Category Archives: Historical fiction

Kindle preparation part 2 – the files

Contents of epub file
Contents of epub file

Last time I looked at the basic principles of a Kindle mobi or general epub file. This time I’ll be focusing a bit more on what the different ingredients do. We’ll also start to uncover a few more places where Kindle and epub handle things differently. For reference, here is a sample set of files you need for an epub book – Kindle is essentially the same but some “administrative” bits are inserted automatically by KindleGen so you don’t need to worry.

Somebody who uses Microsoft Word or some similar software to construct their book may find the following paragraphs confusing, since they will probably never have needed to address this directly. But under the bonnet this is what is happening with your book preparation, and many years of technical software and QA work has convinced me it’s better to know rather than not know. At very least this may help diagnose when something goes wrong!

Preamble / metadata section of opf file
Preamble / metadata section of opf file

So, the key ingredient is the opf file which ties everything together. It has four main sections. The first is Metadata – a general information section containing things like author name, book title, publisher, ISBN (if any), price, brief description, and so on. The kind of detail you might expect to see on a library card or catalogue entry. I’ll be giving specific examples of the different files later in this series but for now want to concentrate on principles rather than details. There are also some important places where you have to ensure that a reference in one place matches one somewhere else – again, I’ll return to this.

Manifest section of opf file
Manifest section of opf file

The second section is a list of resources – the Manifest. For epub this must be complete, and although KindleGen is clever enough to fill in some gaps, it is good practice to be thorough here as well. So this identifies all content files, any separate style sheets, all images including cover, the ncx navigation file, and anything else you intend to include. But it’s a simple list, like the ingredients for a recipe before you get to the directions, and this section doesn’t tell KindleGen or an epub reader how to assemble the items into a book.

Spine section of opf file
Spine section of opf file

The third section – the Spine – does this work of assembly. It lists the items that a reader will encounter in their correct order. This section turns your simple list of included items into a proper sequence, so that chapter two comes after chapter one. Here you also link in the ncx file so it can do its job.

Guide section of opf file
Guide section of opf file

The final section – the Guide – defines key global features of the finished book. For example, this is where you define the cover, the HTML contents page, and the start point – the place where the book opens for the very first time, and the target for the navigation command “Go to Beginning” (or equivalent). It’s worth remembering that the start point doesn’t have to be the first page – many books set this after the front matter, so that you skip over title pages and such like and begin at the beginning of the actual story. But be warned that following a scam to do with counts of pages read, Amazon does not take kindly to people putting the start point too far through the book.

epub treatment of png and gif transparency
epub treatment of png and gif transparency

Images can cause unexpected problems. The opf file expects you to supply not just a file name, but also the file type, such as jpeg, png or gif. And here we encounter one of those annoying differences between devices. Kindle accepts png files along with jpeg and gif, and many people are used to the convenient feature of the png format that it allows transparency. A png with transparency will – usually – take on the background from whatever happens to be behind it, like the page background for example. An epub file will do exactly this if you use coloured background.

Kindle treatment of png and gif transparency
Kindle treatment of png and gif transparency

But KindleGen does not. You can supply a png file successfully, but internally it will be converted to jpeg format… and jpegs do not allow transparency. The background will be converted to white, and the final effect will not be what you hoped for. The way round this is to use gif images if you want transparency, but since this is an old format many people do not suspect that this is necessary.

Now, sometimes this won’t matter – for example if you want to insert a map, and have it look as though it is on white paper. But other times it looks decidedly odd, when it is intended to be just a logo or divider symbol. It’s a thing which particularly catches out those who are used to printed books, or older Kindles which only supported black-and-white. It’s not very long since I discovered this hidden conversion png -> jpeg that KindleGen does, and as a result expanded my pre-publication testing considerably.

