Category Archives: History

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!

 

Superstition

Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria
Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria

I’ve been thinking on and off about superstitions for a little while now, and it’s clear from other people’s blogs that I’m not alone in this. Synchronicity, perhaps.

To be clear, I see a big difference between superstition and religious faith, and I’m not going to be critical of either. They both are built around the conviction that actions in the here and now are not just casual and without consequence. Instead, they carry weighty implications which resonate in both natural and spiritual worlds. Religious people can be superstitious, and non-religious people can be superstitious – though the rational constructions of each of religion, atheism, and science are typically hostile to such practices. People of any religion or none might throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder, or uncross knives in a drawer, or say “white rabbits” at the start of a month, or avoid walking on the divisions between paving slabs!

Religious thought tends to be more systematic, with a careful body of thought surrounding its core principles. Whether embedded in a written or oral tradition, faith encourages theology – rational exploration of the hinterland of a central mystery which itself eludes the possibility of capture. Superstition is based around individual actions which do not necessarily build into a coherent whole. Each such action serves a specific purpose, often placatory, and doesn’t have to be combined with anything else.

Hawthorn
Hawthorn

One of the fascinating things about superstitions is that they are often tied to particular situations. Often this is to do with place – some specific deed must be done in a specific place in order to be effective. So we have all kinds of special places – trees, bodies of water, hills, and so on, often quite separate from the deeply sacred foci of religious thought. A wishing well might be found only a short distance from, say, Stonehenge, or the temple at Karnak.

But as well as a special place, there are special things to do or items to use. Maybe special words to use. For today, out of all the superstitions in the world, I want to focus briefly on leaving gifts of metal. Most old towns in England – and no doubt elsewhere as well – have a wishing well where people leave coins. Often these days the coinage is collected and given to charity, but the impulse is, I believe, much older and much less thought-through than making a donation to a worthy cause.

A Bronze Age axe hoard from Galicia, Spain (Wiki)
A Bronze Age axe hoard from Galicia, Spain (Wiki)

Back in the Bronze Age in northern Europe, metal items were regularly deposited in large quantities in streams and rivers. We find tools, weapons, scraps of spare metal, jewellery and so on – the whole gamut of artefacts. In some cases these might possibly be understood as a ritual deposit of weapons, either captured from some enemy or, perhaps, being ‘retired’ after the death of the wielder. In most cases we just don’t know the reason.

What we do know is that over time this developed into a veritable industry in its own right. We find huge deposits of tools, typically axe heads without the shaft, carefully buried or placed in piles. These represent a huge investment of time and effort – the ore had to be dug, the metal prepared and moulded, and so on. But in many cases these are not items at the end of long and faithful service – they had never been used in either war or peace, and often the metal was far too soft to be useful in any sphere. These axes were made just to be disposed of.

It’s hard to think of a reason for this, given the limited resources available to the societies of the time. Often we humans have indulged in conspicuous consumption and waste, just to prove we can. Perhaps these axe deposits were an offering to placate someone or something. Perhaps the return of metal to the Earth was seen as closing the cycle of extraction. It’s an open field for guesswork, but for today I’m going to link it with the long lineage of metal gifts which also surfaces in wishing wells.

Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria
Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria

But there’s another similar modern habit which – at least in my mind – is connected to this. It is the habit of hammering coins into trees. In some places you can find hundreds of coins all driven into a stump or old tree – the pictures are from Cumbria, between Grasmere and Rydal, but you could find similar scenes in many other places. I don’t think there was anything particularly unusual about these trees to start with – but as one person after another follows suit then the place starts to gather its own perceived value.

So the ancient tradition of giving back metal to the planet, whether in water, underground, or attached to a tree, is very much alive still in our century! I wonder which existing superstitions we will take into the future with us, and which new ones we will invent?

Identity, belonging, and taxes

Gladstone's budget briefcase (Wiki)
Gladstone’s budget briefcase (Wiki)

I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time now, but last week’s Budget here in the UK crystallised my thoughts. For non-UK readers, the Budget is a financial appraisal and forward plan presented by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It’s an event where various changes to taxes are made, funding for different major projects is announced, and so on. It’s a chance for everyone to see what the Chancellor and his advisers think is going to happen, and how the country’s finances are going to be handled.

I’m not going to talk about the Budget itself – if you want, the whole document is available online. But there was one tiny snippet in the associated news which caught my eye:

Making tax digital – The start date for unincorporated businesses and landlords with turnover below the VAT registration threshold is deferred by one year to April 2019. Unincorporated business and landlord with turnover above the VAT registration threshold will be required to keep records in a digital format, and make quarterly reports of their results, from April 2018, using appropriate software.

