Category Archives: History

Thoughts along the Ridgeway

Ivinghoe Beacon
Ivinghoe Beacon

A few days ago I was walking in the Chiltern hills, at the north east end of The Ridgeway. This is often billed as Britain’s oldest road, and is known to have had some 5000 years of traffic going to and fro. I suspect that in fact usage goes back a lot further. Today’s Ridgeway (which is one of our National Trails) goes from Ivinghoe Beacon to Avebury (or the other way), and it is the central part of a really long route which at one time went from The Wash diagonally down to the English Channel. It is possible still to do that, by diligently joining together lots of separate paths – for example The Peddars Way gets you through large parts of East Anglia – but The Ridgeway is the section which is most generously provided with maps and signposts.

Walking on these ancient trackways always gives me a keen sense of those myriads of individuals who have walked that way before. It also invariably gives me a desire to write a story which somehow incorporates the network of paths, their very many fascinating way-stations, and the travellers themselves. But so far I have only a desire, not a plot or anything else substantial.

Part of the Avebury stone circle complex
Part of the Avebury stone circle complex

The Ridgeway is 87 miles long – in practice a little further as you have to come away from the track to find lodgings for the night, and then make your way back in the morning. It’s easy walking, and easy to finish in about a week, or else in a series of weekends with train journeys to and fro. And one of the great things about walking it is that you are covering the ground at the same rate as your remote ancestors. You’re seeing broadly the same terrain as they did (barring houses and a definite lack of trees), watching distant rises and dips in the ground approach at the same slow speed as they did, and experiencing the sun wheeling overhead from east to west in the same way.

Now, our ancestors had different motives for walking these paths than we do. We walk for recreation and inspiration, while for them, motives of trade, diplomacy, marriage, or religious festivity would be at the core. There are all kinds of monuments spread out along the paths. We understand the purpose of some of them, but others have become obscure. We wonder at the prodigious effort involved, but cannot any more grasp the function.

Wayland's Smithy, The Ridgeway
Wayland’s Smithy, The Ridgeway

It’s also worth remembering that the various sites and signs of occupancy spread out along the 90-odd miles of The Ridgeway, let alone the much longer distance of the whole route, are themselves spread out over time. It’s easy to forget this, and imagine that a Neolithic, or a Bronze Age traveller, would be seeing the same things as you are. But the reality is quite different. There are Neolithic sites like Wayland’s Smithy, dating from about 5-6000 years ago. There are Bronze Age sites like Avebury or the Uffington WHite Horse. To the people who built these – which are themselves separated by a great gulf of time – Wayland’s Smithy was already unthinkably old. Then there are Iron Age forts, ditches, and banks – and the builders of these would have lost all sense of the earlier constructions as living sites. They would simply have been relics from the past, part of the context of the new homes and sacred sites.

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

It was this sense of a multi-layered land which was part of the inspiration for Half Sick of Shadows. This did not take place along The Ridgeway, but in a winding river valley. A chalk scarp overlooked the river, and the various human homes nearby, but there are many parts of southern England where that could happen. So that story is not tied to The Ridgeway – but the idea of the land changing slowly, witnessing the rapid passage of generations, was absolutely there. And in that story, there is someone for whom the changes in the land itself seem quick.

One day, perhaps, I’ll write those other stories of the ancient world and its journeys. Meanwhile I shall continue to walk parts of the old paths, and gather ideas for the tales as I do so.

Variations on history

Last week I spoke about science fiction and fantasy, and the crossover world between them. Today I want to look at another genre which offers a twist on the normal world. Many of my author friends write historical fiction – stories based around real historical contexts or people.

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

My own series of Late Bronze books, which were my first real foray into writing books at all, fit neatly into that category. Kephrath, the town at the centre of those three books, is a real place, and the wider events fit in with one interpretation of the scanty historical record. The people I describe are credible for their place and time, but they are imaginary. Obviously I’d like Damariel, the village priest and seer, to have really lived in history, but we don’t know, and probably will never know for sure.

Now, by setting those books at the end of the Late Bronze Age – around 1200BC or so – I gave myself a huge advantage. This wasn’t my original motive: I simply liked that part of history and wanted to approach it in fiction. But the unexpected advantage is that our knowledge of that time is very scant.

Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)
Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)

Serious academic debates take place over how to understand particular texts, or how to reconcile apparent contradictions. The regnal dates of Egyptian pharaohs are often speculative by years or even decades (despite the seemingly definitive values often written in books or web pages), and that uncertainty multiplies when you look to other nations. Accurate details of anybody lower in rank than the most elite are extremely sparse. So I am writing in a place where fixed facts are scattered very sparsely.