A couple of closing comments about the files themselves. The contents files ought to be valid HTML – this sounds obvious, but most browsers, and KindleGen, are very forgiving about syntax errors, so people often forget to be careful. But although the output file may be generated, such errors can lead to surprising changes of appearance between paragraphs. It is good practice to use the w3.org online validator to check this – it’s completely free, and will either confirm that the file is valid or else tell you what’s wrong and how to fix it. Alternatively, once you have built an epub file, the free epubcheck utility will do a similar job as one of its several checks. (I’ll come back to epubcheck when I talk about building an epub file). Other than that, you are at liberty to split up content however you like – all in a single file, or one per chapter, or whatever. It’s up to whatever you find convenient (though a few epub apps load just one file at a time so you might notice a slight delay every now and again while reading).

Goodreads annual stats and other things

A quick blog today, focusing on a couple of things. First, like most of us, my annual Goodreads statistics appeared, telling me what I had read in 2016 (or at least, what GR knew about, which is a fair proportion of what really happened).

Cover - The Recognition of Shakuntala (Goodreads)
Cover – The Recognition of Shakuntala (Goodreads)

So, I read 52 books in the year, up 10 from 2015 (and conveniently one a week). but the page count was down very slightly. I guess I’m reading shorter books on average! Slightly disappointingly, there were very few books more than about 50 years old, with Kalidasa’s Recognition of Shakuntala the outstanding early text. This year, I have a target of reading more old stuff alongside the new. In 2016 there was also more of a spread of genres, with roughly equal proportions of historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction (aka “geeky”), contrasting with previous years where historical fiction has dominated.

I also recently read that Amazon passed the landmark of 5 million ebooks on their site in the summer, slightly ahead of the 10th birthday of the Kindle itself. The exact number varies per country – apparently Germany has more – but currently the number is growing at about 17% per annum. That’s a lot of books… about 70,000 new ones per month, in fact. Let nobody think that reading is dead! As regards fiction, Romance and Children’s books top the counts, which I suspect will come as a surprise to nobody.

Finally, we have just had a space-related anniversary, namely that of the successful landing of the ESA Huygens probe on Saturn’s moon Titan on January 14th 2005. An extraordinary video taken as it descended has been circulating recently and I am happy to reshare it. Meanwhile the Cassini “mothership” is in the last stages of its own research mission and, with fuel almost exhausted, will be directed to burn up in Saturn’s atmosphere later this year. I vividly remember the early mission reports as Cassini went into orbit around Saturn – it’s a bit sad to think of the finale, but this small spacecraft has returned a wealth of information since being launched in 1997, and in particular since arriving at Saturn in 2004.

(Video link is https://youtu.be/msiLWxDayuA?list=PLTiv_XWHnOZpKPaDTVy36z0U8GxoiIkZa)

Celebrations

Christmas pudding and whisky
Christmas pudding and whisky

It’s a time of the year when we think about celebrations. Midwinter is an important time for several different religious reasons, but nowadays the main focus is on family and social events. To some extent, the spiritual roots of the festival as a time when new beginnings are stirring in the darkness of the year – at least, for those of us living in the northern hemisphere – have been overlaid with a focus on much more immediate pleasures. We meet as families, we eat and drink, we play games. In many workplaces the office party provides an arena in which normal hierarchies can be set aside for a while.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival, Thailand (Photo by Justin Ng)
Yi Peng Lantern Festival, Thailand (Photo by Justin Ng)

My guess is that even at times when religious observance was more common than now, these more visceral elements were still an important part of the winter festival. Human beings may be rational animals (the saying goes back to Aristotle, some 350 years BC) but we are also playing animals, and fun-loving animals. Go back through the sacred calendars of the world’s religions, and you will find plenty of opportunities to celebrate as well as be solemn. Hardship and deprivation hardly ever erase the human desire to make meaning by way of groupish events.

Of course, the very same things which make an event good for one person might be difficult or painful for another. The celebrations that a group of people chooses can serve to reinforce difference, rather than undo such barriers. We may be good at finding causes to celebrate, but we’re also good at finding ways to include and exclude others from our celebrations. It would be nice to think that opportunities for inclusion might outweigh exclusion as we move forwards.

I see the act of celebration as one of the great unifying threads holding humanity together, whether you look back into the remote past or forward into the distant future. Whichever of these I am writing about, there will always be group events! However challenging the times, however alien the setting, it’s hard to imagine a society which has no provision for communal events.