In brief, it means that all firms, however small, will soon need to install suitable software, and be periodically linked up to the government tax computers to transfer earnings details. Those of us who are employed already get tax routinely withheld from our wages every payday, and the picture for the self-employed is rapidly converging.

UK Tax return (Wiki)
UK Tax return (Wiki)

Seeing as how it is only a short time since the tax authorities dealt exclusively in annual paper documents, this shift to online quarterly assessment is a vast change. And it is probably only a staging post on the way towards daily accountability. It’s a huge step from days of yore, when if the local land owner – or his lord, or the king, or the conquering overlord – needed some revenue, he just sent his heavies around and took it.

We live in a world where increasing numbers of people expect to move internationally during their working life – perhaps as much as 1/3 or 1/2 of people entering employment now will make such a move before they retire. So daily accountability is a necessary step to make sure that the right amount of taxes are paid in the country where they are due… a highly charged matter which several multinationals have run foul of.

So all that collided in my thoughts with another modern trend. This second one has been called “filiation versus affiliation“. It describes a major shift which has happened from the ancient world until now. Back then, your birth family – filiation – counted for everything, even in adult life. Social mobility was extraordinarily hard. We are moving towards a situation where as an adult you choose your own affiliation – your friends, your employment, your peer group, your gang, or whatever. Different countries are at different places along that trend, but we are all slowly moving that way. I find it exciting that I can chat with, work with, and be friends with people across the world who I am never likely to meet… but there are problems and difficulties as well.

So all that made me think, what if you could choose your country – your national affiliation – as easily as joining a Facebook group? Maybe I like the education system in Sweden, the stance on nuclear weapons in New Zealand, and a whole collection of other policies scattered around the world’s nations. But geographically I like living here in the UK, and in particular have a number of tip-top favourite places.

A Carthaginian Shekel c. 300BC (Wiki)
A Carthaginian Shekel c. 300BC (Wiki)

So… what if I could shop around with my tax liability? I go off to work, earn a few shekels, spend some of them on the necessities of life… and owe some agreed fraction in taxes. What if I could then decide which nations I wanted to support with those taxes, and effectively buy fractional citizenship there? In much the same way as I dispose of the rest of my income – so much to the supermarket, so much to a local independent store, so much to Amazon, so much put aside for a rainy day, etc.

I don’t think this would be an easy transition to make – for example, how would I pay London Underground for the trips I make on the Northern Line? I’m quite sure my ticket price doesn’t cover the cost of capital investment and replacement. How would I pay for the running of the National Parks that I love? There’d be all kinds of difficulties to work through.

But on the other hand, this could be a logical direction for democracy. Right now, the world’s major democracies are struggling with how to manage situations of narrow majorities. Big policy changes are being made on both sides of the Atlantic which go against the wishes of almost half of a population. So why not consider not only voting in a ballot box, but voting with the results of our labour? A parliamentary or presidential democracy results – seemingly inevitably – in governments becoming increasingly hardened in their stance on issues, and the voices of minority groups become increasingly hard to hear. Maybe the ability to move our citizenship, or fractions of it, away from one country and into another would undo that.

Kickstarter Logo (www.kickstarter.com)
Kickstarter Logo (www.kickstarter.com)

At very least it might make budgets more like a kind of kickstarter pitch. Last week, the overall majority enjoyed by the current British government meant that the Chancellor could pretty much do as he pleased. He didn’t have to win anyone over to his position – although in the days since his speech we have seen some backpedalling after interventions from the Prime Minister, so perhaps a bit more discussion beforehand would have been prudent. But what if I could listen to his ideas, decide if I liked them, and then decide if I wanted to support them by means of citizenship and taxes? I might take into account the present government’s track record on things I care about, or the present Chancellor’s level of experience and expertise. Maybe I’d be persuaded, or maybe I’d take my tax elsewhere to someone who convinced me better.

I think people have a capacity to take a long view, so this wouldn’t rule out big projects taking years to come to fruition. After all, we already do that with pensions, or funds set up in childhood for major events later in life. The biggest risk is, perhaps, that money, and those with it, would potentially overwhelm everything. But in many ways that’s already true – public funding has been successively cut back on a whole raft full of artistic, educational, and environmental causes over the last few years. Maybe a kickstarter style approach to national budgets would bring funding back to some of these.

The present system has winners and losers, and I dare say so will any new replacement one. But I wonder if overall such a system would be more equitable, or less?