Now many of my friends do not have this luxury. They are writing in places and times where recorded facts hem them in on all sides. Their stories are still fiction, but their characters often have little freedom of action in their densely packed surroundings.

This wouldn’t matter so much – after all, a story is a story, you’d think. But a small number of reviewers are ruthless in their critique of perceived anachronisms, and waste no opportunity to highlight them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy research along with everyone else – but one feels that such reviewers miss the point that they are, in fact, reading fiction. I am sure that this is a tiny minority of the total readership, but they seem to exert undue influence, certainly over the sensibilities and anxieties of authors.

I have every respect for authors who, despite these difficulties, persevere in writing about places and times that they thoroughly love. And I’m certainly not suggesting that those who write other kinds of books are simply trying to avoid trouble: all of us in the indie world write what we do because that’s what we want to write about! But it is interesting that there are other close relatives of historical fiction which avoid some of the pitfalls.

Cover - Pavane (Goodreads)
Cover – Pavane (Goodreads)

There’s alternate history – at some point in the past, events diverged from what we know. A classic of this kind is Pavane, by Keith Roberts, where the timeline branches with the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I. But there are many others – probably the best known to many readers of this blog will be Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series. History unfolds a bit like our own… but also a bit different, and depending on the intention of the author either the similarities or the differences can be centre stage. So long as the world is internally consistent and convincing – which is no simple job – it doesn’t really matter if the facts get , let us say, jumbled up.

Cover - The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)
Cover – The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)

Another option is historical fantasy – a setting from history is chosen, but with a twist. The twist can be to take seriously beliefs and assumptions of a past age – such as the reality of magic, for example. Or it can be a much more radical departure. Guy Gavriel Kay, in The Lions of Al-Rassan, presented what was essentially the complex political and religious situation in Moorish Spain as Christianity started to recover territory. And yet… it also isn’t that. The world isn’t quite true to that portion of our own history, but has its own quirks and direction. (I read it with a book club, and it didn’t quite work for me as a novel, but I have every admiration for the feat of imagination involved.

Science fiction occasionally gets in on the act, as well. Ursula LeGuin used her considerable knowledge of sociology and anthropology to root her alien cultures in a credible past. So one of the cultures in Rocannon’s World is a bit like meeting Medieval Europeans… but again, it’s not quite like meeting them. And fantasy novels of course need a plausible culture to root themselves in, whether that be the familiar territory of elves and orcs, or something from elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile, of course, there are those brave souls who set their books in this world, in a real part of history, and with their characters surrounded by real historical individuals. For my part, if and when I return to history from the intoxicating world of science fiction, it will probably be back in the ancient past – much longer ago than the comparatively recent times of the Late Bronze Age. We shall see.

Half Sick of Shadows and IndieBrag

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

I was going to write a blog on something to do with Alexa, but that will now appear after the Christmas holiday break. That’s partly because I have been moving rocks and making new gravel paths, and ending the day somewhat fatigued…

So instead, this is just a short post about an email I received last night, saying that Half Sick of Shadows has been awarded an IndieBrag Medallion.

Specially, I read this:

We have completed the review process for your book “Half Sick of Shadows” and I am pleased to inform you that it has been selected to receive a B.R.A.G. Medallion. We would now like to assist you in gaining recognition of your fine work.
In return, we ask that you permit us to add your book to the listing of Medallion honorees on our website www.bragmedallion.com.

Well, needless to say I haven’t yet had time to do the stuff at their website – that will follow over the next few days – but that was a very nice piece of news just as the holiday break is starting!

The last person to leave Doggerland

A few days ago on The Review Facebook page (look back to December 1st) the question was posed – what person in history would you like to see written about? Naturally enough, most replies focused on historical individuals who had lived interesting lives but had never really had the attention in fact or fiction that the various contributors felt was appropriate.

Now, I kept quiet in this discussion, because my mind had immediately run away down an entirely different avenue, and it didn’t seem the right place to ramble on about that. But here in the blog is a different matter!

Woolly Mammoth skull retrieved from the sea near Holland in 1999-2000, dating from well before the period I have in mind (Wikipedia)
Woolly Mammoth skull retrieved from the sea near Holland in 1999-2000, dating from well before the period I have in mind (Wikipedia)

Doggerland is the name we give to the stretch of land which once joined the eastern counties of England to parts of Europe. Nowadays the North Sea covers that whole span, but every so often ancient relics are retrieved, mostly by accident in fishing nets (the first such being a barbed antler tool back in 1931). The name Doggerland comes from the Dogger Bank, which is a large region of sandbanks and shoals in the North Sea, in places no more than 50′ deep.