The M31 Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object easily visible to the naked eye, NASA/JPL
The M31 Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object easily visible to the naked eye, NASA/JPL

Kindle Countdown offer – historical fiction

Cover - In a Milk and Honeyed Land
Cover – In a Milk and Honeyed Land

I was nearly set up to start a series of blogs on Kindle formatting, having been reading a lot about that recently. But those aren’t quite ready yet, so instead I am just advertising that a Kindle Countdown offer is now running on my historical fiction series.
So all this week, up until Monday 12th, you will find the following books at reduced price on the Amazon UK and US stores;

 

In a Milk and Honeyed Land

Scenes from a Life

The Flame Before Us

 

Thin slices of intelligence – meet the bot ‘Blakeley Raise’

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

The first part of this blog talks about background, so if you’re keen to read instead about my new chat-bot Blakeley Raise, just skip down a few paragraphs… I’m very excited about Blakeley Raise, and hope you’ll check out the new possibilities. If you can’t wait to give it a go, click here.

So, the background… I had the great pleasure of going to the technical day of the Microsoft  London Future Decoded conference last week. It was packed with all kinds of interesting stuff – far too much to take in in the course of a single day, in fact. There were cool presentations of 3d technology – the new Hololens device, enhanced ways to visualise 3d objects within a computer, and how 3d printing is shaking up some parts of the manufacturing industry. And lots of other stuff.

HAL 9000 from 2001 - A Space Odyssey (Wiki)
HAL 9000 from 2001 – A Space Odyssey (Wiki)

But it all threatened to be a bit overwhelming, so I kept my focus quite narrow and stayed mostly with the AI stream of presentations. Top level summary: Slate (in Far from the Spaceports and Timing) has no need to worry about the competition just yet, but there is some really interesting work going on. It will take a lot of generations for Slate to emerge! But the work that is being done is genuinely exciting, and a mixture of faster hardware, reliable communications, and good programming practice means that some tasks are now trickling into general everyday use.

One speaker used the phrase “slices of intelligence” to capture this, recognising that real intelligence involves not only a capacity to learn tasks and communicate visually and in words, but also to reflect on success and failure, set new challenges and move into new environments, interact with others, be aware of moral and ethical dimensions of an action, and so on. We are a very long way from producing artificial intelligence which can do most of that.

Blakeley Raise icon
Blakeley Raise icon

But within particular slices lots of progress has been made. Natural language parsing is now tolerably good rather than being merely laughable. Face recognition, including both identity and emotion, is reasonably accurate – though the site http://how-old.net/ produces such a vast range of potential ages from different pictures of the same person that one can be both flattered and disappointed very quickly (give it a try and you will soon find the limitations of the art at present). On a philanthropic note, image recognition software has been used to provide blind people with a commentary of interesting things in their immediate neighbourhood: see the YouTube snip at the end of this blog.

Kinninside Stone Circle at Blakeley Raise, Cumbria (Wiki)
Kinninside Stone Circle at Blakeley Raise, Cumbria (Wiki)

Here’s the bit about Blakeley Raise… For those of us who develop our own software, it is an exciting time. It is extremely easy now to develop a small program called a chat-bot which can be incorporated not just into web pages, but also message applications like Skype, Facebook Messenger, and a host of others. So inspired by all this I have started developing Blakeley Raise, a bot who is designed to introduce potential readers to my books. You can think of Blakeley Raise as a great-great-ancestor of Slate herself, if you like, though I don’t think Slate will be feeling anxious about the competition for a long time yet.