Justice (Wiki)
Justice (Wiki)

Fun with the sun part 2 – the Analemma

Sundial, Allan Bank, Grasmere, Cumbria
Sundial, Allan Bank, Grasmere, Cumbria

Part 2 of this little series looks at a different phenomenon to do with the sun’s movement through the sky. Imagine yourself picking a time of day – let’s say 10:30 in the morning – and taking note of where the sun is in the sky. Do this at the same time every day of the year to build up a curve tracing the sun’s apparent movement. One way to do this would be to take a photo pointing at exactly the same angle at exactly this time, then overlay the photos on top of each other. Another way would be to put a stick in the ground as a rudimentary sundial, then mark out the end of the stick’s shadow each day. It’s an easy experiment in principle, but takes a lot of patience and accuracy to get right.

Analemma with the Temple of Zeus (340-330 BC) at Ancient Nemea, image credit Anthony Ayiomamitis, found at http://solar-center.stanford.edu/art/analemma.html
Analemma with the Temple of Zeus (340-330 BC) at Ancient Nemea, image credit Anthony Ayiomamitis, found at http://solar-center.stanford.edu/art/analemma.html

But suppose you’ve done that – what would you expect to see? We know that the sun goes up and down in the sky through the year – in winter it is lower and in summer higher. So i suspect that most people would expect to see a straight vertical line being plotted through the year as the sun cycles along its seasonal track. But actually what you get is not a straight line, but a figure eight shape. In the northern hemisphere the top loop of the 8 is smaller than the bottom, while in the southern hemisphere the loop nearer the horizon is the small one.

This curve is called the analemma, and has been known for a very long time – Greek and Latin authors wrote about it some two thousand years ago in the interest of designing a better sundial. My guess is that people observed this much longer ago, and that the creators of the great prehistoric stone observatory monuments tried to incorporate it in their designs.

We can describe this curve mathematically, and it is taught as a method of dead reckoning for those at sea. With a good watch to keep track of time, decent knowledge of the analemma shape, and some precise observations of the sun’s position in the sky, you can pinpoint your position down to around 100 nautical miles. Not bad if you’re lost at sea with no GPS!

The Earth's axial tilt (Wiki)
The Earth’s axial tilt (Wiki)

The root cause of this is a combination of two factors in the Earth’s movement. The first is that the polar axis, around which the Earth spins to give day and night, is not at right angles to the plane of the Earth’s orbit. This offset angle, a little over 23 degrees, is what gives us seasons. The second factor is that the Earth’s orbit around the sun is not perfectly circular, but a slightly squashed oval. Moreover the sun is not at the centre of the oval, but offset to one side at one of the two focal points – we are about 5 million km closer to the sun in early January than we are in early July. The Earth does not move at a constant speed around this oval. We speed up at closest approach to the sun, and then slow down as we move further away. Those who can remember school physics might have come across this as Kepler’s 1st and 2nd laws of planetary motion, originally formulated in the early 1600s.

A planet moves quicker when closer to the sun (http://scienceblogs.com/)
A planet moves quicker when closer to the sun (http://scienceblogs.com/)

Now, for convenience we split our year into equal length days, which means that for one part of the year, a day according to our clocks gets ahead of its allotted portion of the orbit, and for another part it falls behind. By the end of the year it all comes out even. Also, the offset of the polar axis changes the degree to which these shifts make a real difference against the sky. The combination of these two factors is what generates the figure 8 shape of the analemma.

Castlerigg stone circle, Cumbria
Castlerigg stone circle, Cumbria

Let’s think back to our ancient ancestors and the stone monuments they built. We know that the positions of the stones encode astronomical information. The monument builders were aware of not just the annual cycle of the sun, but also of more subtle patterns, such as the 28 year cycle that the moon makes in its own path against the sky. Since the analemma can be mapped out with nothing more complicated than a stick to make a shadow, it seems to me quite improbable that they did not know it. Having said that, I don’t know of any specific stone patterns that can be linked directly to the analemma. Once people started making sundials, they soon found that there was no single division of hour markers that works consistently. The figure 8 shape ensures that your sundial sometimes runs fast and sometimes slow.

