Tag Archives: History

Scottish Borders, Galashiels, Walter Scott and William Wallace

Neidpath Castle Peebles Scotland

Every year thirty or so members of my golf club go for a week away golfing in Scotland and after three years on the reserve list I finally got an invite.

Unfortunately the week prior to departure I entertained my three grandchildren and one of them left me a parting gift of a very heavy cold so when I set off one Sunday morning I was sniffing and sneezing and relying on cold relief capsules to help me through the journey north.

Actually I think it was probably ‘man flu’ and  I digress here for a moment to explain that this is a condition that this is a strain of flu so powerful and so deadly that it can only be matched by the Bubonic Plague.  It is an incurable virus, which has adapted to only effect the “XY” gene found in men. The virus attacks the immune system ten thousand times more seriously than an average flu and causes excruciating pain and discomfort for the victim.

For all of the week I felt awful but I played golf for four days but on Friday I woke to grey skies and persistent rain so on account of the fact that I was due to go on holiday to Wales a couple of days later and I didn’t want to get worse and spoil that I decided against putting on the leaking waterproofs and dragging myself around the fifth course of the week and thought that I might do a little bit of sightseeing instead.

I was staying in the town of Galashiels in the Scottish Borders  which is so far south in Scotland that it is even nearer the equator than the town of Berwick-on-Tweed, the furthest town north in England but what a wonderfully scenic and historic part of the country.

This is Walter Scott country where the great man of Scottish literature chose to live and receive his literary inspiration and the land of William Wallace and the marcher lands that separated England from Scotland and was the scene of much medieval warfare and fighting.

Galashiels Raid Stane Englishman's Syke

And so it was in Galashiels where I came across memorial called “The Raid Stane” the site of an incident in 1337 when a raiding party of English soldiers were picking wild plums close to the town and and were caught by angry Scots who came across them by chance and slaughtered them all.  It seems that they were picking and eating sour fruit and they were so unwell that they were unable to fight back.

Today the town’s coat of arms shows two foxes reaching up to eat plums from a tree, and the motto is Sour Plums pronounced in Scots as soor plooms.  Every year in June there is an event in the town called the Galashiels Braw Lads Gathering which celebrates the event and by all accounts if you are English you really don’t want to be in town that particular night.

Angry Scots

I spent a half an hour or so in the granite town of Galashiels and with the rain getting heavier returned to the car and with the stubborn grey skies refusing to clear away planned a route south towards the town of Jedburgh and followed a route through sweeping hills, purple with heather and decorated with the ragged stumps of the ruins of castles and derelict lookout towers, testimony to its turbulent history.

I passed through the town of Melrose with its ruined Abbey which is said to be the secret  burial site of the heart of Robert the Bruce but I didn’t stop there because I calculated that I only had time for one ruined abbey and that was going to be Jedburgh.

I did however make detour into a valley of the River Tweed and stopped for a while at Scott’s view which is a place where allegedly he liked to stop by and reflect on life.  I am not disputing this but it this rather remote place is about ten miles or so from where he lived so in days before automobiles this would not be something that the average person, or even the great Sir Walter Scott, would be able to do on impulse.  It was a nice view all the same and apparently his funeral cortege stopped off here for a short while on his way to his burial spot in the grounds of nearby Dryburgh Abbey.

One of my favourite Scott stories is how he saved the Scottish bank note.  In 1826 there was a proposal to abandon Scottish notes and adopt the English notes instead.  Under the pseudonym Malachi Malagrowther Scott campaigned hard against the proposal and was eventually successful.  In recognition of this a picture of Scott even today appears on every Bank of Scotland note.

Walter Scott bank note

Instead of visiting the Abbey I sought out a massive stone statue of William Wallace standing solitary and magnificent in half armour and kilt, a massive claymore hanging menacingly from his belt and leaning on a giant sword fully fifteen feet tall.

Thanks to the hopelessly historically inaccurate Mel Gibson film ‘Braveheart’, quite possibly the most aggressively Anglophobe and historically inaccurate film ever made, William Wallace remains a burning symbol of Scottish nationalism but the truth is that his fame is based on one lucky victory against the English and a conveniently overlooked string of subsequent defeats.