But one of the great things about these bots is that they can be endlessly reconfigured and upgraded. Right now, Blakeley Raise just works by recognising keywords and responding accordingly. Type in “Tell me about Timing” – or another sentence containing the word “Timing” and you’ll get some information about that book. To find out more, navigate your browser to http://www.kephrath.com/trial/BlakeleyRaise.aspx and see what happens. All being well – meaning if I can solve a few technical problems – Blakeley Raise will soon appear on other distribution channels as well. (For those who remember the episode where a Microsoft bot quickly learned how to repeat racist and other inflammatory material, don’t worry – Blakeley Raise does not learn like that)

Finally, here’s a video of one of the more philanthropic spinoffs from Microsoft’s enthusiasm about AI in practical use…

 

Guest blog at Dawlish Chronicles – South-West England’s Gigs

This is a guest blog I wrote for Antoine Vanner’s Dawlish Chronicles – follow the link for the original in context. The part at the end where I talk about Dawlish refers to Antoine’s protagonist, Nicholas Dawlish, who is a Royal Naval officer in the latter part of the 19th century. I have reviewed several of his books before, and am looking forward to reading the latest, Britannia’s Amazon, available now in paperback and shortly in Kindle.

Antoine has kindly given me space today to talk about gigs and their use in south-west England, specifically the Scilly Isles and Cornwall. So far as I am aware these have never been used in war, but their history is no less exciting or varied for that.

Gig Lyonnesse on St Agnes
Gig Lyonnesse on St Agnes

First, what is a gig in this context? Picture something that looks roughly like a clinker-built rowing eight. Keel to gunwale depth is around two feet, and once crewed, the waterline is almost exactly at the mid-point. At 32′ long, just under 5′ beam, but with elm planks only 1/4″ thick, the boat is light enough that the crew can pick her up and carry her into the water. Many years of experience mean that a gig has been built robustly enough to take on the Atlantic swell, despite the apparent flimsiness.

Like an eight, each oarsman has a single oar, and they sit to row alternately port and starboard facing the cox’n. But curiously, they have only six rowers, reflecting part of their history. A mast and lugsail could be fitted if desired, though in commercial practice this was rarely done. They are fast, tough little boats, and at one stage played a crucial role in the economic livelihood of the islands. Today they have retired from commercial use, but have found a new lease of life in competitive sport. The annual world gig racing championship is held on Scilly every April/May. In 2016 it attracted more than 150 boats from many different countries.

Some of the 3000+ rowers in the 2016 races (ITV West Country)
Some of the 3000+ rowers in the 2016 races (ITV West Country)

We can trace the history of the gig back to 1666 at least, when vessels from St Mary’s were involved in rescuing the crew of the Royal Oak, wrecked out at what is now the Bishop Rock lighthouse. We have no reason to suppose there were not earlier vessels of essentially the same pattern. All modern gigs are based on the lines of an early 19th century design by William Peters. They had two principal uses, the main one being to get local pilots out to incoming ships as quickly as possible. Whoever got there first got the contract, hence the need for speed. Scilly was one of the major landmarks for vessels inbound from the western trade routes, but the seas are treacherous here, with countless rocks and reefs. Even with modern navigation aids they are hazardous: how much more so in former days? So families or village groups would aim to spot new arrivals as early as possible, and get out to them as quickly as possible.

The St Agnes gig, Shah
The St Agnes gig, Shah

The other use, more humanitarian than commercial, was as a kind of early lifeboat system. Gig crews over the years have saved a great many lives by going out – frequently in horrendous weather – to rescue crews and passengers suffering shipwreck. Cargo could also be brought back, and an 1887 rescue of 450 cattle from the Castleford involved lashing the animals’ heads and horns to the sides of the gigs Gipsy and O&M, and towing them to a handy nearby island! Such rescues were fearfully dangerous acts, and the churches on Bryher, St Agnes and elsewhere remember many who never returned.

Now, gigs came to the attention of the revenue authorities, who suspected that they had a third use – for smuggling. Certainly they would have been capable of it, with their proven seagoing capability. Even the Cornish coast was within a day from the Scilly Isles for a good crew – the 40-odd mile trip to Penzance typically takes under 10 hours, and Newquay was within comfortable reach. Gigs could easily make the 250-mile round trip to France’s Breton coast by staying out at sea for a day or so, and were robust enough to cope. Bonnet (of which more later) rode out a thirty-hour storm on one such trip by keeping head to wind until conditions improved. A good crew can sustain speeds of around 7 knots, but speeds of nearly 10 knots have been recorded over a measured mile with racing crews rowing at 40 strokes per minute. But therein lay a problem – an eight-oared gig was faster than the customs cutters of the time. This was clearly unacceptable, so a law was passed in 1829 limiting the crew to no more than six oars per boat.

