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  • Dundee in 50 Buildings by Brian King

    St Salvador’s Church, Dundee

    St Salvador's Church. (Dundee in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    One of the benefits of writing a book like Dundee in 50 Buildings book is that it literally makes you look again at buildings that you may have known all your life and notice details that you had not previously seen. Another is that it gives you a reason to visit places that you may have heard of but have never visited. In my case St Salvador’s Church was one such building. The church is situated in a different area of Dundee to the one in which I had grown up and, before researching the book, I had never had cause to visit it.

    St Salvador’s is the result of a mission to the Hilltown area of Dundee launched in 1855 by Bishop Alexander Penrose Forbes and Reverend James Nicholson of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Building on the site at Maxwelltown was undertaken in stages between 1858 and 1874. The first structure to be erected was the building that today is the Maxwell Centre but which originally comprised a school with a temporary church above. The church itself was built in two stages with the nave being constructed in 1867-8 and the chancel and Lady Altar in 1874.

    The Nave of St Salvador's Church. (Dundee in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    The man behind this building was one of the most important ecclesiastical architects of the Victorian era, George Frederick Bodley. Bodley was born in Hull in 1827 and in 1845 became a pupil of the foremost figure in the Gothic revival movement Sir George Gilbert Scott, to whom he was related by marriage. Like many of his contemporaries, Bodley was concerned not just with the structure of his buildings but with their furnishings and decoration, helping to revive the mediaeval use of colour in his church interiors.

    For the poor millworkers who occupied the Hilltown area at the time the church was built, walking into St Salvador’s must have been the amazing, uplifting experience that Bodley intended it to be. They were greeted by a dazzling display of colour and artwork that contrasted sharply with the grim realities of their daily lives in Victorian Dundee. The building is still capable of provoking such a reaction in the twenty first century.

    The Nave of St Salvador's Church. (Dundee in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

     

    The walls and ceiling are decorated throughout with stencil painting designed by Bodley. Originally in watercolour this was replaced in oil paint in 1936 and restored in 1972. The nave is mainly decorated in a light green colour designed to direct the eye towards the chancel. The chancel arch in contrast is chiefly a deep red colour. The painted and gilded iron chancel screen was designed by Bodley as was the beautifully painted panelled reredos which fills the whole of the east wall.  The central panels of the reredos depict the crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary and St John at the foot of the Cross. The surrounding panels show the Apostles and the Archangels. Above is a fresco of the Annunciation.

    Other notable features of the church include the highly decorated organ which was restored in 1997.The stained-glass windows show various saints and are the work of the renowned English firm of Burlison and Grylls, except for that in the rose window in the west gable of the Lady Chapel which was transferred from the similar window in the temporary church next door.

    The organ at St Salvador's Church. (Dundee in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    St Salvador’s Church remains an active place of worship in the Scottish Episcopal Church today. As well as the standard service times, the church is regularly open to visitors and has participated in Doors Open days in recent years. Much has changed about the Hilltown area in the century and more since St Salvador’s Church was built, but the area is still a deprived one and the church opens its doors to those in need each Sunday afternoon, providing food, drink, friendship and advice. Impressive as the building is, the fact that the church is still fulfilling its original mission is perhaps even more so.

    Visiting St Slavador’s for myself has not only given me an interest in seeing more of Bodley’s work elsewhere but also a determination when visiting other towns and cities to seek out more of the fascinating buildings that are not necessarily part of the tourist trail. Based on my own experience of writing one, I think that buying the local “in 50 Buildings” book would be a good place to start.

    Brian King's new book Dundee in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.

  • Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War by Sally White

    Belgian refugees arriving in the Netherlands, 1914. (Courtesy LOC, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    One of the joys of being a museum curator is all the odd bits of information that come your way.  I worked in Worthing Museum for almost 20 years and relished the salmagundi of snippets that I picked up.  One day I was leafing through an album of old press cuttings when I spotted one from 1920 that reported Worthing’s decision to adopt a town in France under the auspices of the British League of Help for the Devastated Areas of France. Like most people, I had never heard of this organisation and had no idea what they did.  Information was very thin on the ground in those pre-internet days but I set out to investigate.

