May the Bees be with you! May 5th

Swarm of Bees, Hackney (Photo Kevin Flude 30th May 2018)

Tusser’s ‘Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry’ published 1573 suggests we should:

take heed to thy Bees, that are ready to swarm, the loss thereof now, is a crown’s worth of harm.’ The loss was particularly hard in May or June as the country verse tells us:

A swarm in May
Is worth a load of hay
A swarm in June
Is worth a silver spoon
A swarm in July
Is not worth a fly.

In 2018, on 30th May, I was perturbed to find a swarm of Bees hanging outside my front door. Frightened of leaving my house, I rang a local Bee Keeper who came around to take possession of the Bees and take them to a new home.

Swarm of Bees having moved 20 yards to a new home, being 'rescued' by a bee keeper.
Swarm of Bees, having moved 20 yards to a second perch, being ‘rescued’ by a bee keeper. You can see the swarm above his head

According to Hillman’s ‘Tusser Redivus’ of 1710, swarming in May produces particularly good honey, and he advises following the bees to retrieve them. He says:

You are entitled by custom to follow them over anyone’s land and claim them … but only so long as you ‘ting-tang’ as you go, by beating some metal utensil – the sound whereof is also said to make your bees stop.’

Much of the above is from The Perpetual Almanac of Folklore by Charles Kightly.

Bees swarm when a new Queen Bee takes a proportion of the worker bees to form a new colony. They will latch unto a branch or a shrub, even a car’s wing mirror, while sending bees out searching for a suitable new home, such as a hollow tree. There may be hundreds or even thousands in the new colony, and this may be very alarming, as I found, as I could not go out without walking through a cloud of bees. But, at this point, they will not be aggressive as they do not have a hive to protect. Look here for more information on swarming.

An average hive will produce 25 lbs of honey, and the bees will fly 1,375,000 miles to produce it, which is flying 55 times around the world (according to the British beekeepers Association (and my maths)) https://www.bbka.org.uk/honey

Bees are still having a hard time as their habitats are diminishing and threats increasing. In July, DEFRA hosts ‘Bees Needs Week’ which aims to increase public awareness of the importance of pollinators.

They suggest we can help by these 5 simple actions

  1. Grow more nectar rich flowers, shrubs and trees. Using window or balcony boxes are good options if you don’t have a garden.
  2. Let patches of garden and land grow wild.
  3. Cut grass less often.
  4. Do not disturb insect nests and hibernation spots.
  5. Think carefully about whether to use pesticides.

For more above Bees Needs Week look here:

This Stinking Idol & the End of May Day May 2nd

An Imagined Scene at the Maypole at St Andrew Undershaft
An Imagined Scene at the Maypole at St Andrew Undershaft

Philip Stubbes, in his Anatomy of Abuses of 1583, fired a broadside at the tradition of dancing around the Maypole when he wrote a vitriolic attack on pagan practices. He said they had ‘as Superintendent and Lord ouer their pastimes and sportes: namely, Sathan Prince of Hell’ as they erected ‘this stinking Idoll’. Stubbes suggested that of the maids that went out to the woods on May Eve less than one-third returned ‘undefiled’.

The Maypole was stored at St Andrew Cornhill, which became known as St Andrew Undershaft. In 1517, it was attacked during the ‘Evil May Day riot’, which the Recorder of the time, Thomas More, helped quell. (300 were arrested and one hanged). The shaft was returned to its place under the eves of the houses in Shaft Alley, but apparently banned from being raised.

But in 1549, the curate of nearby St Katharine Cree Church made an inflammatory speech which led to a Puritan mob cutting the shaft into pieces and burning it. I always imagine the Curate’s sermons to be along the same lines as Phillip Stubbes attack on the Maypole:

But their chiefest iewel they bring from thence is the Maie-poale,
which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: They haue
twentie, or fourtie yoake of Oxen, euery Oxe hauing a sweete
Nosegaie of flowers tyed on the tip of his homes, and these Oxen
drawe home this Maie-poale (this stinking ldoll rather) which is
couered all ouer with Flowers and Hearbes, bound round about
with strings from the top to the bottome, and sometimes painted
with variable collours, with two or three hundred men, women and
children following it, with great deuotion. And thus being reared

vp, with handkerchiefes and flagges streaming on the top, they
strawe the ground round about, bind green boughes about it, set
vp Summer Haules, Bowers, and Arbours hard by it. And then fa!
they to banquet and feast, to leape and daunce about it, as the

a Heathen people did, at the dedication of their ldolles, whereof this
is a perfect patteme, or rather the thing it selfe. I haue heard it
crediblie reported (and that viua voce) by men of great grauity,
credite, and reputation, that of fourtie, threescore, or a hundred Maides,
going to the wood ouemight, there haue scarcely the third part of them returned home againe vndefiled.

Phillip Stubbes from ”A Critical Edition Of Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie Of Abuses‘ By Margaret Jane Kidnie.

The unraised pole seems to have survived until the beginning of the Civil War, (1644) when it was destroyed. But at the Restoration of Charles II a new and huge Maypole was joyously erected 134 ft high (41 metres) in the Strand. This was danced around till 1713 when it was replaced and the original sold to Isaac Newton who used it to support the biggest telescope in Europe which was erected in Wanstead by a friend.