So nowadays the sea divides Norfolk and the Netherlands, Lincolnshire and Denmark. And with climate change and slowly rising sea levels, this is unlikely to change. But let’s roll back some ten thousand years, and see the changing picture.

Doggerland from space (The Telegraph newspaper, 01 Sep 2015)
Doggerland from space (The Telegraph newspaper, 01 Sep 2015)

When the land warmed after the last ice age, Britain and Europe were united by a broad low-lying tract of land (this was c. 11000BC). This land was never rugged or mountainous – imagine something like present day East Anglia, Holland, or Denmark, and you have the picture. Two arms of seawater divided this from Scandinavia to the north-east, and Scotland and Northumberland to the north-west. Several rivers – including the Thames, the Seine, the Rhine – flowed into this broad plain, and thence into the Atlantic via what was to become the English Channel.

The land was good for hunting and trapping animals, the margins had fish and shellfish, and when early farmers arrived they found the soil to be fertile. It was, I suspect, a pleasant and welcoming place to be, with a climate becoming gradually milder as, decade by decade, the Ice Age retreated. The sea level rose as the ice melted. In some places, the land sank down as the sheer weight of the glaciers further north was released – this is still happening in the Scilly Isles which, very very slowly, are being submerged. Both factors spelled the end for Doggerland.

Doggerland c. 10000BC (Wikipedia)
Doggerland c. 10000BC (Wikipedia)

By now this huge expanse of territory has completely disappeared. This did not happen overnight – best estimates are that it was all gone a little before 6000BC, so it took around five thousand years to dwindle. The occupants, whether living a hunter-gatherer or settled lifestyle, had many generations to adjust to the change. I suppose they had oral traditions which spoke of how this island used to be attached to the land, or that forest used to extend several days’ journey further north. But within that long span of steady reduction, most likely there were also sudden calamities. A storm surge one winter might have taken away miles of coastline. An autumn flood might have demolished a natural barrier to the water, exposing the lower fields beyond. A series of unusually high tides might turn fresh water meadows to salt marsh. A landslide in Norway, resulting in a tsunami, probably did much to finish the process. All of these things have been seen in the low-lying lands which still border the North Sea.

Extensive study has revealed a lot about this drowned land – see this BBC article for a summary of investigations by several Scottish universities. Or this article in the Telegraph newspaper for an account of work to map the surface features which still remain.

So the story I want to tell, one day, is the story of the last person to leave Doggerland. Or, more widely, the last community to abandon its shrinking and increasingly boggy surface. What was it like to leave the places, practical and sacred, which their people had moved through for so long? How were they received by those groups already living in the regions around? Did they look back with relief or regret?

Perhaps one day, when I want to switch back from science fiction to ancient history, it’s a story that I will tell.

Can handwriting survive?

I’ve been thinking for a little while now about reading and writing, and decided to convert those thoughts into a blog post. I used to reckon that reading and writing were two sides of the same coin. We teach them at broadly the same time, and it seems natural with a child to talk through the physical process of making a letter shape at the same time as learning to recognise it on a page.

Cartouche of Rameses at Luxor
Cartouche of Rameses at Luxor

But lately, I’ve been reconsidering this. My thinking actually goes back several years to when I was studying ancient Egyptian. It is generally understood that alongside the scribes of Egypt – who had a good command of hieroglyphic and hieratic writing, plus Akkadian cuneiform and a few other written scripts and a whole lot of technical knowledge besides – there was a much ĺarger group of people who could read reasonably well, but not write with fluency or competence. A few particularly common signs, like the cartouche of the current pharaoh, or the major deity names, would be very widely recognised even by people who were generally illiterate. You see this same process happening with tourists today, who start to spot common groups of Egyptian signs long before they could dream of constructing a sentence.

Hieratic Scribal Exercise
Hieratic Scribal Exercise

The ability to write is far more than just knowing letter shapes. You need a wide enough vocabulary to select the right word among several choices, to know how to change each word with past or future tense, or number of people, or gender. You need background knowledge of the subject. You need to understand the conventions of the intended audience so as to convey the right meaning. In short, learning to write is more demanding than learning to read (and I’m talking about the production of writing here, not the quality of the finished product).

Roll forward to the modern day, and we are facing a slightly different kind of question. The ability to read is essential to get and thrive in most jobs. Or to access information, buy various goods, or just navigate from place to place. I’m sure it is possible to live in today’s England without being able to read, but it will be difficult, and all sorts of avenues are closed to that person.