Time passed, and both piloting and rescue ceased to be the responsibility of the islanders. The last recorded pilotage was in December 1938, when the Bryher boat Gipsy went out from St Agnes. As for rescue, the last known one was of the Panamanian steamship Mando in 1955. For a time, it seemed possible that gigs in the traditional sense would die out. Some of the older craft were laid up in storage, others suffered the usual fate of wooden boats which are not constantly cared for.

Bonnet pulling ahead of Golden Eagle
Bonnet pulling ahead of Golden Eagle

Then competitive racing emerged, giving a new lease of life to the design. Informal races had been part of gig culture for a long time: now it has become organised. Inter-island men’s, women’s and mixed races take place weekly during the tourist season, quite apart from the challengers coming from further afield. And here, the robust nature of the vessels is once again proved. Bonnet still races today – she was built in 1830 and had a long and busy working life. She is heavier than her modern siblings, but if there’s a bit of a sea this might not be a disadvantage. Back in August, I saw her beat a dozen other boats to win her race. The Cornish gig Newquay was built back in 1812, and is claimed to be the oldest ship afloat which is still being used for broadly the same purpose as when she was made. Appropriately, she is owned by the Newquay Rowing Club, who also look after Dove (1820) and Treffry (1838) – all still racing.

So, this brings us to Antoine’s own protagonist, the naval officer Nicholas Dawlish, and the timeline set out for his life. Bonnet had been working for 15 years when Dawlish was born in December 1845, and for over fifty years at the time of Britannia’s Spartan. There’s a fair chance that Newquay was built before Dawlish’s father was born. On the assumption that Dawlish passed the Scillies at some stage during early career – and it would be wildly improbable if he had not had cause to see them at close quarters – he would have seen gigs in active commercial use. I wonder, with his eye for design, if he took the time to appreciate their blend of speed, strength and elegance?

Finally, for those who want to look at videos, this video has the 2016 men’s final and lots of links to other clips:

 

When the earth moves under your feet

Today’s blog was written as a guest post at The Review.

In Britain, we’re used to history – and historical fiction books – where the terrain is basically the same as today. The human presence on the surface might well change, so that towns and cities grow, old buildings turn to ruins, rough tracks turn into railway lines, and so on. Or we might alter the clothing of vegetation – marshes are drained, forests felled, or fertile land turns to peaty bog. But we generally feel here in England that the bones of the landscape itself remain the same on a human timescale. We expect the land to change form only over geological timescales.

Mt St Helens before and after (USGS images)
Mt St Helens before and after (USGS images)

Other people though, in other parts of the world, have a different expectation. Earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis can not only cause loss of life or damage to property, but can reshape the terrain. Mount St Helens was reckoned to be one of the most attractive of the Pacific Rim volcanic cones until May 18th 1980, when the eruption removed over 1/8 of the volume of the former cone. Iceland gained a new island in November 1963, when Surtsey emerged from the waves as a result of subterranean action.

But often we Brits think of that as something which happens in other lands. But actually there are signs of change in counties like Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Near to Cromer, several villages named in the Domesday Book or other more recent records are now up to half a kilometre out to sea. There is evidence that the Lincolnshire coast was, until the 13th century, protected by a chain of offshore barrier islands. The demise of these in a series of storm surges drastically altered the coastline and its vulnerability to the sea. But despite these signs here in our own land that our not-so-distant ancestors walked across a different landscape, it takes a bit of adjustment.

The geology is quite straightforward. During the last ice age, a little over 10,000 years ago, a hugely heavy layer of ice pressed the land downwards, to a greater degree in the colder north than the warmer south. When the ice melted, two things happened. The sea level rose because of extra water. But also the land shifted. The land in places where the ice had been heaviest started to lift up. Outside that, further south, it started to sink down. Try placing a heavy book on a soft cushion and you’ll see the effect in action.