And that, my friends, is how you get from Superstition to Science in one easy story.

Old Print of Isaac Newton
Old Print of Isaac Newton

Postscript. I have always said that the sermon that led to the destruction of the Shaft in 1549 was made at St Paul but cannot remember where I read this. The suggestion that the Maypole in Cornhill was not used after 1517 seems strange because why then would it rouse a crowd to riot in 1549? Of the sources I have at hand, the London Encyclopedia mentions the riot of 1517 in its entry on St Andrew Undershaft but doesn’t elaborate more. ‘Layers of London‘ says ‘It was last raised in 1517 when ensuing riots led to the celebration being banned.’ which is definitive sounding. But is it? I wonder if it was banned for a year or two, then allowed again, and finally stopped in 1549?

First written in 2023 and revised on May 2nd 2024.

St George’s Day, Shakespeare’s Birthday  April 23rd

shakWilliam Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout from the 1st Folio
William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout from the 1st Folio

By tradition, Shakespeare was born on St George’s Day April 23rd 1564, 457 years ago. He died on the same day in 1616 at age 52. Cervantes died on the same day.

Shakespeare’s death date is given by the burial register at the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford on Avon where he was buried. His baptismal record also survives at the same church and is on April 26th 1564. So, we don’t actually know when he was born, but christening were held soon after birth for fear of the high infant mortality rates, so 23rd April has been assigned to be Shakespeare’s birthday.

Anne Shakespeare would have ‘taken to her chamber’ about four weeks before the due date. The windows or shutters were fastened, as fresh air was thought to be bad for the birthing process. Female friends and relatives came to visit; the room was decorated with fine carpets, hangings, silver plates and fine ornaments. It was held that external events could influence the birth, any shocks or horrors might cause deformities and anomalies, so a calm lying-in room was clearly a good idea.

When labour began, female friends, relatives and the midwife were called to help out. A caudle of spiced wine or beer was given to the mother to strengthen her through the process. Today, the maternal mortality rate is 7 per 100,000. An estimate for the 16th Century is 1500 per 100,000. So most women would have heard of or attended the birth of a women who had died during or following children birth. There were also no forceps so if a baby were stuck and could not be manually manipulated out, then the only way forward was to get a surgeon to use hooks to dismember the baby to save the life of the mother. Doctors were not normally in attendance, but could be called in emergency,

Immediately after washing, the baby was swaddled. The swaddling was often very tight and could affect the baby’s growth, and might have affected the learning process, as movement of hands and feet are now considered very important in the early learning process. Swaddling lasted eight to nine months, and only went out of fashion after Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote against the practice.

Detail of tomb of Alexander Denton and his first wife Anne Willison, and her baby dressed in swaddling clothes Photo Wikipedia Hugh Llewelyn

Puerperal fever killed many women even after successful childbirth, for example Queen Jane Seymour who died after 5 days. During these dangerous early days, the mother was kept in a dark room, and then, perhaps three days after birth, friends were invited to celebrate ‘upsitting’ when the mother was no longer confined to bed. This is when christening would take place. Edward VI was christened to a huge audience in the chapel at Hampton Court three days after his birth.

Licensed midwives could baptise newborn babies provided they used the correct wording and informed the Church so that the registration could be properly reported. Thomas Cromwell was responsible for the law in 1538 which insisted on a parish register to record weddings, christenings, and funerals. The law was reaffirmed by Queen Elizabeth in 1558 and registers had to be stored in a locked chest in the Church. (In 1597, the records had to be on parchment not paper, and in 1603 the chest had to have three locks!).

If the christening were in the church, the mother might not be there as she was expected to stay in her chamber for another week or so.

A week or a few weeks later, the mother would be ‘churched.’ This was a thanks-giving ceremony, although Puritans did not like the idea as it might be confused with a purification ceremony.

Breastfeeding would last a year or so but many high status women choose to use a wet-nurse, but there was a real concern to find a suitable wet nurse as it was believed that the breast milk was important for the babies’ development both physically and temperamentally. Poor children who lost their mothers were very unlikely to survive as, without breast milk, the baby would be fed pap – bread soaked in cow’s milk.

Thanks very much to Alison Sim’s book ‘The Tudor Household’ for a lot of the above.

First published in 2023 and republished in April 2024

Stone of Destiny on display in Perth March 30th

Old Photograph of the Stone of Destiny beneath the Coronation Chair.
Old Photograph of the Stone of Destiny beneath the Coronation Chair.

The Stone of Destiny is, today, on display again at the reopening of the redeveloped Perth Museum, in Scotland. This is near to its ‘original’ home at the Palace of Scone.

The Museums Association reports that it is a ‘£27m development project ….funded by £10m UK government investment from the £700m Tay Cities Deal and by Perth & Kinross Council, the museum is a transformation of Perth’s former city hall by architects Mecanoo.’