But the ability to write – by which I mean to make handwriting – is, I think, much more in doubt. Right now I’m constructing this blog post in my lunch hour on a mobile phone, tapping little illuminated areas of the screen to generate the letters. In a little while I’ll go back to my desk, and enter characters by pressing down little bits of plastic on a keyboard. Chances are I’ll be writing some computer code (in the C# or NodeJS computer languages, if you’re curious) but if I have to send a message to a colleague I’ll use the same mechanical process.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Then again, some of my friends use dictation software to “write” emails and letters, and then do a small amount of corrective work at the end. They tell me that dictation technology has advanced to the stage where only minor fix-ups are needed. And, as most blog readers will know, I’m enthusiastic about Alexa for controlling functionality by voice. Although writing text of any great length is not yet feasible on that platform, my guess is that it won’t be long until this becomes real.

All of this means that while the act of reading will most likely remain crucial for a long time to come, maybe this won’t be true of writing in the conventional sense. Speaking personally, hand-writing is already something I do only for hastily scribbled notes or postcards to older relatives. Or occasionally to sign something. The readability of my hand-writing is substantially lower than it used to be, purely because I don’t exercise it much (and by pure chance I heard several of my work colleagues saying the same thing today). Do I need hand-writing in modern life? Not really, not for anything crucial.

Some devices
Some devices

I don’t think it’s just me. On my commuting journeys I see people reading all kinds of things – newspapers, books, magazines, Kindles, phones, tablets and so on. I really cannot remember the last time I saw somebody reading a piece of hand-written material on the tube.

Now, to set against that, I have friends and relatives for whom the act of writing is still important. They would say that the nature of the writing surface and the writing implement – pencil, biro, fountain pen – are important ingredients, and that bodily engagement with the process conveys something extra than simply the production of letters. Emphasis and emotion are easier to impart – they say – when you are personally fashioning the outcome. To me, this seems simply a temporary problem of the tools we are using, but we shall see.

Looking ahead, I cannot imagine a time when reading skills won’t be necessary – there are far too many situations where you have to pore over things in detail, review what was written a few chapters back, compare one thing against another, or just enjoy the artistry with which the text had been put together. Just to recognise which letter to tap or click requires that I be able to read. But hand-writing? I’m not at all sure this will survive much longer.

Perhaps a time will come when teaching institutions will not consider it worth while investing long periods of time in getting children’s hand-writing to an acceptable standard – after all, pieces of quality writing can be generated by several other means.

Quill pen device for tablet
Quill pen device for tablet

A bit of history

I have been in Cumbria the last few days – England’s Lake District – and have been surrounded by history. Of course there are the hills, first established up to about 500 million years ago and steadily being reshaped by nature’s forces since then. Then there are the various lakes and tarns, mostly the result of glaciation on a timescale of about 11,000 to 100,000 years ago. And of course the various signs of humanity’s use of the landscape, going back a few thousand years.

Commanding Officer's house, Ambleside Roman fort
Commanding Officer’s house, Ambleside Roman fort

But also there are specific signs of human activity, and I have been happily looking at some of these. Just outside Ambleside, at the northern end of Windermere, are some rather well displayed remnants of a Roman fort. It’s name is not known with certainty, but the most likely claim is Galava, identified in later Roman records in this vicinity. The earliest fort held a unit of about 200 soldiers, and was upgraded over time to have about 500. As well as barracks and all the usual paraphernalia of a Roman fort, it also boasted a jetty onto the lakeside at which, one presumes, cargo and passengers arrived and departed. From here, roads led off west towards the splendid fort in the Hardknott Pass (which I haven’t yet visited) and also up the eastern side of Ullswater towards Penrith, Carlisle, and Hadrian’s Wall.

The Langdale Pikes from a distance
The Langdale Pikes from a distance

But as well as that there are considerably older signs of human habitation, and I have to admit that these excite me rather more than the Roman ones. Back in Neolithic times, there was a stone axe “factory” up amongst the Langdale Pikes. These tower impressively over the Langdale Valley, and are easily identified from many miles away as you approach. If you come as tourist, your first view of them might well be from Windermere railway station, but actually they can be spotted from a few places rather further afield. Axes from Langdale have been found all across Britain and beyond, and were clearly highly prized items in their day.

Rock art at Chapel Stile Boulders
Rock art at Chapel Stile Boulders

And as you approach the pikes along the Langdale Valley, on the valley floor just outside a village called Chapel Stile, there is a collection of boulders which are adorned with Neolithic rock art. Like virtually all of such art in Britain, it seems abstract to us, and does not admit of any easy interpretation. It is impossible – when you are there – to think that the people who cut the marks on those rocks were not making a connection with the stone axe site, but the nature of the connection is now unknown. Perhaps they were directions, or messages of welcome, or warnings of how to treat the local deities – but we just don’t know.