Now, 8000 BC is not all that long ago, really – the Neolithic Age, and so the beginnings of recognisably complex society started not all that much later, around 5000 BC. And although the vertical movement of land in any one year is tiny – perhaps a few millimetres – over the course of a century it adds up. Our Neolithic and Bronze Age ancestors in some parts of the country experienced quite different terrain.

Aerial view of the Scilly Isles (Wiki)
Aerial view of the Scilly Isles (Wiki)

In the north, where the land has lifted, we find settlements which used to be on the coast now stranded well above the waterline. Stone circles at the southern end of Coniston Water, in Cumbria, used to be close to an arm of the sea reaching in from Morecambe Bay, but are now over five miles from the coast.

But in the far south, in the Scilly Isles, we see an even more dramatic change as the land sinks down. During the Bronze Age, when many of the prehistoric monuments were being built, there was basically a single large island. Around that, especially to the west, there were a few scattered outposts including what we now call St Agnes, Annet, and the Western Isles. The whole central area, now a submerged area in which quite large vessels can anchor if they find the deep patches, was then a fertile plain supporting crops and animals.

Tidally submerged field wall, Samson, Scilly Isles
Tidally submerged field wall, Samson, Scilly Isles

All that has gone – perhaps spawning tales of Lyonesse or Atlantis – but its passing has been recorded in history. Even now, low tide allows careful explorers to go well beyond the shoreline, disturbing herons and other wading birds browsing what has been left in the seaweed and rock pools. You pass by the remains of stone walls which presumably served as boundary markers, but are now submerged much of the time. At especially low spring and autumn tides, tall people can still cross between most of the islands without swimming – so long as you know where the sand bars and shallow patches are.

As well as simply projecting backwards the change in sea level, at a rate of 30 centimetres per century, we can look back at history. We know that in 1127, Tresco and Bryher were still a single island, with the two names referring simply to internal parish divisions. By 1600 they were separate, and the Grimsby Sound between them had become a sheltered haven for ships. The transition did not take many generations, and you have to wonder what the occupants made of the stories of their ancestors.The central area between St Mary’s and the northern cluster of islands probably flooded around 6-700AD. On the other side of the country, ship burials were happening at Sutton Hoo.

But a change of 30 centimetres per century disguises the more dramatic way in which these events unfolded. This figure comes into perspective when you remember that the tidal range in a big spring tide on Scilly is around six metres. During a winter storm, waves coming across the Atlantic sometimes break over the top of the Bishop Rock lighthouse, some fifty metres high. The changes to separate island from island have not always been the result of a steady trickle of rising water; some will have been dramatic, cataclysmic events.

Samson, Scilly Isles - still one island at present...
Samson, Scilly Isles – still one island at present…

This continues to happen today. It used to be reckoned that there were 146 islands in the archipelago, where an island is defined as a body of land separated at high tide and able to support vegetation of some kind. A few winters ago, this became 147, when a severe storm broke through a thin land bridge at Rushy Bay, Bryher, and converted a peninsula into an island. You look at some places as you walk around, and wonder how long they will remain attached.

From a fictional point of view, these kinds of gradual changes to the land itself offer a new storytelling dimension. Authors have explored – and I hope will continue to explore – sudden changes like the eruption of Vesuvius, or various earthquakes. Gradual change has not, I think, been used nearly so often. It could perhaps make for an interesting historical plot based on prehistoric Doggerland, in today’s North Sea. Or a speculative fiction story where diminishing land serves as a variation on resource failure. It’s worth remembering that the terrain we see today is not eternally fixed – even in this green and pleasant land – and has its own changing history.

Timing now available on preorder

Timing Kindle cover 480x640
Timing – Kindle cover

Well, Timing, the sequel to Far from the Spaceports, is now available on preorder from Amazon stores worldwide. Release day is October 14th so there’s not long to wait. Paperback copies will be available at round about the same time but I don’t have an exact date yet.

It’s set about a year on from the end of Spaceports, and begins out at the group of asteroids called the Scilly Isles. But there’s more solar system travel this time around including, as the cover would suggest, a trip to Mars and the larger of its two moons, Phobos.