As well as the Stone of Destiny, the Museum has Bonnie Prince Charlie’s sword and a rare Jacobite wine glass, which are on public display for the first time. This is the first time the sword has been in Scotland since it was made in Perth in 1739. https://perthmuseum.co.uk/the-stone-of-destiny/

Webpage of the Perth Museum show a photo of the Stone of Destiny
Webpage of the Perth Museum show a photo of the Stone of Destiny

Before Perth, the Stone was in London under the Coronation Chair for the Coronation of King Charles III (6 May 2023) . Before that, it was on display at Edinburgh Castle after being sent back to Scotland by Blair’s Labour Government as a symbol of the devolution of power from Westminster to the restored Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh in November 1996. Before that, it was under the Coronation Chair from the time Edward I stole it (1296) from Scone as part of his attempted subjection of Scotland in the late 13th Century. So, virtual every English and British King has been crowned upon the Stone of Scone.

However, the Stone had a brief holiday in Scotland in 1950/51 after four Scottish students removed it from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950. After thee months, it turned up at the high altar of Arbroath Abbey. It was briefly in a Prison Cell, then returned to Westminster for the Coronation of Elizabeth II.

I’m guessing the-would-be liberators of the Stone, thought Arbroath was suitable, as the Declaration of Arbroath is the supreme declaration of Scottish Independence from England. Following the Battle of Bannockburn, and Robert Bruce’s leadership, the Scots wrote to the Pope of their commitment to Scotland as an independent nation. They said:

“As long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself”

The Pope agreed and Scotland remained independent until voluntarily joining England in the United Kingdom in 1714.

Poor photograph of a press cutting on display at the Palace of Scone (Photo by me!)
Poor photograph of a press cutting on display at the Palace of Scone (Photo by me!)

Before Edward 1 stole the Stone, it was at Scone Palace, upon which the Kings of Scotland were crowned, including Macbeth (August 14, 1040).

Moot or Boot Hill where Scottish Kings were crowned. Palace of Scone Photo Kevin Flude)
Moot or Boot Hill where Scottish Kings were crowned. Palace of Scone Photo Kevin Flude)

Those who attended the coronation traditionally shook their feet of all the earth they had brought from their homelands, and this over the centuries grew into Boot Hill, aka Moot Hill. So the mound represents the sacred land of Scotland. 42 Kings were crowned upon its soil on its Stone.

Before Scone, it was, possibly, in Argyllshire where the Gaelic Kings were crowned, Their most famous King was Kenneth MacAlpine and he united the Scots, Gaelic people originally from Ireland, the Picts, and the British into a new Kingdom which was called Alba, which became Scotland.

MacAlpine was the first king to be crowned on the Stone at Scone in 841 or so. He made Scone the capital of his new Kingdom because it was a famous Monastery associated with the Culdees who followed St Columba to Scotland. MacAlpine brought sacred relics from Iona to sanctify the new capital. And Scottish Kings were by tradition crowned at Scone and buried on the holy Island of Iona.

Before that, legend has it that the Scots bought the Stone from Ireland when they began to settle in Western Scotland (c500AD). The Scots, it is said, got the Stone from the Holy Land where Jacob lay his head on it and had a dream of Angels ascending and descending a ladder to Heaven. Jacob used the stone as a memorial, which was called Jacob’s Pillow (c1652 years BC).

But, questions about the Stone remain. Firstly, an angry Edward 1 failing to conquer the Scots makes a spiteful raid on Scone, but would the Monks meekly hand over the stone, or do they hide it and give him a fake?

Secondly, was the Stone brought to Scone from Western Scotland in the 9th Century?

These questions of doubt are based on the assumption that the Stone is made of the local Scone sandstone. If it were brought to Scone from somewhere else, it would be in a different type of stone, surely? So, either it was made in Scone, possibly for MacAlpine’s Coronation or the Monks fooled the English into taking a copy. So the English would then have been crowning their Monarchs on a forgery.

Ha! Silly English but then the Scots have spent £27m on the same forgery.

Historic Environment Scotland have recently undertaken a new analysis of the stone, which confirms: ‘the Stone as being indistinguishable from sandstones of the Scone Sandstone Formation, which outcrop in the area around Scone Palace, near Perth‘. It also found that different stone workers had worked on the stone in the past; that it bore traces of a plaster cast being made; that it had markings which have not yet been deciphered and had copper staining suggesting something copper or bronze was put on the top of it at some point in its history.

So it seems the Stone of Destiny was made in Scone.

 

Aries, the Nose and the King’s Evil March 22nd

aries star sign

We have just entered Aries. Now according to astrology, Aries is associated with health issues of the face. This, according to ‘Skin and Astrology Signs‘ is because of the “level of heat in their bodies” they tend to have problems such as “flushing, heat rashes, skin eruptions, and rosacea,” And suggest using chilled cucumber for the eyes and forehead, and using beauty products with soothing aloe vera in them.

Charles Kightly in his Perpetual Almanac enjoins us to ‘Observe the features of the face which are ruled by Aries and seek cures for ills of the nose’.

He gives two examples. The first is from John Aubrey and relates to the fact that people believed that Scrofula, or the King’s Evil (tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis) could be cured by touching the Monarch. So, the King or Queen would make herself, very reluctantly, available for his sick public to touch her. I will say more about the subject below. Aubrey tells us this slightly revolting tale:

Arise Evans had a fungous Nose and said, it was revealed to him, that the king’s hand would cure him At the first coming of Charles II into St James Park he kissed the king’s hand and rubbed his nose with it: which disturbed the king, but cured him.