It’s an enigma, and a pleasant one to contemplate as you make your own way along the valley… and one day I hope to spin all this lot into a story…

The Langdale Pikes from Chapel Stile boulders
The Langdale Pikes from Chapel Stile boulders

Withdrawal and the sacred: the tides of life

Northumberland flower
Northumberland flower

I have just come back from a short time away in and around Lindisfarne, in the north-east of England not far from the Scottish border. Its other name is Holy Island, reflecting the fact that for a great many years – from its foundation as a monastery around 634 to the 16th century – it was best known as a centre for prayer, worship, and learning.

The Pilgrim's Route across the sands
The Pilgrim’s Route across the sands

Lindisfarne is one of those places which is an island at high tide, and connected to the rest of Northumberland by vast mud flats at low tide. Twice a day the sea comes in and gathers the island into itself, and twice a day the sea withdraws again and allows traffic to pass freely. It’s a most magnificent symbol of the way the human psyche engages with and separates from the world. We have times of busyness, and times of withdrawal. Even if it’s only in sleep, all of us have this tidal cycle running deep in us, and it goes far beyond rest and recuperation.

Singing seals hauled out on the mudflats
Singing seals hauled out on the mudflats

This part of Northumberland also has a huge variety of wildlife – flowers, birds, and insects are everywhere. The birds are at their most striking during the spring and autumn migrations, but there are plenty around in the summer as well. And the Lindisfarne seals sing! Perhaps seals in other places do this too, but I have never heard them. But on a rising tide, as the mudbanks where they are hauled out in their hundreds gradually shrink, you can often hear their song, somewhere between a wolf pack howling and the wind sighing, and not quite like either. There’s plenty of wind on the island as well, but when you hear that song, you have no doubt you are listening to something that a living creature has produced.

No wonder that the founding monks of the Lindisfarne community – Aidan, Cuthbert and all – chose this place to build something which joins both this world and the other. We know comparatively little about occupation of the site before their time, but I’d be confident that it was recognised as a liminal place long before the arrival of Christianity here.

Augustine of Hippo, speaking out of his own religious heritage, wrote that “our souls are restless, until they find their rest in Thee“, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to find both restlessness and rest than here.

High tide again
High tide again

Times have changed a little – the monasteries have been disbanded, the habitual practice of Christianity has changed in many ways, and the island is now connected to the mainland in more sophisticated ways than a footpath. But when you’re on the island, the feeling of being away from the mainland presses closely around you. Spirituality remains a major influence on the life of the island, and people still visit for the purpose of feeding their souls. And the cycle of tides still separates this little place from the mainland twice a day.

 

King Arthur and the north – part 2

Today’s blog about the link between King Arthur and Cumbria looks at his death, and the mysterious circumstances of the Lady of the Lake. But first, a link between a figure who was definitely real, and the Arthurian tales – the Matter of England, as it has been called.

Grisedale Tarn from Dolly Wagon
Grisedale Tarn from Dolly Wagon

For this, you have to walk a little way up from the southernmost tip of Ullswater, from the villages of Glenridding or Patterdale. Follow what is now the Coast to Coast walk up the long valley until you get to Grisedale Tarn, in the saddle point between the summits of Fairfield and Dolly Wagon. From here, if you wanted, you could drop down again into Grasmere. And here, according to rumour, Dunmail, the last British king of the region and possibly the whole country, ordered his crown to be flung into the tarn rather than fall into the hands of his victorious enemies (see an earlier post I wrote all about this). When the time is right, just like Arthur, he and his men will reclaim the crown and return to England’s help./ Now, Dunmail (probably) died around 975 AD, a few hundred years after the (probable) time of Arthur, but this shows that the connection was firmly in people’s minds.

Lady of the Lake on Ullswater
Lady of the Lake on Ullswater

Returning back down the Grisedale valley to Ullswater I found, to my surprise, there is a belief that this was the Lake from which Arthur’s sword came. Now, once again this part of the overall story had always been linked in my mind to the south. But not by everyone, apparently. One of the Ullswater passenger steamers is, in fact, called The Lady of the Lake to commemorate this. But how old is the tradition?

Looking down Grisedale towards Patterdale
Looking down Grisedale towards Patterdale

Like so many other things about these events, written evidence is comparatively late and almost certainly cannot be relied upon. We have to just look at possibilities.