Preorder links are:

To celebrate this release, all my previous novels are going on Amazon countdown offer from 14th. The length of time varies for each depending on Amazon’s rules for such things – but on 14th you can get not only Far from the Spaceports, but also the historical novels In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes from a Life, and The Flame Before Us all at reduced prices.

Meanwhile, here are links to an author reading on YouTube (and Daily Motion in case the You Tube one has not yet distributed). It’s the same reading at both sites but more will be uploaded before too long…

 

Buttermere, Rannerdale and the Norman Conquest

There’s a lot of interest in the Norman Conquest just now, what with the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings approaching. So I thought I’d post about a loosely related event up in the Lake District, in the adjoining valleys of Buttermere and Rannerdale. Today’s Buttermere is a quiet and peaceful spot, with only a small scattering of houses set along the valley. Rannerdale itself is entirely unpopulated.

Buttermere and Crummock Water from below Fleetwith Pike
Buttermere and Crummock Water from below Fleetwith Pike

Back in the 11th and 12th centuries, however, they are said to have been a centre of Cumbrian resistance to the Norman invaders. Northern England tried to prevent assimilation into Norman rule, and suffered very considerably by way of reprisals. Cumbria was at this time considered part of Scotland – this lasted until the mid 1200s – and its population derived heavily from Viking stock. It seems that there was no appetite for submitting to William the Conqueror or his representatives here.

So – allegedly – resistance focused around a man called Jarl Buthar, who established for himself a secure defensive position (some say that the name Buttermere is a corruption of Buthar’s Mere). It’s a good place to defend – if you don’t know the area, or you’re trying to move in with a substantial body of troops, there are not many options. You can come round the outside of the Cumbrian fells, requiring a long march and exposing your supply chain to endless harassment. Or you can try coming over what we now call the Honister Pass, a difficult and rugged journey which again leaves you at the mercy of those who know the land better. The side walls of the valley containing Buttermere and Crummock Water are out of the question.

From Buttermere towards Haystacks
From Buttermere towards Haystacks

So there Buthar dug himself in and conducted a guerilla war for the better part of 50 years. The Domesday Book of 1086 says nothing about the area, and we have to presume that it remained at liberty. Norman nobles tried several times to break in, but the region was only secured and subdued in the 12th century

Rannerdale from Whiteless Breast with Crummock Water beyond
Rannerdale from Whiteless Breast with Crummock Water beyond

Which brings us to Rannerdale (Ragnar’s Dale). As I mentioned, today it is a quiet offshoot from the main valley, nestling under the slopes of Whiteless Pike and Grasmoor. It is best known for a spectacular crop of bluebells, which unusually grow out in the open here rather than in woodland. But according to rumour it was the place where Buthar lured a group of Normans led by Ranulph les Meschines and then slaughtered them in an ambush. The bluebells originated from the blood of the fallen.

How much of the tale is truth and how much legend? It has to be said that archaeologists are sceptical of the account, largely through lack of supporting evidence, and a common idea is that it is a romanticised version of the last stand of the Cumbrians against the unstoppable Normans. Be that as it may, it has triggered at least two work of fiction – The Secret Valley: The Real Romance of Unconquered Lakeland, by Nicholas Size in 1930, and Shield Ring, by Rosemary Sutcliff in 1956.

When you have finished exploring it, there are the more sedentary delights of Buttermere Village, including Syke Farm with its splendid icecream and other menu items…

 

Smugglers!

Before I begin, I should mention that Far from the Spaceports is on special Kindle offer for the week starting June 29th. Prices start at £0.99 UK, or $0.99 US, and increase over the course of the week – get in early for the best deal.

OK… now for smuggling.

