarian, the fortified church was Royalist and during this time (1643-46) there were three great sieges of Lichfield. Robert Grenville, 2nd Baron Brooke, led an assault on the fortress on behalf of the Parliamentarians but was killed by a deflected bullet from John Dyott, who was up on the battlements of the central cathedral spire. It is one of the earliest recorded incident of death from a sniper.

With Brooke down, his loyal deputy Sir John Snell had to step up and take over the siege. If this were a Hollywood movie, this would be the point where the hero’s had enough. There would be a heartbeat of silence as Brooke falls in slow motion, followed by a roar of murderous rage that almost drowns out the sound of fire power exploding everywhere. The camera would focus on Snell’s fierce yet undeniably attractive face. Muscles straining, he runs towards the cathedral to avenge his friend. Somehow, he remains unscathed while ineptly shot bullets whiz past him as he saves the day and gets the girl. And she’ll be a thin girl, too. At some point, Celine Dion starts singing because she ALWAYS sings at the end of a film. No one notices as you leave the theatre and go back to your uneventful life, and you just know you will die alone alone alone.

But wait… the guy is named Snell. No self-respecting hero will be called Snell. And this guy was no hero–he was notorious for his tyranny and arrogance. Plus, he profited from the Ship Money collected under Charles I, and married the widow of some dude he harassed to demand payment. If that’s not bad enough, he also did it while looking like this:

Sir John Snell (1593-1671).

Sir John Snell (1593-1671)

The Royalist forces surrendered two days later, and though it was retaken by Prince Rupert of the Rhine in the same year, the real loser was the cathedral. It suffered extensive damage–all the stained glass windows were smashed, the roof was ruined and the central spire was demolished so it could be used as a metaphor for the collapse of a heretofore unchallenged notion called the “divine right of kings.” The Royalty may have been restored with Charles II, but the “natural order” has changed and power had irrevocably shifted to Parliament.

Following the Restoration, the cathedral began the process of refurbishment, made possible by funds donated by the monarch, but anyone who’s had their house refurbished knows it’s a slow and never ending process. In the 18th century, while Lichfield was going through a “golden age,” the cathedral was in decay. It wasn’t fully repaired until the 19th century, when James Wyatt, the same architect who worked on Westminster Abbey and gained the sobriquet “The Destroyer,” was hired. He arranged for some major structural work to be done, and this prompted a final rabble.

Church Interior

Church Interior

Screen by Wyatt

Screen by Wyatt

Wyatt’s work on the cathedral was heavily criticized, most notably by John Carter in Pursuits of Architectural Innovation. Original features were covered by Roman cement and the 15th century library was pulled down. No one liked it, so eventually it was restored to its former grandeur by George Gilbert Scott who had a more sensitive approach to renovation.

Thanks to Scott, original features from the medieval period (including the tombs of ancient Saxon kings) remain today, and the cathedral looks pretty much the way it did in the days when Anna Seward, Erasmus Darwin and Lichfield’s favorite son, Dr. Samuel Johnson, attended sermons in the cathedral hall when he wasn’t busy working on his famous dictionary. They didn’t know why the cathedral had three spires either, but there have been no major rabbles from the crowd since.


Alnwick Castle

Upon entering Alnwick Castle, I wasn’t thinking how popular a choice it is for filming locations even before it became Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies, or that it’s one of the top 10 most visited stately homes in England and welcomes around 800,000 visitors a year. Like many people, I entered the cobbled courtyard that housed the principal rooms looking a little dazed and conflicted.

There’s nothing particularly bewildering about Alnwick Castle’s layout, even if it’s one of the oldest castles to never have a square keep. No, our strange expression was caused by an experience we all shared immediately before being granted access to what has been the Percy family’s principal seat for over 700 years.

Entrance is £14.50

Entrance is £14.50, and that’d be £26.25 each if you also want to see the garden. Enjoy!

Well, thanks a bunch, Your Grace. Being the Duke of Northumberland, you’re probably strapped for cash and after all, “we are all in this together.” Poor thing, it must be dreadful living in the country’s biggest inhabited castle save for Windsor and being one of the major landowners in England. Maybe that’s why castle visitors only have access to the one restroom? Of course I’m willing to pay to see some of your priceless collection of art. At least it’s cheaper than Warwick Castle. No, Alnwick doesn’t have knights jousting or the world’s largest trebuchet, but it’s just as historical and it really is my pleasure.