King Arthur (2004) DVD cover (Amazon)
King Arthur (2004) DVD cover (Amazon)

Indeed, The historian Michael Wood went on record to the effect that the original stories “surprisingly, do not take us to the South West or to Wales, but to Cumbria, southern Scotland, and the ancient kingdom of Rheged, around the Solway”. Arthur’s final battle – at Camlann or Camboglanna  – has been variously placed in Cornwall, near Cader Idris in Wales, or near Carlisle – if we follow the norther trail, then the Roman fort of Birdoswald is a very good candidate. Those who watched the 2004 version of King Arthur may remember the whole northern setting. Several other events from Arthur’s life can be credibly located along the Roman Wall, and if he really was mortally wounded here, then a retreat down to Ullswater is feasible. Carlisle to Pooley Bridge, the nearest point of Ullswater, is only about 20 miles.

I must admit that back in the days when I was committed to the southern theory, I could never reconcile the two mental images this last episode conjures up. One is of a moorland battle, with Arthur gazing round at bodies strewn among heather and gorse. The other is of the lakeshore where the sword was finally given back. Down south there are comparatively few places where these images could be reconciled. But a battle near the old wall, followed by a retreat to Ullswater, makes much more sense.

Water, mist and hills...
Water, mist and hills…

The setting is undoubtedly atmospheric, especially of a morning when mists hover over the waters, with the mountain peaks rising darkly above. When you’re there, it’s actually quite easy to imagine the Lady’s arm emerging from the waters, or Sir Bedivere standing on the shoreline, sword in hand, torn between obedience and desire. I could go along with that.

The Death of Arthur by James Archer (Wiki)
The Death of Arthur by James Archer (Wiki)

What of his resting place? Again there is plenty of variety in the tradition to choose from. You have the romantic vision of him that artists often pick, in which he is carried away in a barge, tended to by queens. But there are other options. And according to one of these, Arthur, and possibly a selection of his followers, ended up in caves below Blencathra, also called Saddleback.

Looking across Derwent Water towards Blencathra under looming skies
Looking across Derwent Water towards Blencathra under looming skies

Blencathra is north east of Keswick, and only about 8 or 9 miles from the closest part of Ullswater. And it’s a comparatively easy 8 or 9 miles, across open land not particularly broken up by hills and valleys. It’s also an exceptionally bleak area to cross in the wrong sort of weather conditions. Now I have to admit I have never climbed Blencathra in all my many visits to the region – it’s a bit shapeless at its summit, overlooked by the rather more interesting Skiddaw. And part of it – Sharp Edge – is one of the most hazardous locations of the region, resulting in more deaths, injuries and mountain rescue call-outs than anywhere else.  For a different and much more upbeat view, real mountaineers such as Doug Scott and Chris Bonnington have said it is one of their favourite climbs. Either way, some say that this is where Arthur rests.

There are lots of competing stories and interpretations, but for me the whole process has been one of realisation that the north-west has a very good claim to Arthur.

King Arthur and the north – part 1

Round table, Winchester Castle (Wiki - By Martin Kraft - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16639627)
Round table, Winchester Castle (Wiki)

Being brought up in the south of England, I had always assumed that King Arthur was basically a southerner. After all, there was Tintagel, Glastonbury, even Winchester, though I knew from an early age that the round table hanging in the castle there had no real connection with him (dendrochronology has set a date around 1275). If I thought about the north at all with reference to Arthur, it was only that maybe he’d gone up there once or twice to trounce some band of malcontents.

But then, rather later, I discovered a strong Welsh connection, and my perspective started to shift a little. I found out that more places, over most of the country, had a claim to Arthurian material, and the southern homeland idea got seriously knocked.

Of course, Arthur is a national symbol, irrespective of any historical reality, so it is natural that associations would be nationwide. And it’s clear that some suggested links are wildly speculative, presumably made by hopeful locals wanting to be attached somehow to the person of the king. But not all of them can be dismissed so quickly.

Daniel Defoe's memorial, Bunhill Fields Burial and Gardens, Islington
Daniel Defoe’s memorial, Bunhill Fields Burial and Gardens, Islington

I’m going to talk in this post and the next about a few links up in Cumbria. Until recently the Lake District had been completely off my Arthurian map, but no longer. But calling it The Lake District brings to mind quiet walks by placid waters, and this is only half of the story of the region. The names Cumbria or Rheged evoke a much more robust image. Until comparatively recently, the area was better known for its rugged and apparently impenetrable mountains, than its placid waters. In 1724, Daniel Defoe wrote that it was “bounded by a chain of almost unpassable mountains which, in the language of the country, are called fells“. So what better place could there be to symbolise the wild unconquered parts of the land?