Robin Hood's Bay, looking south
Robin Hood’s Bay, looking south

Smuggling is one of those human activities which spring up with great regularity. The high profile cases are usually those with the most reprehensible of moral dimensions, such as drugs, weapons, or people. But all kinds of very ordinary commodities get smuggled wherever the potential reward outweighs the risk. I recently visited Robin Hood’s Bay, in North Yorkshire, which was a major centre of smuggling during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Smuggling arises when rulers and governments artificially inflate the price of a good by means of tariffs. Sometimes this is done for reasons of security or national health, where the people at large may well have some level of acceptance of the tax. Alcohol or cigarettes are today’s health examples, and taxes on petrol can be justified by environmental protection. But historically, tariffs have also been applied to quite ordinary products, as a way to boost government revenues.

Jamaica Inn sign, Wiki
Jamaica Inn sign, Wiki

Popular sympathy soon drains away when the motives appear to be purely acquisitive. People begin to find creative ways to avoid the tax, and smuggling begins. At its simplest, smuggling is just an equation – getting some item into the country, past the revenue officers, and into the hands of a customer has a certain level of cost. If the customer is willing to pay enough to meet that cost, with a dollop extra to cover the risk, it’s worth it. Meanwhile, the customer wants the savings made by avoiding the taxes to be big enough to cover their own anxiety about being found out. If the equation works, everybody’s happy. Except for the revenue officers. It all depends on the relative costs, compared with the likelihood of detection. It has often been big business. In the late 18th century, one moralising pamphlet lamented about the thousands of men turning from respectable trades to smuggling, presumably finding it more lucrative.

Robin Hood's Bay town quay from the beach
Robin Hood’s Bay town quay from the beach

Now I had known from years ago about smuggling which went on through the counties along the south coast, from Cornwall to Kent, taking advantage of the short Channel crossing. Kipling’s poem “brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk” comes from there – Kipling had strong associations with Sussex. The poem highlights not only the trade itself but also the way people from all levels of society took part in it. But I had never heard that there was a thriving trade going through Yorkshire!

But yes, it seems that Robin Hood’s Bay was a real centre for smuggling, across the North Sea, especially from Holland. It was sufficiently serious that the government stationed a unit of dragoons there up until the 1830s, in a largely unsuccessful attempt to control it. My guess is that judicious backhanders helped the soldiers to look the other way sometimes.

Yorkshire Tea (Wiki)
Yorkshire Tea (Wiki)

The trade through Robin Hood’s Bay consisted of silk, tobacco, various strong drinks, and above all tea! Duty on tea was hiked several times during the 18th century, to finance the war effort of the British government. Tea could be bought for about 7d per pound in Holland (that’s 7 old pence, or about £0.03 after the currency change in 1971), but after taxes, and depending on quality, you could easily pay 50 times that. That’s a lot of margin to play with. Revenue efforts to control the trade were definitely an uphill struggle. It has been said that three quarters of all tea drunk in England during those years came into the country via smuggling. So when you drink a cup of Yorkshire Tea, spare a thought about this piece of history.

Robin Hood's Bay street
Robin Hood’s Bay street

Why Robin Hood’s Bay? Well, it was useful in several ways. There was good access from the sea, but the nearest major ports were some distance away. Once landed, the goods could be hidden or moved out on any of several routes across the North York Moors, where local knowledge was at a premium. Finally, the village itself is built on a steep bank coming up from the sea, with the houses packed tightly in to narrow twisting streets. It was said that a bolt of silk could be passed from house to house, using windows, tunnels or hidden hatches, without setting foot outdoors, from the shore all the way to the ridge above. All in all, an ideal place to shift contraband!

Robin Hood's Bay looking north
Robin Hood’s Bay looking north

The heyday of Robin Hood’s Bay smuggling was over by the 1850s. But tea smuggling had declined rather earlier, when the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger passed a bill slashing the tea tax from 119% to 12.5%. Overnight, the risk-reward equation changed. He recouped his government’s money via a window tax, leading to countless house windows up and down the country being bricked up – unpopular, to be sure, but not likely to lead to smuggling.

So far, I haven’t used smuggling in the plots of either my historical or science fiction. Something to explore in the future, perhaps. Since it happens so very often throughout history, I’m sure a smuggling plot could fit in either place.

To finish with, here’s a bit more of Kipling’s A Smuggler’s Song:

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark —
Brandy for the Parson,
Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling,
While the Gentlemen go by!