Hermitage Castle

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

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

Hermitage Castle c13th Century "The Strength of Liddesdale"

Hermitage Castle c13th Century.
“The Strength of Liddesdale”

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

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

"Sod Off"

SO not going in there, dude.

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

WP_002789 (2)

Castle Court and Zombie Apocalypse Refuge Centre

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell

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

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

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

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)

Mary, Queen of Scots

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










The Ladies of Llangollen

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

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

welcome to Wales

But, it’s Welsh cheese on toast, see?

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

The Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby

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

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

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

Plas Newydd (New Hall)

Plas Newydd


View from Lady Eleanor’s Bower

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

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

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

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

The pleasure is yours.

The pleasure is yours, Ladies.

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

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









Lanercost Priory

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

Lanercost Priory

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

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

The Priory Nave. 800 years. Still a church.

The Priory Nave.
800 years. Still praying.

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

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

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


Can you afford to do that, Your Highness?

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


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

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

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

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

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

Dacre Tower, Lanercost Priory

Dacre Tower, Lanercost Priory

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

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

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







St. Michael’s Mount

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


St. Michael’s Mount, Low Tide.

St. Michael's Mount, High Tide

St. Michael’s Mount, High Tide

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

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

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


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

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

Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St. Aubyn
(Has Daddy Issues)

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

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

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

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

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

Sir John St. Aubyn, 5th Baronet

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

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









Dunstaffnage Castle

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

Flora MacDonald 1722-1790

Flora MacDonald

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

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

Dunstaffnage Castle

Dunstaffnage Castle

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

Blink and you miss it.

That’ll teach you to delegate.

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

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

No wonder the whole thing’s now a ruins.

Inside the ruins

Inside the ruins


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

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

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






The Carlisle Cursing Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Damage at Your Own Peril

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

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

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

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








Penzance, Cornwall

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


This far.

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



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

Penzance Pirates poster

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


Duuuude, carbon? That’s far out!

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


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

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

It doesn't even have his first name.

It doesn’t even have his first name.

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

Found it!

Found it!

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

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

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

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

George Stephenson Northern Inventor.

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

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

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

Ball’s in your court, Stephenson.









Hampton Court

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

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

“Hampton Court! HoooOOooOOooo!”


“I spent a cute day at Hampton Court!”

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really, Ivory? How’s that?”

I’ll tell you. Don’t interrupt.

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Hall at Hampton Court.

The Great Hall at Hampton Court.

hampton court great hall ivory

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

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

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







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 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.

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?