The castle is the birthplace of the brave but kinda dim teenage knight Henry “Hotspur” Percy (20 May 1364 – 21 July 1403), who was immortalized in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. It also houses 3 museums and in one of them I saw Elizabeth I’s bespoke gloves (proving she had elegant and long, tapered fingers) and Oliver Cromwell’s nightcap showing the man had not only the famed “warts and all” but also an unusually tiny head.

For his speed and readiness to attack, they called him Hotspur.

For his speed and readiness to attack, they called him Hotspur. Naturally.

The castle is situated just below the border to Scotland, and under constant threat of invasion from the north. So, by necessity the earliest Percys  had to be skilled in warfare. For simplicity, they were also mostly named Henry. Hotspur was the 2nd Earl of Northumberland. Too impatient to wait for the Bishop of Durham’s troops during the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, Hotspur launched an attack on the Scots headed by Douglas, under cover of darkness.

It was a fearless move, the Scots would never see them coming. Unfortunately, Hotspur can’t see in the dark either so his troops mistakenly attack camp followers and servants instead of the soldiers. Amazingly, some of these Scots fought back and alerted the main forces. So Hotspur lost about a thousand men and was captured because of his impatience, while the Scots only lost 200.  Luckily, Douglas is killed in victory and Hotspur, along with his brother Ralph, were ransomed back to England.

To show his appreciation for being released, Hotspur betrayed his savior Richard II and put Henry IV on the throne.  Together, the two Henrys successfully fought against the raiding Scots but Hotspur really was a “loose cannon” and during an argument about what to do with the Scottish prisoners in the 1402 Battle of Humbleton Hill he rebelled against Henry IV and in 1403 Hotspur made his best move yet by dying in the Battle of Shrewsbury in hand to hand combat.

Probably learning from his ancestor’s folly, Henry, the 6th Earl of Northumberland (1502-1537), was “a lover, not a fighter.” Oh, he did engage in border warfare, but he wasn’t like his brothers, Sir Thomas and Sir Ingelram, who just like their ancestor Hotspur rebelled and were leaders in the Pilgrimage of Grace even while heartbroken Henry remained loyal to the King.

Today, Henry Percy is mostly remembered as being Anne Boleyn’s loving fiancé who was forced to break their engagement when Henry VIII became interested in Anne. Percy was then immediately wed to Mary Talbot, and so started a marriage so bad that within 4 years the couple separated and refused to see each other forever. And then a few years later, he was ordered by the King to be one of the jurors at Anne Boleyn’s trial. Percy collapsed after the verdict was announced and had to be carried out. He died just one year after Anne’s execution.

Anne Boleyn's first Henry, 6th Earl of Northumberland.

Anne Boleyn’s first Henry, 6th Earl of Northumberland.

Through the next  Percy generations, over and over remnants of  the passionate and foolish Hotspur would emerge. The 8th Earl was found dead in the Tower of London after being imprisoned for plotting to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. And then there was 9th Earl of Northumberland, also called Henry and known as The Wizard Earl, who was a long time prisoner in the Tower because he employed Thomas Percy, who was one of the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot.

How hard could it be to learn from the mistakes of others? The issues that are fought about change with the times, but the reactions and arguments are always the same. The lessons learned seem as lost as the £14.50 I will never get back, but at least I got to laugh at Cromwell’s tiny hat.


The Tower of London

For a ghost, there is probably no better gig than haunting the Tower of London.

Competition is tough. One has to be an exceptionally cunning ghost to co-haunt this fortress. Please, don’t even attempt vying for a spot unless your name should be chosen by some kid hoping against hope it’s the right answer to a history exam question. Don’t feel sorry for that kid.  She had plenty of time to study for said exam yet decided to cram the night before and fell asleep instead.  If that kid ever tours the Tower of London, I bet she wouldn’t be there showing proper appreciation for the fact that it’s the setting for many of the most pivotal, notorious events in history. I bet she’d be doing things like this:


This site has been standing since the time of William the Conqueror, and right from the beginning, no one has been able to take control of Britain unless they controlled this stronghold. Even the unfortunate Wat Tyler knew this when he led his homies during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. With Lollard priest John Ball’s catchy sermon of “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” spinning  in their heads like the medieval equivalent of a Last Song Syndrome, the peasants stormed the Tower in their quest to end serfdom (and also to make fun of the young King’s sister and mother).

For a fee, peasants can still enter the Tower uncontested today.

For a fee of about £20, peasants can still enter the Tower uncontested today if they form orderly queues.