John Aubrey Miscellanies 1695.

An 18th Century publication gives us an idea how to understand people by studying their noses.

Nose round with a sharpness at the end signifies one to be wavering of mind; the nose wholly crooked, to be sure unshamefaced and unstable; crooked like an eagle’s beak, to be bold. The nose flat, to be lecherous and hasty in wrath; the nostrils large, to be ireful.’

The Shepherd’s Prognostication 1729

It was only the French and the English who believed the King’s touch could cure people. The French claimed it began with Philip 1 in the 11th Century, while the English claimed Edward the Confessor as the first. The French denied this saying that the French King of England, Henry 1 was the first to use the King’s Touch to cure people. The practice lasted until George 1 resolutely refused to have anything to do with it.

It took place in the winter, between Michaelmas and Easter, when cold weather provoked the disease. The lucky few who were allowed the Touch, would be touched or stroked by the King or Queen, on the face or neck, then a special gold coin, touched by the Monarch was put around their neck. Readings from the bible and prayer finished the ceremony. Before Queen Elizabeth, the Touch was said to cure many diseases such as Rheutmatism, culvsions, fever and blindness, but after it was reserved for Scrofula.

Sketch of Dr Johnson from a portrait.
Sketch of Dr Johnson from a portrait.

Dr Samuel Johnson suffered from Scofula and received the “royal touch” from Queen Anne on 30 March 1712 at St James’s Palace. He was given a ribbon, which he wore around his neck for the rest of his life. But it did not cure the disease, and he had to have an operation.

The Wandering Cardinal Points & Digital Heritage March 21st

Photo  by Jordan Ladikos on Unsplash of a weather vane showing the cardinal points
Photo by Jordan Ladikos on Unsplash

This post was originally part of the Equinox Post but it was too long and I have moved the section on the cardinal points of the compass to here.

So, Spring has sprung. At the Equinox the sun now rises due East, and sets due West. The rising and setting points vary throughout the year, further North each day as we move to Summer Solstice, and further South as Winter Solstice approaches. Dawn and Dusk vary accordingly. The only fixed point in the Sun’s journey (as seen from Earth) is Noon. Every day, the Sun is at it highest point at Noon. And this is the definition of South, something that can be seen and measured. The Sun never strays into the North so the North is cold, remote, more mysterious, unknowable almost, except that it is defined by the opposite direction to South.

To my mind, it makes South/Noon very special. At Stonehenge, there are two exits. The biggest is aligned to the Midsummer Sunrise and Midwinter Sunset direction, but there is a smaller second entrance and this aligned due South. There is also a uniquely small standing stone in the main circle of Sarsens, and there was some sort of corridor heading South through the mysterious wooden phase which precedent the stone Stonehenge. So, we can be sure Noon\South was important at Stonehenge.

Sketch of Stonehenge showing the smallest Sarsen stone to the North of the Southern Entrance

Noon, derived from ‘nona hora’ in Latin and is ‘one of the seven fixed prayer times in traditional Christian denominations.’ (Wikipedia)

Strangely, North, somehow, has come to be the principal direction, the one that is shown on all decent maps, and the one that people of my generation and hemisphere think of as being ‘up’. The Google generation sees things differently. You have to fight with Google Maps to get it to put North at the top of the map, and all over Britain, tourist maps on walls or plinths, increasingly show up as being the way you are looking and nothing to do with North. My children mock me when I say ‘You come out of the Tube station and you turn up the High street Northwards.’ Their view of maps is completely relational – you turn left out of the tube station, you walk past the M&S. you cross the road and walk along the park. They do not see any reason to know where the cardinal points are. Although I see this as being part of the Decline of the West, and ‘things were better in my day’, it is simply returning to the way maps were produced in the past.

Representation of a Roman Map with the top being roughly East.
Representation of a Roman Map with the top being roughly East.

The four points of the Compass are called the cardinal points: “chief, pivotal,” early 14c., from Latin cardinalis “principal, chief, essential,” (online etymological dictionary).

Of course, there is another version of the cardinal points: the magnetic cardinal points. The magnetic cardinal points wanders over time and does not coincide with geographic north. In recent times they are close enough, but in the past there have been huge variations and occasionally the earth has had geomagnetic reversals when the north pole has pointed in different directions, including southwards. The last one was 780,000 years ago, and they take place on average very roughly every 500,000 years. The magnetic pole is caused by the molten iron in the earth’s core and mantle, which creates a dipole. Fluctuations in the dynamo flow of the molten iron cause occasional reverses. The science is very complicated and, even now, not entirely understood. Is it a random consequence of flow dynamics? Or do external events, like sinking continents, or meteor strikes cause the reversal? Of course, since the first use of compasses for navigation in the 11th/12th Centuries,  the magnetic pole hasn’t wandered enough to be of concern to navigation. It has wondered a few hundred miles of over the last 500 years but is speeding up, from 9km a year to 52km (since 1970).