Pendragon Castle looking out at the River Eden (Wiki)
Pendragon Castle looking out at the River Eden (Wiki)

One of the two easy routes in to the wild heart of the region is from the Eden Valley, via Penrith (the other is up north from Kendal along the shores of Windermere). And indeed, signs of Arthurian connections begin in the Eden Valley. A few miles south and east of Penrith is Pendragon Castle, built, according to legend, by Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur. Allegedly Merlin tried to alter the course of the River Eden to make a moat, but his powers were insufficient, and the river stayed where it was. Perhaps with a little more historical footing, Uther is said to have died there after some of his Saxon enemies poisoned the well.

King Arthur's Round Table, engraving (English Heritage)
King Arthur’s Round Table, engraving (English Heritage)

Closer to Penrith is the Neolithic henge known as King Arthur’s Table. Of course the monument itself is vastly older than any probable time of Arthur – probably about 2500 years older. In its day, and long after, it would have been a stunning sight – it is some 90m across, originally with two entrances though one has been obliterated by modern buildings and a road. I can easily imagine a post-Roman leader stopping by to establish some link with ancestral glories. Much later, the site was linked explicitly to Arthur when it was believed that the circular space was used for jousting. In fact we have no idea what the original purpose was, but the area has several henges within a small area, so was presumably a significant location to our remote ancestors (the second henge in the old engraving is long since lost, but nearby Mayburgh Henge still remains).

1825 painting of Ullswater (Wiki - Museum of Wales - By John Parker - This image is available from the National Library of WalesYou can view this image in its original context on the NLW Catalogue, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47585043)
1825 painting of Ullswater (Wiki – Museum of Wales)

After that, move a few miles south-west to Ullswater, arriving first at Pooley Bridge. It’s an easier and more obvious route to follow into the hills than today’s A66, although the trail along the 10km of the lake ends in a series of abrupt and dramatic valley ends. Ullswater is one of the longest and deepest of the Cumbrian lakes, and has its own set of monster-in-the-deep tales, reported from early times through to modern visitors. But let’s stick reasonably close to Arthur.

Glenridding and Ullswater, picture taken from a similar place as the painting above
Glenridding and Ullswater, picture taken from a similar place as the painting above

At the northern end of the lake, not far from Pooley Bridge, is Tristamont, or Trestamount, shown on many maps as Hodgson Hill. Local legend has it that this was the burial place of Tristan. Now most of the Arthurian stories present Tristan as a Cornishman by birth (born of Elizabeth to Meliodas, king of the lost land of Lyonesse), but linguistically the name can be linked to Old Welsh, and so directly to the Cumbric language. So a connection with the north-west is far from impossible. The idea of an actual castle, not just a grave, goes back to the antiquarian Rev Machell, who in the 1630s described walls and fortifications here. Now, although it is true that many standing stones and ancient walls in the region have been robbed for building, modern archaeologists are very sceptical that Machell recorded anything more than natural deposits of glacial rock. Under the right conditions, these can indeed look artificial. About the only definite sign of human construction is a ditch around the east side of this hill.

Aira Force (Wiki)
Aira Force (Wiki)

From medieval times – much later than any original King Arthur, though broadly consistent with his reimagining in courtly chivalric terms – we have the tale of Sir Eglamore and his fiancee Emma, probably originating from somewhere around the 13th century. They lived near the waterfall at Aira Force, but the knight was absent on the Crusades for a very long time. Returning unexpectedly, he startled Emma as she was sleep-walking, so that she slipped down the waterfall to her death. Eglamore lived out his days as a hermit beside the falls. It’s a very Arthurian tale, even if not directly linked to the tradition.

So that’s got some of the peripheral details out of the way – next time I’ll be looking at the central details surrounding Arthur’s death and the Lady of the Lake…

Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake (Wiki, illustration by Henry Justice Ford)
Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake (Wiki, illustration by Henry Justice Ford)

Where are they now… Margaret Cavendish

For today, a blog which I wrote for The Review and reposted here…

If I asked you to name some early science fiction writers, I’m guessing you’d think of Jules Verne or HG Wells, who established in the 19th and early 20th centuries so many of the conventions and themes of the genre.

Portrait of Margaret Cavendish (Wiki)
Portrait of Margaret Cavendish (Wiki)

You probably wouldn’t think of going back to 1666, and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. But in fact, in the same year that the Plague was raging, and London experienced the Great Fire – only some 50 years after the King James Bible was translated, and Shakespeare was writing plays – Margaret Cavendish published her novel The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World. It has been called “the only known work of utopian fiction by a woman in the 17th century, as well as one of the earliest examples of what we now call ‘science fiction’ — although it is also a romance, an adventure story, and even autobiography“.