Once inside, you can let this awesome thing hear YOU roar!

Once inside, you can let this awesome thing hear YOU roar!

The peasants eventually managed to have Richard II concede to their demands, but for all their talk of equality they forgot to shrug off the notion that a King is noble and naturally more trustworthy than a common criminal. So they lowered their arms, began to disperse and shrugged their heads off instead, which ended up on pikes to serve as an example to future detractors.

Perhaps being an indicator of who controls the country is the reason that just thinking of this UNESCO World Heritage Site conjures images of imprisonment, torture and execution. It seems a recurring pattern in history that the interesting people die first, then inspire others before any real change can occur. One needs a bit of control to change things, and those in charge will not be willing to give it up. By the 16th century, being “sent to the Tower” meant you’ve become a threat to the rulers and the lifestyle to which they’re accustomed.  It was like a rite of passage–you can’t get any street cred until you’ve been “acquainted” with the Yeoman Warders who guarded prisoners in the Tower. It was a classy sort of capital punishment and it makes sense in a world where (depending on the circumstances, of course) people get to decide when and how to end another’s life because that’s justice but God forbid if something ever happens to those Tower ravens…

A Yeoman Warder.

A Yeoman Warder.

Naturally, everyone who was anyone had to be associated with the Tower in some way, and they would usually have these wonderful options to claim as their reasons to stay: imprisonment, torture, execution, murder. Now, with all those choices it can be a bit daunting.

Thankfully, they didn’t have to choose just ONE of these reasons and the simplicity of the system seemed to work because it became all the rage. It’s the surest way to draw attention if you ever get to the point when you want to finally speak out and declare that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Here’s some of the lucky few to belong in this exclusive circle of Tower prisoners: William Wallace, James I of Scotland, Richard II, Roger Mortimer, The Princes in the Tower, Henry VI, Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, Guy Fawkes, Samuel Pepys, Sir Robert Walpole… if any one of this select group of people doesn’t at least sound familiar, then no worries! You can look them up now (you’re welcome).

She'd be the one doing things like this.

See, I told you not to feel sorry for that kid, lol.


St. Conan’s Kirk

It just suddenly appeared. There we were, driving on the A85 and looking forward to seeing the town called Oban, when this church demanded our attention. It was free to look around, so we did just that knowing we’d be spending nothing more than our time.
Time is gold.

Time is gold.

For the most part, St. Conan’s Kirk is all about appearance. It looked ancient, so one assumes that from its enviable location in Loch Awe, this pile of stones would have witnessed more than a millennium of bloody battles between Highland clans consumed by their burning vengeance. It was probably built by someone called Lachlan or Cormag or some equally tough, Gaelic warrior-sounding name. Never would I have imagined the guy would be some Victorian called Walter. And he built the church for his mother.
Made for Momma

Made for Momma

So, Walt (as I imagine his mom called him) was probably one of the Campbells from Argyll, headed by the Duke. Or one of the Campbells who loved canning their soup.  Being a member of either family would have given him enough resources to build this here church so his mother could appear devout without having to bother to travel very far like some pilgrim when she was mother not only to Walter but to the First Lord Blythswood.

Now, far be it for me to speculate on old Walter’s relationship with his Mama, but somehow I get the feeling she was quite difficult to impress. The project started with Walter, but soon it also involved his sister Helen. Work began in 1881 and the original church was finished by 1886. Its present form, however, was “dedicated for worship as recently as 1930. ” That information was gleaned from the guidebook discreetly available just beyond the church’s doors for 70p.

It looked like this inside.

It looked like this inside.

Nice job, Walt.

Nice job, Walt.

I assume Walter worked on the kirk long after his Mama was gone, so he really must have wanted to prove to her that he was more than just a younger son destined not to become Lord Blythswood. And how come his brother got all the attention when Walt was a brilliant architect knowledgeable in the Romanesque and Norman styles that he employed with the construction of this building which, he probably would have relished pointing out, had not only a Cloister Garth just for the heck of it but also an ossuary with some bones belonging to Robert the Bruce.

That's KING Robert the Bruce, mom!

That’s KING Robert the Bruce, mom!

By the way, that window there behind Robert the Bruce’s effigy was the original window of St. Mary’s Church (circa 1483). That church was demolished in 1836 and the window was rescued from certain “death by rotting in an Edinburgh garden” by our sentimental Walter. I’d like to see your other son do something like that, Mrs. Campbell.