I thought he looked rather sad and forlorn stuck out here abandoned on a ridge overlooking the river wondering what might have been and with nothing to detain me here for more than a few minutes I swiftly moved on towards my intended destination.

William Wallace

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France, La Croix du Vieux Pont Campsite and Fishing

One of the popular activities at La Croix du Vieux Pont Campsite was fishing.

These days I can’t really understand the point of catching fish (if fox hunting is illegal then why isn’t fishing – it is the same thing) but I used to go fishing for about three years between ten and thirteen years old.  I had a three piece rod, two parts cane and the third part sky blue fibreglass with a spinning reel which, to be honest, I never really got the hang of, a wicker basket, a plastic box for my various floats and miscellaneous bait boxes for bread, cheese, garden worms, maggots and ground bait.

Fishing was generally quite boring but one day became quite lively when my friend Colin Barratt (who was forbidden by his parents to go to the canal on account of not being able to swim) fell in while struggling to land a four-ounce Perch with a home made rod and line.

He had turned up just as we were about to go to the canal so we made him a rod from a garden cane with a bit of string and a nylon line and hook and persuaded him, against his better judgement, to join us.  One minute he was standing on the towpath with his garden cane rod and bit of string and there was an almighty splash and Colin was thrashing about in the water, spluttering and gasping and generally struggling for his life.  Between us we dragged him out without having to jump in ourselves and took him home and left him dripping and bedraggled on the doorstep.  We didn’t see him again for about three months after that but to make him feel better we told him that it was a monster Pike that had pulled him in.

This story was not all childhood fantasy I have to say and had some dubious foundation in fact because there was always a story that there was a big fish lurking in the reeds on the opposite bank to the towpath that was alleged to be a trophy pike which is a rather big fish that can live for thirty years and grow to over thirty pounds in weight – always supposing that no one is going to drag it out of the water on the end of a fishing line that is.

We never really caught very much, a few greedy perch, the odd roach and loads and loads of gudgeon but there was never enough for a good meal.  Sometimes if we were fishing too close to the bottom we would bring up a crayfish and the only sensible thing to do was to cut the line and throw it back, hook and all.

Actually by the time I was thirteen I had tired of fishing in the same way that I had tired of Boy Scouts and Saturday morning cinema because by this time I had discovered girls and the only good thing about the canal towpath after that was that it was a good place for snogging.  I didn’t really like catching fish at all, I thought it was cruel, so used to dangle a hook in the water with no bait attached while I concentrated on adolescent activities.

Water always had a special attraction and when we weren’t messing about on the canal there was always Sprick Brook where we used to fish for minnows and red-breasted Sticklebacks and take them home in jam-jars in the days before goldfish.  Sprick brook ran under the railway bridge on Hillmorton Lane and was just the sort of place where you could have an accident and no one would find you for days until someone organised a search party.

I still find fishing completely pointless and I am always amused by people who have twelve foot rods and sit on one side of the river and I always want to ask them why they don’t just get a shorter one and go and sit on the opposite bank?

Ponte de Lima Portugal

Maybe it is because fish are just too smart.  One time in Portugal at the  the ancient town of Ponte de Lima I walked across a bridge that crosses the River Lima into the town and watched some men optimistically trying to catch the huge carp that we could see clearly swimming in the water below and teasing the optimistic fishermen on the bridge above.  They were big fish and had been around a long time so I don’t think they were going to get caught that afternoon.

If it was a pike that pulled Colin into the canal that afternoon I like to think it knew exactly what it was doing!

The Huldufólk of Iceland

“This is a land where everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect” –  Terry Gunnell, a folklore professor at the University of Iceland

We have moved on from Wroclaw in Poland and its street dwarfs so I thought you might like some pictures of the Huldufólk. the “hidden folk” of Icelandic folklore who live in a mystical landscape of mountain passes with peaks lost in the clouds, of arctic chill, windswept valleys, gnarled volcanic rock, wild moss and winter scorched meadows.