Cavit – Own work Observed pole positions taken from Newitt et al., “Location of the North Magnetic Pole in April 2007“, Earth Planets Space, 61, 703–710, 2009 Modelled pole positions taken from the National Geophysical Data Center, “Wandering of the Geomagnetic Poles” Map created with GMT Wiipedia CC BY 4.0

My first proper job after university was as a technician then research assistant at Oxford University studying these phenomena. I say ‘proper’ because when I left University, I became an itinerant archaeologist, digging in Switzerland, Northampton, East Anglia and Nottingham before I got the job at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, Keble College, Oxford.

I worked for Dr. Mike Barbetti who was an expert on the wanderings of the Magnetic Pole. His interest was firstly in the pure science of the subject, but he was keen to explore the applied uses of the science to Archaeology as well. So, after being appointed as a Research Fellow at Oxford, he set up an epic journey from his native Australia to Oxford that went via some of the iconic sites of Palaeolithic Archaeology, such as Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, site of excavations by Mary and Louis Leakey.

In order to plot the movements of the magnetic north, scientists needed dated samples, and early human sites provided dated sites over a long timespan. Also, archaeomagnetism, as the discipline became known, offered the possibility of dating sites. Another application was to determine whether deposits were fired or not. One of the sites Mike sampled was a candidate for the first evidence of fire in human existence. But was the scorched earth actually scorched rather than just discoloured?

As I said, Mike’s interest was discovering how the magnetic field of the earth changed over time, and, more importantly, what was the mechanism. He shipped back to Oxford samples of soil cast in Plaster of Paris. My job was to cut the samples up and to measure the strength and direction of the magnetic field in the samples. I cut them up with an electric saw in a shed in the backyard of the Laboratory, and then we used a mini-computer to measure the direction and intensity of the magnetic field in the samples.

Soil contains particles of iron, and they align randomly, so a sample of soil has a low magnetic intensity and a random direction of magnetic field. But once heated up, the iron particles align to the current direction of the magnetic pole and its intensity is proportional to the intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field. These measurements provide a method of plotting the changes of the magnetic field over time. And from these data, models could be constructed explaining how the iron in the earth’s core worked as a giant magnet.

We could, therefore, tell if a sample of soil had been heated by fire. Once we had built a reference curve for the movements of the direction of the magnetic pole and the changing intensity of the magnetic pole we might be able to develop another dating method to rival radio carbon, thermoluminescence, and tree ring dating, all of which were being developed at the Research Laboratory in Oxford.

Having got the results, I then typed them up onto machine-readable cards, took them to the Oxford University Computer Centre with a copy on cards of the programme written in Fortran, and gave them to the Computing Staff. They were run through the Centre’s mainframe computer which was probably an IBM or ICL computer, and 24 hours later I received a print-out to proofread. When I located mistakes, I ran an editing run of punched cards, essentially instructing the computer: ‘on card two replace 2.5 with 2.6, and run the programme again’. I would pick up the results 24 hour hours later. It seems extraordinarily primitive now, but then it was an enormous saving of time.

And that, patient reader, was my early contribution to Digital Heritage and pure science. We published at least three articles in the prestigious Science Journal Nature. And it is slightly annoying that my citations in the groves of academia are still dominated by articles I co-wrote in the late 1970s!

The work was important in the development of the study of the earth’s magnetic field. However, the use of archaeomagnetism in archaeology has never risen above strictly limited. Occasionally, in specific circumstances, it can be useful, but those circumstances tend to be times when no other methods came up with the goods and most often in attempting to date kilns.

These are the papers:

Barbetti. M and K. Flude, ‘Palaeomagnetic Field Strengths from Sediments baked by Lava flows of the Chaine des Puys, France.’ Nature, Vol. 278 No 5700. 1979

Barbetti. M and K. Flude, ‘Geomagnetic Variation during the Late Pleistocene Period and changes in the radiocarbon time scale.’ Nature, Vol. 279 No 5710. 1979

Barbetti M., Y. Taborin, B. Schmider and K. Flude ‘Archaeomagnetic Results from Late Pleistocene Hearths at Etoilles and Marsangy, France’. Archaeometry 22. 1980

First written March 2023, revised 21st March 2024

The Spring Equinox March 20th

Video by Heike Herbert of Druids at the Spring Equinox at Tower Hill, London

So, Spring has sprung, not only meteorologically speaking but also astronomically. We are 20 days into the meteorological Spring which started on 1 March and now starting the astronomical or solar Spring. The 20th of March is the Spring Equinox, or Vernal Equinox, halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Summer Solstice. The sun has been rising further north each day since December 21st, and it now rises due East, and sets due West, The day and night are roughly equal in length although by no means exactly. At 3.30pm today, the Sun was directly overhead at the Equator.

The term vernal comes from the Latin for Spring, and today is the primavera, the first day of Spring. The Anglo-Saxons originally used the word lencthen (Lent) for Spring, but later adopted the idea of the ‘springing’ of the year when the plants bud. In Middle English, the word Spring was also used for sunrise, the waxing of the moon, the rising tides (spring tides) as well as the sprouting of the beard and the first appearance of pubic hair! Happy Spring Time!

Up to the 15th Century, the English also used the French term ‘prime-temps’ in the sense of ‘first times’. This follows the idea that the year is young, while Winter represents old age. As we shall see, on March 25th, there was also a belief that the world was created in Spring at what became the Equinox (after God created it!), and Jesus was also conceived at this point of the annual cycle.