    My research regularly encroached on my holidays and when I was in France I did a detour to Richebourg l’Avoué, the town that Worthing adopted.  I called on the Mayor and was delighted to find that his wife was the granddaughter of the man who had been Mayor in 1920 and whose visit to Worthing had been reported in the local papers.  They whisked me off in their car to visit a nonagenarian clog maker, Monsieur Sénéchal, who was happy to share his memories of the adoption with me, mentioning a number of the gifts that had been sent over to help the local people rebuild their lives and their town. He also enthused about the height of the Bengal Lancers and seeing The Prince of Wales at the opening of a local war cemetery. I visited a number of other towns that been adopted and helped in the aftermath of the First World War.

    The sheer scale of the effort needed to care for the refugees is illustrated by this photograph of 600 refugee children being given tea at Earl's Court London. (c. Imperial War Museum, ref. HU88813, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    After a while I felt I had gone as far as I could with my research, wrote an article about the adoption scheme, presented a paper at a conference, and put it all aside.  Some years later I was made redundant and dug out my notes. I broadened my research to include other civilian-run schemes that helped people here and abroad during and just after the war.  I soon realised the enormous scale of the contribution made by civilians, often acting on their own initiative and with great bravery and imagination.

    In 1929 a journalist called Mrs C. S. Peel wrote that one day someone could write a book about all the work civilians did to support the war effort.  I was amazed to find that nobody had ever tackled this subject and that most books about the war limited their references to civilian volunteers to enthusing about the efforts of VADs on the Western Front and to disparaging the efforts of those who busily knitted socks and mufflers for soldiers. The further I went with my research the more determined I became to write a book giving readers an insight into what hundreds of thousands of civilians achieved here and abroad.

    Having got an excruciating job with the local council to pay the bills I had to research, write, and give talks in my ‘spare time’.  In practice this meant getting up at 5.30 am so that I could get an hour’s work in each day before starting my main job, carrying on in the evenings, heading off to archives or the university library at weekends and using much of my annual leave to visit archive offices and museums.  I loved it and it kept me sane when the day job was at its worst. New areas of interest kept opening up.

    I had been unaware that 250,000 Belgian refugees fled to Britain in the early weeks of the war and had to be welcomed fed, housed and generally cared for.  Many of them stayed for the duration of the war and the volunteers who looked after them soon struggled to collect enough money to support them. I spent months engrossed in reading about the refugees and how hosts in different areas looked after their guests.  The committee in Cambridge produced a very useful booklet for the refugees to help them find their feet in England.  However, I suspect that recipes for dishes that included Toad in the Hole and Shepherd’s Pie may have seemed bewildering.

    Weaving was one of the crafts that the Quakers established at Knockaloe Camp on the Isle of Man to help occupy the internees and enable them to earn a small income. (c. Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Hospital units not only worked in France and Belgium but went off to Serbia and Russia where the volunteers battled extremes of weather, isolation, epidemics, being taken prisoner, working through the Russian Revolution and joining the Serbian Army on the Great Retreat over the mountains of Montenegro in the cruel depths of winter in addition to helping thousands of wounded soldiers in incredibly primitive conditions.

    The Quakers took on various roles that nobody else recognised.  During the war groups went out to France to help civilians living close to the Front.  They built simple wooden houses, provided furniture, clothes and other goods, ran a maternity hospital and an orphanage and helped on farms.  When the rebuilt villages were shelled the Quakers set about restoring them again.  They helped support refugees in camps in the Netherlands and set up feeding programmes to help starving people in Germany and Austria after the Armistice. Some of their workers were vilified when they realised that enemy aliens interned in camps on the Isle of Man and on mainland Britain were in desperate need of help.  They helped the internees’ families and set up craft workshops in the camps, reducing the incidence of mental health problems among the internees.

    A poster advertising the need for recruits to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment. (Courtesy LOC, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Groups set out onto the midge infested moors of Britain to collect sphagnum moss to be made into highly absorbent dressings and the Prince of Wales set up a centre for this work on Dartmoor. John Penoyre collected cricket sweaters from his friends and colleagues, which he dyed khaki and sent out to troops, when uniforms were in short supply.  Lady Smith-Dorrien recruited women to make thousands of cotton bags to hold the personal belongings of men in hospital. Other volunteers made unimaginable numbers of sandbags, knitted, sewed, rolled bandages, invented appliances to help amputees and men with other wounds, collected unwanted silver to raise money to buy ambulances, collected eggs and cigarettes for the sick and wounded, sent parcels to prisoners of war and were available to apply their ingenuity and adaptability to any other area where they could be of use.