So, no. Walter was not a lord. But he was talented and dedicated and to be honest, “Blythswood” sounds like a made-up name anyhow. After Walter’s death in 1914, his sister Helen continued the work according to Walter’s plans. Says something about our guy if he had such a devoted sister. I keep asking myself if I would do the same thing for my brother… I’ll keep asking until I don’t feel bad about my answer any more.

Then again, said devotion might altogether be about something else. It certainly provided Helen with an outlet to showcase her own considerable talents during a time when ladies weren’t supposed to have any beyond the ability of bearing an heir. St. Conan’s Kirk is no doubt a beautiful building that would provide the perfect backdrop to a wedding where the bride is supposed to look like a princess. The building certainly looks ancient enough to provide an illusion of reality to any bride’s royal wedding fantasy.

Cynical, I know, but the Victorians were notorious for keeping up appearances and I’m inclined to think Walter’s family was not above this. Mrs. Campbell wanted to appear devout, so her son built her a church to show his affection but this labor of love ended up being more about himself than anything.  Helen might have wanted to honor her brother’s memory (what kind of sister wouldn’t?), but she chose to do it in a way that would prove her own remarkable skills and employ locals for years and years. Actually,  I wouldn’t be surprised if she did it all for the gargoyle bunnies.

I might have done it for the gargoyles.

I probably would have, as well. Those bunnies are adorable.


Martin, J.C., Saint Conan’s Kirk Loch Awe Guidebook, House of Letterawe, 1954.

Warwick Castle

She’s had over 36 individual owners, but with her latest incarnation as a top tourist destination, Warwick Castle continues to demand that her master either moves with the times or she moves on!


You’re not ready for this jelly.

She’s come a long way from being an Anglo-Saxon burgh fortified by Ethelfleda (yes, THAT Ethelfleda)* in the year 914. By 1068 she’s caught the eye of William The Conqueror and kept under the protection of the first Earl of Warwick, Henry de Beaumont. Ah, but Warwick Castle is highly coveted and she knows it. She doesn’t waste time with a prospective owner unless he has the money, clout and cunning to play a major supporting role in most of the turning points in English history. In fact, in 1153 the 2nd Earl of Warwick’s wife was tricked into believing her husband was dead so that Henry of Anjou (future Henry II) can lay claim to Warwick Castle and all she has to offer. Henry II looked after her and made her into a stone castle complete with curtain wall. She was only given to her next keeper after the nobleman supported Henry II’s mother, Empress Matilda, during The Anarchy (1135-54).

It wasn’t always all fun and games for Warwick Castle, she was attacked by Simon de Montfort in 1264, later he became the de facto ruler of England, establishing the Model Parliament that serves as the basis for parliamentary democracy today. Worse was to come, in 1312 she witnessed a power-hungry master sentence Edward II’s lover, Piers Gaveston, to death and in 1431 her owner supervised the trial and execution of Joan of Arc.

You don't look a day over 900!

She looks great for her age.

By the 15th century, no less than Edward IV was reduced to being her humble prisoner. During her tumultuous association with Richard Neville, he rose to prominence in the Wars of the Roses and became known as The Kingmaker, putting not one but two men on the throne. During this time King Richard III gave her two gun towers. She is also associated with a major player in the Tudor era, when during the reign of King Edward VI (son of Henry VIII), her owner was John Dudley, aka 1st Duke of Northumberland, up to the point when he was beheaded for treason after his plan to put his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne fell through. Somehow Warwick Castle managed to survive the Tudors, being acquainted with Queen Elizabeth I during her Tour of the Country.


Scheming, Dallying and Murder: Only one of us here will live long enough to tell the amusing tale we shared this day.

She showed signs of ageing during the reign of James I and VI, and was adapted to become a country house for the poet, dramatist and statesman Sir Fulke Greville, who spent lavish amounts of money on her until he was murdered by his servant. Perpetrators of the Gun Powder plot are rumoured to have stolen horses from her stables.

During the English Civil War, the Parliamentarians had her and Royalist forces became her prisoners. Centuries of plotting and greed have left their mark on her features, but for her status she was still considered worthy to host King William III in 1695. In 1749, Lancelot “Capability” Brown landscaped her gardens, gaining the admiration of Horace Walpole. Warwick Castle’s walls have weathered much through the ages, her secrets and failings are exposed, but this is the price of glory and attention.