Zodiacally, if that is a word, Spring is Aries (brave and impulsive); Taurus (sensual and stubborn), and Gemini (dynamic and talented).

Druids at the Spring Equinox Tower Hill London, Photo by Heike Herbert
Druids at the Spring Equinox Tower Hill London, Photo by Heike Herbert

The modern druids have been out at their annual Spring Equinox festival at Tower Hill already today (or so the Daily Mail, but I will not give you a link to that perfidious rag). I have a picture of the ceremony from when I attended many years ago, but, Heike Herbert, who seems to be always travelling around the world, was in the UK for long enough to attend the Druid Festival last year and has kindly let me use photos for this post.

When I last went to the ceremony I remember noting, with some distaste, that the druid costumes seemed to be made with nylon sheets, and their footware was mostly plimsolls. I see the nylon has at least been replaced with cotton, and the plimsolls with trainers. Not quite sure what that pair of black trainers are doing in the picture! Photos of this year’s ceremony suggest a better sartorial turn out.

I say modern druids because there is no convincing evidence that the modern fellowships of Druids can trace their origins back to prehistory. Druidry was reinvented in the 18th Century — for example, the Ancient Order of Druids was formed in 1781. They were set up as societies in the tradition of the Freemasons and with a belief in the fundamental importance of nature. However, the British Circle of the Universal Bond, claim descent from a group persecuted by the Bishop of Oxford in 1166. Look at their website for more details and for an idea of their beliefs.

As to when the Equinox first had importance for human society, the answer is, probably, at least as long as we have been reasoning creatures. On January 24th, I draw attention to a recent discovery suggesting evidence for a Palaeolithic Calendar. This is what I wrote:

But recently, evidence of a Palaeolithic Calendar has been uncovered by an ‘amateur’ studying markings in cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamira and other caves. Furniture maker Ben Bacon has collaborated with Professors at UCL and Durham and interpreted markings which suggest the use of a lunar calendar to mark the time of the year when particular animals gave birth. A Y shaped mark is interpreted as meaning ‘giving birth’ and the number of dots or dashes drawn by or in the outline of the animal or fish has been shown to coincide with the time of the year that the wild creature gives birth. For further details, follow this link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/

At Stonehenge, in the old Car Park, they found three huge Pine post-holes in a line, erected in the Mesolithic period. They align to the direction of the Mid-Summer Sunrise and Mid-Winter Sunset (NNE/SSW) IF, and it’s a big IF, you were sighting from Stonehenge itself, which was built some 5000 years in the future.

Imaginary reconstruction of the Carpark Postholes

It is a bit of a stretch using two pieces of evidence so far apart in time but recent excavations have revealed that there are, on the site of Stonehenge, natural periglacial striations in the soft chalk bedrock which themselves point to the Solstices. These not only predate Stonehenge but also the three post holes, and may well have been visible from the time they were created when the glaciers melted.

Around 12,000 years ago (date from my memory so approximate), the climate changed and the glaciers melted. This left a lot of water rushing around the landscape. At Stonehenge, it gouged out striations in the chalk. By chance, or as ordered by the Gods/Goddesses/Divine Nature, the striations pointed to the Solstice Axis, just at a place where the Gods/Goddesses/Divine Nature provided super-abundance in the guise of herds of Aurochs, which are huge wild cows. Richard Jacques excavations in the vicinity of Stonehenge have revealed that the aurochs came to the Stonehenge area for grazing and water. Each one had enough meat on them to feed 200 people. So, by 8,000 BC we have what might constitute proof of recognition of the significance of the major movements of the Sun.

Foreground shows the periglacial striations aligned on the Solstice. Source Current Archaeology?

This is confirmed by the alignment of many megalithic monuments dating from 3,600 BC onwards, including, of course, Stonehenge. Also, all around the UK are long barrows and other burial mounds, many of which are indeed sighted/sited E-W to the Equinoxes. Many are fairly approximate, but at Loughcrew, County Meath in Ireland the Vernal Equinox shines right into the burial chamber, onto a stone marked by stone carvings. Similar alignments are recorded at Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne Valley.

The Equinox also has another role, which is to be the anchor of the cardinal points – North, South, East, West, when there is a harmony, a balance in the world, and therefore a fortunate, a lucky time, a time to fall in love or undertake notable undertakings. Of course, as the Christian world awaits the commemoration of the death of the Messiah, marriage has to wait a little longer.

First Written in March 2023, and revised in March 2024

Lawrence Oates: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’  March 16th 1912

photograph taken by Kevin Flude of the display of Antarctic Explorer's Kit 1912 (reconstruction) at Gilbert White's House in Hampshire
Display of Antarctic Explorer’s Kit 1912 (reconstruction) at Gilbert White’s House in Hampshire

A few weeks ago I went to Gilbert White’s House in Selborne. The naturalist’s House also houses the Oates Museum for Lawrence ‘Titus Oates’ and his uncle Frank. Oates was one of the ‘heroes’ I read about as a child. He epitomised what was sold as the British virtues of pluck, self-sacrifice, restraint.