Martian analemma, photographed by NASA's Opportunity rover, 2006-2008 (NASA/JPL)
Martian analemma, photographed by NASA’s Opportunity rover, 2006-2008 (NASA/JPL)

Moving into the future, every planet has its own variation of the analemma. The exact shape depends on interplay between the angle of the polar axis and the extent to which the orbit deviates from a pure circle. Our Earth has these two factors in approximate balance. So does Pluto, which therefore has a figure 8 shape like Earth, though in this case the top and bottom loops are almost the same size. But for other planets one factor or the other dominates. As a result, Jupiter has a simple oval shape, while Mars has a tear-drop. However, actually making the observations (as opposed to calculating them) might be tricky as you move out through the solar system. On Earth, you only have to wait 365 days. But a Jupiter year is almost 12 of our years, and Pluto takes nearly 250 years to circle the sun once. You would need extreme patience to plot out a full analemma cycle in both these places!

Golden Jubilee Sundial, Old Palace Yard, Westminster (Wiki)
Golden Jubilee Sundial, Old Palace Yard, Westminster (Wiki)

Fun with the sun part one – the Equation of Time

Sunset from Bryher
Sunset from Bryher

I guess pretty much all of us know that December 21st this year marked the winter solstice, and so – in the northern hemisphere – the shortest day and longest night of the year. But comparatively few people seem to know that this day is not the one when the sun rises latest and sets earliest. The exact dates of those events are, at the latitude of London, just over a week different from the solstice. Specifically, the latest sunrise this year is not until January 1st 2017, and the earliest sunset was on December 12th.

It turns out that the times when the sun rises and sets are governed by a moderately complicated algorithm called the Equation of Time. This obviously varies with your latitude and longitude, but also takes into account the small differences between the solar day and the sidereal day (the day length as measured against the distant and essentially fixed stars), seasonal variations in the earth’s distance from the sun, the apparent size of the solar disk, and a host of other relevant pieces of information. Strictly speaking, one’s height above sea level, and the details of the surrounding terrain also make a difference, but not in a way that’s easy to quantify here. Finally, there are several different definitions of what angle counts as the zenith line, and I have taken the civil definition as opposed to nautical or astronomical.

Once upon a time the calculations would have taken a very long time and lots of paper, but nowadays we can throw the calculation steps into Excel and find out the information for anywhere we want, and for a reasonably long span of time into the past or future. For the curious, a step by step description can be found at this link.

Sunrise through the year at different locations
Sunrise through the year at different locations

Out of curiosity, I plotted the changes for a series of latitudes from that of Reykjavik in Iceland (just over 64 degrees north) via Orkney, Penrith and London in the UK, through Rome and the Tropic of Cancer to the Equator. For simplicity I just took everything on the zero longitude line (through Greenwich) since I was only interested in changes in latitude. If you wanted to do this for yourself then you would need to adjust for your actual longitude east or west from Greenwich, and your official time zone.

Sunset through the year at different locations
Sunset through the year at different locations

Here’s the corresponding chart for sunset.

A few things stand out at a quick glance. First, the time of sunrise varies considerably at some times of the year even between London and the north of Scotland. Secondly, you don’t have to go all that far north to get to the ‘land of the midnight sun‘. Thirdly, the total range of variation of sunrise is very small at the equator – about 1/2 an hour, as compared with London’s 4 1/2 hours, or Iceland’s 8 1/2 hours. The places where all these lines cross over is at the spring and autumn equinoxes, where night and day are each 12 hours long across the whole globe.

Sunrise - the early part of the year
Sunrise – the early part of the year

Going back to where we started, and looking carefully at the early part of the year, you can see that the day of latest sunrise happens after the solstice. The further north you go, the closer the two days are together. So in Reykjavik the latest sunrise is on December 26th. Come down to Orkney and it’s the 28th. In London you have to wait until January 1st. In Rome, January 5th. If you lived on the Tropic of Cancer (say in parts of the Sahara, roughly on a level with Kolkata, India) you’d be waiting for the 8th.

Changes through the year at the Equator
Changes through the year at the Equator

If you live right on the Equator something else comes into play. You get not just a simple days-get-longer then days-get-shorter cycle. Instead there is a more complex curve. Something similar happens in the whole belt of the tropics. This is because there are times when the sun at noon is to the south (as always happens in the northern hemisphere north of the Tropic of Cancer(, but then times when the noonday sun passes overhead and is, for a while, to the north. As it swings over and past you, the day length lengthens and then shortens again – as you can see in the graph.

OK, that’s enough of the Equation of Time for this week. Next time – another oddity about solar movements through the year, together with some thoughts about what this all means for us humans as we have observed the sun through the years. I am convinced that our remote ancestors knew about these patterns (though probably didn’t dress them up in the sines and cosines used by modern maths) and incorporated this knowledge into their monuments and observatories. But more of that next time…

Sunset from St Agnes
Sunset from St Agnes

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

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.