“It’s sort of a relationship with nature, like with the rocks. (The elves) all live in the rocks, so you have to. It’s all about respect, you know.” – Icelandic Singer Bjork.

In a land like this. of fire and ice, a place that is wild and magical, where the fog-shrouded lava fields provide a spooky landscape in which it is possible that anything out of the ordinary might lurk, stories flourish about the “hidden folk”.

According to Icelanders these are the thousands of elves who make their homes in the wilderness,  supernatural forces that dwell within the hallowed volcanic rubble and coexist alongside the 320,000 or so Icelandic people.

People in Iceland do not throw stones into the wilderness just in case they carelessly injure an Elf!

“It has caused a lot of arguments, as it’s something that’s very difficult to prove. Iceland is full of álagablettir, or enchanted spots, places you don’t touch – just like the fairy forts and peat bogs in Ireland. They’re protected by stories about the bad things that will happen if you do” – Terry Gunnell

If you are wondering where the Huldufólk are in my pictures? Well, according to Icelandic lore they are hidden beings that inhabit a parallel world that is invisible to human eyes, and can only be spotted by psychics and little children, unless they willingly decide to reveal themselves to people.

Sometimes however you can see their houses…

Have you been to Iceland – Have you seen the the Huldufólk?

European Capital of Culture 1985 – Athens

My plan was to go first to the Acropolis and the ancient city of Pericles, Socrates and Herodotus and the guidebook advised getting there early to avoid the crowds.

I did as it suggested and got there early (well, reasonably early) and it was swarming, I mean really swarming and there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people ahead of me in the line at the entrance gate. Obviously I wasn’t early enough and I cannot even begin to imagine what it is like when it is really busy. There was no turning back though because I’d only a couple of days in Athens before leaving for the neighbouring city of Piraeus and then sailing for the islands.

Acropolis and Parthenon Greece Athens

Although it was only mid morning it was desperately hot already and climbing the exposed sun-bleached steps to the top of the Acropolis it felt like the anvil to the sun’s hammer and I began to break out into a massive sweat and had to stop several times for a drink of water and a short rest before reaching the site of the Parthenon at the top of the table top mountain.

The top of the Acropolis is huge but there isn’t really a lot to see, no statues, no paintings, no exhibits, but a rather barren archaeological site in the thirtieth year of its restoration with tens of thousands of pieces lying strewn in the dust and long since stripped of its treasures, a stark marble ruin surrounded by ancient brick and concrete, so once a full circuit has been completed, although it felt as though I should stay longer the truth is there is not a lot to stay around for.

Athens Parthenon Acropolis

This doesn’t mean that the visit experience is in any way disappointing or less wonderful just that it seems to me that there are two types of sightseeing, the first is where we go to admire the statues, the paintings and the exhibits and the second where the experience is simply about being there, in a place that has played such a pivotal role in world history and the development of civilisation and for me the Acropolis and the Parthenon is one of the latter.

The Parthenon is an icon of western civilisation and the most architecurally  copied building in the World wherever man wants to demonstrate authority and power through the construction of buildings and monuments.  Of course there might have been more to see if the Parthenon marbles had been in place but we of course know these as the Elgin Marbles and two hundred years ago the English aristocrat hacked the statues off the buildings with blunt instruments and sent them back to the London where the fifty-six sculpted friezes, depicting gods, men and monsters can now been found at Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury (more about that later).

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After leaving the Acropolis I walked back down the slippery slope of the Parthenon and picked my way between olive trees and day trippers competing for shade from the midday sun and after I had left I had a good long walk around the other principal tourist attractions in the city because in addition to the Acropolis there is the Ancient Greek and Roman Agora and the dramatic Temple of Zeus with its spectacular muscular columns thrusting triumphantly into the sky.