So, I have been seeking an opportunity to feature him and meant to post an entry from Scott’s Diary on 29th February to celebrate the Leap Year. But the piece of paper I had to remind me got buried. So here is part of the story of Oates self-sacrifice over the days from February 29th to March 16th:

Wednesday, February 29th 1912

Lunch. Cold night. Minimum Temp. -37.5°; -30° with north-west wind, force 4, when we got up. Frightfully cold starting; luckily Bowers and Oates in their last new finnesko; keeping my old ones for present. Expected awful march and for first hour got it. Then things improved and we camped after 5 1/2 hours marching close to lunch camp—22 1/2. Next camp is our depot and it is exactly 13 miles. It ought not to take more than 1 1/2 days; we pray for another fine one. The oil will just about spin out in that event, and we arrive 3 clear days’ food in hand. The increase of ration has had an enormously beneficial result. Mountains now looking small. Wind still very light from west—cannot understand this wind.

From Scott’s Polar Institute Web Site

A finnesko is ‘a boot of tanned reindeer skin with the hair on the outside’.

The next opportunity for the almanac was:

Monday, March 5th 1912

Lunch. Regret to say going from bad to worse. We got a slant of wind yesterday afternoon, and going on 5 hours we converted our wretched morning run of 3 1/2 miles into something over 9. We went to bed on a cup of cocoa and pemmican solid with the chill off. (R. 47.) The result is telling on all, but mainly on Oates, whose feet are in a wretched condition. One swelled up tremendously last night and he is very lame this morning. We started march on tea and pemmican as last night—we pretend to prefer the pemmican this way. Marched for 5 hours this morning over a slightly better surface covered with high moundy sastrugi. Sledge capsized twice; we pulled on foot, covering about 5 1/2 miles. We are two pony marches and 4 miles about from our depot. Our fuel dreadfully low and the poor Soldier nearly done. It is pathetic enough because we can do nothing for him; more hot food might do a little, but only a little, I fear. We none of us expected these terribly low temperatures, and of the rest of us Wilson is feeling them most; mainly, I fear, from his self-sacrificing devotion in doctoring Oates’ feet. We cannot help each other, each has enough to do to take care of himself. We get cold on the march when the trudging is heavy, and the wind pierces our warm garments. The others, all of them, are unendingly cheerful when in the tent. We mean to see the game through with a proper spirit, but it’s tough work to be pulling harder than we ever pulled in our lives for long hours, and to feel that the progress is so slow. One can only say ‘God help us!’ and plod on our weary way, cold and very miserable, though outwardly cheerful. We talk of all sorts of subjects in the tent, not much of food now, since we decided to take the risk of running a full ration. We simply couldn’t go hungry at this time.

From Scott’s Polar Institute Web Site

But March 16th was free in my almanac, so I have been preparing for this day!  Only to find that Scott may have got his dates wrong, so it should be the 17th.  But that’s St Patrick’s Day, so I’m going with the 16th.

Friday March 16th or March 17th 1912

Lost track of dates, but think the last correct. Tragedy all along the line. At lunch, the day before yesterday, poor Titus Oates said he couldn’t go on; he proposed we should leave him in his sleeping-bag. That we could not do, and induced him to come on, on the afternoon march. In spite of its awful nature for him he struggled on and we made a few miles. At night he was worse and we knew the end had come.

Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not – would not – give up hope to the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning – yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.

I take this opportunity of saying that we have stuck to our sick companions to the last. In case of Edgar Evans, when absolutely out of food and he lay insensible, the safety of the remainder seemed to demand his abandonment, but Providence mercifully removed him at this critical moment. He died a natural death, and we did not leave him till two hours after his death. We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit, and assuredly the end is not far.

I can only write at lunch and then only occasionally. The cold is intense, -40º at midday. My companions are unendingly cheerful, but we are all on the verge of serious frostbites, and though we constantly talk of fetching through I don’t think anyone of us believes it in his heart.

We are cold on the march now, and at all times except meals. Yesterday we had to lay up for a blizzard and to-day we move dreadfully slowly. We are at No. 14 pony camp, only two pony marches from One Ton Depot. We leave here our theodolite, a camera, and Oates’ sleeping-bags. Diaries, &c., and geological specimens carried at Wilson’s special request, will be found with us or on our sledge.

photo of the display at Gilbert White's House Selborne
From the display at Gilbert White’s House, in Selborne Hampshire

How much Oates story is tarnished by discoveries published in 2002, I will leave you to read here.

John Evelyn’s Death 27th February 1706

27th February, 1661. Ash Wednesday. Preached before the King the Bishop of London (Dr. Sheldon) on Matthew xviii. 25, concerning charity and forgiveness.

John Evelyn’s Diary from https://www.gutenberg.org/

John Evelyn is, with Pepys and Wren, one of the great figures of 17th Century London.  Unlike Pepys he was an avowed Royalist who hated Oliver Cromwell and all he stood for.  He went into exile with his King and gives a great description of Paris (see below).  Dr Sheldon, the Bishop of London mentioned above, went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury, and being a friend of Wren’s Father, commissioned Wren to build the Sheldonian Theatre, in Oxford.