Margaret Lucas was born in 1623, the youngest of eight children, and had a lively childhood, partly spent with Queen Henrietta Maria in exile in France. In 1645 she married William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who was a staunch royalist and reasonably successful military commander (so had had a difficult few years until the Restoration of Charles II). He was an enthusiastic patron of the arts and sciences, which is perhaps why he and Margaret formed a happy couple – her lively and wide-ranging intellect would undoubtedly have attracted his attention. He was devastated by her death in 1673, and died just three years later.

Cover - The Blazing World (Wiki)
Cover – The Blazing World (Wiki)

She was not only an author of fiction, but also wrote over a dozen original works in diverse fields – poetry and plays, as well as a number of early scientific and philosophical treatises. The Blazing World was routinely distributed with her non-fiction Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, thus combining imaginative and scientific discourse. She was the first woman to attend meetings of the Royal Society, and engaged in debate with leading figures of the time such as Descartes, Hobbes, and Boyle. She was not shy about disagreeing with the thinking of the age when she felt it was in error, a habit which brought her criticism and conflict.

The Blazing World is, by modern standards, a slightly odd book. The protagonist, a lady whose name we never learn, is abducted by an impatient suitor, but her virtue is preserved by divine intervention which diverts the ship towards the north pole where the wickedly motivated men all perish. The lady herself is rescued by creatures which are man-like but with animal qualities – once in the Blazing World proper, she will meet Bear-men, Fox-men, Fly-men, Bird-men, Fish-men and so on. Her rescuers take her through a narrow passageway which connects our world with The Blazing World. Since there is only one such passage, and the celestial view in her new home is entirely different, a modern author might well describe this as a wormhole connection rather like in Stargate.

The Emperor of this world is smitten with her, and after a very short interval the two marry. There is then a long passage in which the new Empress quizzes the various theoretical and experimental factions in her new home – clearly satirising the state of affairs in the Royal Society, though many of the barbs evade recognition by today’s reader. Part of this section describes the creation of a array of miniature universes, each intending to explore some particular theme, and most of which are unstable and collapse again because of their own inconsistencies. It sounds very like an early exploration of what we now call the Anthropic Principle – the laws of the universe are constrained by the fact that intelligent life has arisen in it.

Portrait -Margaret Cavendish - © National Portrait Gallery
Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne, (by Pieter Louis van Schuppen,
after Abraham Diepenbeeck, line engraving, late 17th century, NPG D30185, © National Portrait Gallery, London

In a way that would now be considered rather shockingly indulgent, she then as author brings herself in as a character – a sort of muse and scribe to the Empress. The two become exceedingly close friends. We are assured that the relationship is entirely platonic, but the degree of closeness far exceeds anything else in the book except that of Margaret to her husband.

The second half of the book describes a kind of interplanetary war – the Empress learns that her original native country is under attack by a large alliance, and decides her duty is to help. So she devises a kind of blitzkrieg strategy including air power (the Bird-men) and submarine warfare (the Fish-men) to overwhelm the assembled enemies. The combination is unstoppable, and it is clear that if she wanted, she could assume control of our world as well. Being of a restrained disposition she does not do this, but withdraws again once victory is assured.

The book closes with William and Margaret gaining inspiration for certain changes to their own estates on the basis of what they have seen in the alternative world, and a commitment to ongoing friendship and communion between the two worlds.

Margaret Cavendish and her writing went off everybody’s radar for many years, with the rise of the true novel. However, after a considerable time of obscurity, she has started to resurface. In 1997 the Margaret Cavendish Society was formed to encourage academic study of her work. The blend of feminism, science, philosophy, fantasy and interpersonal relationships has found a resonance in our own age.

Margaret is quite open about her purpose in writing the book, and her pride in being its creator: “…you may perceive, that my ambition is not onely to be Empress, but Authoress of a whole World… in the formation of those worlds, I take more delight and glory, than ever Alexander or Cesar did in conquering this terrestrial world… concerning the Philosophical-world, I am Empress of it my self; and as for the Blazing-World, it having an Empress already, who rules it with great Wisdom and Conduct, which Empress is my dear Platonick Friend; I shall never prove so unjust, treacherous, and unworthy to her, as to disturb her Government, much less to depose her from her Imperial Throne, for the sake of any other, but rather chuse to create another World for another Friend.”

Stirring words, indeed, and ones which many an author would identify with!