They are all in pretty poor shape it has to be said, the Parthenon at the Acropolis was blown up by Venetian invaders when it was being used as a Turkish armoury store, looted by Elgin and then damaged by ham-fisted restoration work in the early twentieth century, most of the Agora is pretty much non-existent and the Temple of Olympian Zeus has only a handful of its original columns still standing.  It was here that I saw what I found to be an amusing notice at the entry kiosk, in large letters it said:

Please respect the Antiquity”

Just a little late for that I thought.  What a pity someone didn’t think to put up these signs two thousand years ago, perhaps it would have stopped people in the middle ages dismantling them to build houses, the Turkish invaders from grinding down the marble to make mortar (yes, really) and made Lord Elgin think twice before he plundered the Acropolis for the treasures he returned to Britain.  But this was long before UNESCO and the World Heritage Sites initiative and so perhaps for most of those two thousand years no one has been especially concerned about the preservation of the past.

APTOPIX Greece Acropolis Museum

Much of the tourist area of the Plaka is simply built over the top of Ancient Greece and around every corner there is an open excavation, which disappears under a modern building or a road.  The Greek Agora has to be the worst example of all because running through the middle of it is a railway line.  I wonder who thought that was a good idea?  As the construction workers kept coming across priceless artefacts surely it must have occurred to someone that they should stop and excavate the place properly before carrying on?  Part of the reason why it took so long to build the Acropolis Museum was that the builders came across an unexpectedly rich archaeological site and it had to be properly examined and explored before the building could be completed.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus must have looked wonderful, it took six hundred years to build due to a stop-start building programme and when completed had one hundred and four Corinthian columns seventeen metres high (that’s about four London double decker buses).  Only fifteen remain standing now and one other lies in pieces across the site, blown down in a gale in 1852.  As early as the year 86 people were not respecting the antiquity and two columns were removed and taken to Rome to be relocated in the emerging Forum.  An earthquake probably did most of the damage and then everyone helped themselves to the stones for their new building projects around the city.

I walked through the Zappeion gardens to the recently restored and renovated International Conference Centre building that had wonderfully colourful internal decoration and then to the original Olympic stadium of the modern games built in 1884, and which was used symbolically once again in 2004.  After that it was a stroll around the official government buildings where I saw the Greek soldiers famous for their lanky legged, goose stepping walk.  They are called the Evzones, which is the name of the elite light infantry of the Greek Army and today refers to the members of the Proedriki Froura, who are the official Greek Presidential Guard, a select ceremonial unit that guards the Greek Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Parliament building and the Greek Presidential Palace.

The basic elements of their uniform are a scarlet garrison cap with a long black tassel, a woollen kilt, a cotton undershirt, white woollen stockings and black-tasselled knee garters and red leather clogs with hob-nailed souls and a black pompon.  The full-dress uniform, which derives from the traditional uniform of south-mainland Greece is only worn on Sundays, on important national holidays and other special occasions. It has a white, bell-sleeved shirt and a white kilt with four hundred pleats, which represents the four hundred years of Turkish Ottoman occupation and an awful lot of work for the poor person who has to do the ironing!

Winston Churchill – The Greatest Briton

the 24th January 2015 is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sir Winston Churchill.

I think that few would argue that Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was probably the greatest Briton of all time.  I know that I can say this with some confidence because in 2002 the BBC conducted a nationwide poll to identify who the public thought this was.  The result was a foregone conclusion and Churchill topped the poll with 28% of the votes.

Read the full story…

EPCOT World Showcase – United Kingdom

EPCOT England

Following my previous post about visiting World Showcase at EPCOT, Florida, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the ‘real’ countries that I have now visited and make a short comparison.  Of the eleven EPCOT pavilions I have visited six of those showcased and I suppose I have obviously to begin with the United Kingdom:

The EPCOT version is not bad if people from around the World all believe that we live in thatched cottages and fill them with Beatrix Potter prints and spend most of our time talking in Cockney rhyming slang and listening to Beatles albums.  The presentation is completely inaccurate of course but then it is not just Disney that can get it wrong…

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EPCOT UK Barmaid

Houses I have Lived In (1)

16 Tyndale Street Leicester

Who remembers the first house they ever lived in?

My parents were married in 1953 and around the same time dad was appointed to a job as a clerk with Leicestershire County Council.  They moved from living in Catford in South London with my mother’s family to a house in Una Avenue in Leicester where they lived with my dad’s grandmother, Lillian.  Shortly after that my mother was pregnant and I was on the way.  I was born the following year and lived my first few months in that house.

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