Like Pepys, he was a diarist and a writer. And they, like Wren, were alumni of the Royal Society, one of the great scientific societies. John Evelyn was a founding fellow. It was innovative in that it employed an experimenter, Robert Hooke – one of the great early Scientists and it encouraged scientists to write up, for peer review, their theories. This is the foundation of western Science, and a bedrock of the Enlightenment.

Frontispiece of ‘the History of the Royal-Society of London by Thomas Sprat

Evelyn was a prolific traveller and a polymath. He wrote on the need to improve London’s architecture and air in Fumifugium (or The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated). And was an expert on trees writing: Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees (1664). He lived at Sayes Court in Depford near Greenwich, which he ill-advisedly rented to Peter the Great of Russia. Letting to Peter was a bit like inviting a 1960s Rock Band to trash your mansion.

Here is an extract from his Furmifugium. It has a place in my history because, in the 1980’s I worked on a project to create an interactive history of London, financed by Warner Brothers, and in cooperation with something called the ‘BBC Interactive TV Unit’. One part of it was a Literary Tour of London, and this is where I came across John Evelyn using several of the quotations on this page.

That this Glorious and Antient City, which from Wood might be rendred Brick, and (like another Rome) from Brick made Stone and Marble; which commands the Proud Ocean to the Indies, and reaches to the farthest Antipo­des, should wrap her stately head in Clowds of Smoake and Sulphur, so full of Stink and Dark­nesse, I deplore with just Indignation.

That the Buildings should be compos’d of such a Congestion of mishapen and extravagant Houses; That the Streets should be so narrow and incommodious in the very Center, and busiest places of Intercourse: That there should be so ill and uneasie a form of Paving under foot, so troublesome and malicious a disposure of the Spouts and Gutters overhead, are particulars worthy of Reproof and Reforma­tion; because it is hereby rendred a Labyrinth in its principal passages, and a continual Wet-day after the Storm is over.

Here is a taste of Evelyn’s time as an Exile, this is a short extract from a long entry on the splendid Palaces in and around Paris.

27th February, 1644. Accompanied with some English gentlemen, we took horse to see St. Germains-en-Laye, a stately country house of the King, some five leagues from Paris. By the way, we alighted at St. Cloud, where, on an eminence near the river, the Archbishop of Paris has a garden, for the house is not very considerable, rarely watered and furnished with fountains, statues,[and groves; the walks are very fair; the fountain of Laocoon is in a large square pool, throwing the water near forty feet high, and having about it a multitude of statues and basins, and is a surprising object. But nothing is more esteemed than the cascade falling from the great steps into the lowest and longest walk from the Mount Parnassus, which consists of a grotto, or shell-house, on the summit of the hill, wherein are divers waterworks and contrivances to wet the spectators; this is covered with a fair cupola, the walls painted with the Muses, and statues placed thick about it, whereof some are antique and good. In the upper walks are two perspectives, seeming to enlarge the alleys, and in this garden are many other ingenious contrivances.

John Evelyn’s Diary from https://www.gutenberg.org/

When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, this is Evelyn’s reaction:

May 29th 1660:

This day came in his Majestie Charles the 2d to London after a sad, and long exile… this was also his birthday, and with a Triumph of above 20,000 horse and foote, brandishing their swords and shouting with unexpressable joy; the wayes strawed with flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with Tapisry, fountains running with wine: ‘

‘The mayor, Aldermen, all the companies in their liveries, chaines of gold, banners, Lords and nobles, cloth of Silver, gold and velvet every body clad in, the windows and balconies all set with Ladys, Trumpetes, Musik, and myriads of people … All this without one drop of bloud …it was the Lords doing…

For Evelyn’s opinion of Cromwell have a look at this post of mine:

Stanley Green, the Protein Man of Oxford Street February 22nd

Stanley Green, the Protein Man, in Oxford Street, London, 1977 CC by 4.0 Deed

I was failing to find anything of significance to post (an Ordinary Day as Ovid calls them), when I came across a London Walks post about Stanley Green. Green was born on 22nd February in 1915. Most people who lived in London, knew of him, as he was, always to be seen patrolling Oxford Street and other Central London Streets with his placard. He was a one-man campaign to warn people that protein was a factor in promoting Lust, and Lust was a bad thing. He campaigned, religiously, from 1969 to 1993, when he died.

Whether you agree with his views or not it doesn’t diminish the impact an ordinary person had on an entire City. For more about him, including a podcast, have a look at the London Walks page here:

Another one man campaigner, Mr Stop Brexit, Steve Bray, was to be seen outside Parliament, most days in 2018 and 2019 and continues to campaign. He perfected various photobombing techniques so that he would appear in the background in interviews of prominent Brexit campaigners, or was heard over his megaphone. He is from Splott in Wales, and said he lost all his friends because they supported Brexit.

Steve Bray, also known as Stop Brexit Man. (Wikipedia CC0)
Steve Bray, also known as Stop Brexit Man. (Wikipedia CC0)

Here, you can see him upstaging one of the people who ruined this country, the dreadful Jacob Rees-Mogg

I must admit, I briefly considered dedicating my life to attending events Jacob Rees-Mogg spoke at, and shouting ‘Brexit Opportunities! That went well didn’t it?’ and collapsing in ironic laughter.