Since the Victorian period, hordes of tourists have been willing to pay for the privilege of visiting and spending time with her. They try to hear each other through the shrieks of excited children and pretend they don’t mind paying £10 for parking or £5 for a charred burger from surly staff in unconvincing medieval garb, as they relive her stories and watch pretend knights joust. They understand there is nothing to be gained by judging the fallen, and content in the knowledge that after 950 years, she has finally acknowledged those who couldn’t gain anything from her.

* Daughter of Alfred the Great


Hadrian’s Wall

“And so, having reformed the army in the manner of a king, Hadrian set out for Britain. There he corrected many faults and was the first to build a wall, 80 miles long, to separate the Romans from the barbarians.” — Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Vita Hadriani, 11, 2, 4th century 
Oooh, so close! It was 84 miles long.

Oooh, so close! It was actually 84 MILES long.

So, which one of these Romans looked like Russell Crowe then? When I’m in a conversation and (for some reason) someone mentions “Roman Empire,” I think of only two things: the film “Gladiator” and Hadrian’s Wall. Then I start wondering if they wore togas or if that was just a Greek thing…

But my brother (pictured above) loves these guys. On his last visit to the UK, I took him to a place where he can see the longest continuous stretch of Hadrian’s Wall.

What's up, Hadrian? It's me, Ivory.

Ey, Hadrian! What’s up? It’s me, Ivory.

Construction began in the year 122 AD. It was a grand undertaking and everyone was excited. It’s the biggest engineering project the Romans ever did. The most cited reason for the existence of such a colossal project was to keep the Scots out. But this was the edge of the Roman Empire, and there weren’t really all that many people in there. If building a massive structure just to defend this isolated part of the empire against the occasional attack from “rebellious Scots” seems a bit of an overkill, then yes, it is. But there were other reasons that justify the cost of this expensive project. This kind of thing isn’t cheap, would require years of investment and loads and loads of building material. It had to be a multi-purpose wall.

First, the communities in the vicinity of the wall thrived–it provided employment, and it boosted the morale of those poor sods who had to live in the borders. The wall gave them a project and made them feel like they were still part of the team. Many of those sent to the site brought families with them. It wasn’t legal to marry if one is a legionnaire in the empire, but those stationed at the wall worked around this rule by having common-law wives. Pretty soon, businesses were set up and many people moved to this “up and coming” place called the North. There were blacksmiths, public bathrooms, taverns, inns, bakeries… the list goes on and on and on.

The wall  also provided a semblance of control over those wanting to get in or out. So immigration was monitored, and the movement of goods/products from one country to the next became taxable. So really, Hadrian’s Wall is nothing more than an ancient immigration and customs office. It generated revenue, motivated the troops and it was BIG.


This big.

Construction was complete by 128 AD. After Hadrian died, there was another emperor who built another wall further up north, the Antonine Wall, but people were all like, “That has SO been done,” and that’s why practically no one’s heard of it while Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But how did the wall survive all these years? Two words. John Clayton (1792-1890).



He was a town clerk from Newcastle. The reason that only remnants of the wall survives today is over the centuries, most of the stones were reused to build other things like roads, barns, etc. After all, the material was just sitting there, why not make it useful? This Geordie town clerk was devoted to Hadrian’s Wall. His father bought the Chesters Estate, which contained the Chesters Fort. After observing how farmers were dismantling the wall to build other structures, John began buying up estates along the wall path for the sole reason of preserving it. He was one of the pioneers of archaeological digging along the wall. He loved the wall so much he probably wouldn’t have married anyone who wasn’t named Humpty Dumpty. Alas, they never met and Clayton died a bachelor.

No one else saw the merit of what John Clayton was trying to do, and that’s why he’s the only one in history who’s personally associated with the structure’s preservation. It’s always the eccentrics who change the world. There wouldn’t have been anything left of Hadrian’s Wall today if it weren’t for him. Just think of the consequences.

Can you imagine playing this game without Hadrian's Wall?

It just wouldn’t be the same without Hadrian’s Wall.

It’s a little difficult to imagine that there was a time–not that long ago–when people thought it was okay to dismantle such an important part of our history and heritage. Then again, there are many things in the past that were the norm, but we wouldn’t tolerate today. There was a time when most people thought racism was okay. Or hitting animals. Or slavery. The state of society’s standards is never “inevitable.” It never “would have happened, anyway.”  It takes people like John Clayton to change the world. People who do not only see that something’s wrong, but actually dare to do something about it.

So why do we keep ridiculing them?


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.