    Many of the women who volunteered to work overseas were brave, indomitable mavericks who longed for adventure and who relished many of their experiences.  Over time stress took its toll on them. Some died, either through illness or injury. Some came home when they could no longer cope. It is no wonder that many of them found adapting to normal life difficult after the end of the war and a number stayed away, working in hospitals and orphanages in the countries they had come to love.

    Like many writers I could have gone on researching indefinitely but had to recognise when the time had come to start writing.  It is a strange feeling when you are no longer immersed in a particular subject and I am happy to be able to give talks about various aspects of the work these civilians did.  Now I have to turn to the subject for my next book.

    Sally White's new book Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Aldeburgh to Southwold by Terry Philpot

    By 1910, what was left of All Saints Church, Dunwich, was in danger of toppling into the sea, as it did twelve years later. (Courtesy of Michael Rouse, Secret Aldeburgh to Southwold, Amberley Publishing)

    Suffolk, particularly Southwold to Aldeburgh, still retains a beguiling, largely unspoiled remoteness. The flat landscape is dotted with farms, the big sky illuminates the littleness of life, and the ruined abbey and castle bespeak a rich past.

    In traversing this landscape, I confess to a personal connection, which has enhanced the pleasure of writing this book. The novelist Maggie Hemingway was born in Orford but moved to New Zealand when she was a small child and later settled in Deal in Kent. Yet, when she crossed the Stour at Manningtree on the train, she would say, ‘Now I’m home.’ My attachment is more distant, but nonetheless deeply felt. My paternal great-grandfather moved to London in the 1860s, leaving behind the ghosts of generations who had lived in the part of the county that is the subject of this book. The names of the villages through which I have often passed are redolent of family births, marriages, burials and places of earning a living (or sometimes not). My great-great-grandparents were married at Wenhaston in the church of the great doom painting, though they could never have seen it for at that time it was still hidden beneath Edward VI’s Protestant plaster. I have been coming to this area for forty years and whenever I cross the Essex-Suffolk border I still experience something of Maggie Hemingway’s sense of homecoming.

    The Martello Tower, Slaughden. (Courtesy of D. Kirkham, Landmark Trust, Secret Aldeburgh to Southwold, Amberley Publishing)

    So far as people are concerned, I have attempted to write of the subject’s association with the town or village, rather than offer a potted biography of their lives.

    Alas, in some cases, there is nothing to say as I could trace no more than a birthplace – like that of the great documentary film-maker Humphrey Jennings (Walberswick) and the Victorian photographer Robert Howlett (Theberton). While P. D. James had a home in Southwold and also set some of her books in the county, she wrote an entertaining and charming memoir, Time to be in Earnest, but this tells very little about her Suffolk life, other than that she entertained family and friends and was a regular communicant at St Edmund’s Church. (Her fellow crime writer, Ruth Rendell, lived in Babergh, which is outside the geographical scope of my remit.)

     

     

    Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh. (Courtesy of Colin Huggins, Secret Aldeburgh to Southwold, Amberley Publishing)

    With two necessary exceptions, I have drawn a line by writing about only those who are dead. Ronald Blythe, happily still writing at ninety-three, is inextricable from what I call the Aldeburgh Festival Circle. A later friend of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (she met them in 1971, only five years before the composer’s death) was the then young but accomplished novelist Susan Hill.

    Fortunately, the biographies of buildings and places are (usually) far less well-hidden than those of people, but there were many discoveries there too – even in an area already well mapped.

    The reader or visitor asks: Who? What? When? Where? Why? Whether events, buildings or people are familiar or obscured I have attempted to answer those questions and, in so doing, reveal their secrets.

    Terry Philpot's new book Secret Aldeburgh to Southwold is avialable for purchase now.

  • Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing by Bill Simpson

    USS Wasp in British waters in 1942. It is likely that it is in the Firth of Clyde. (c. IWM Image A 9483, Reproduced with the permission of the Imperial War Museum, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    Having written in the past about our local squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force here in Edinburgh, 603, I was both intrigued and uncomfortable about allegations made against the young American NCO pilot, ‘Bud’ Walcott, who was posted to the squadron in early 1942. At that time, Malta had been under siege by German and Italian forces based in Sicily since the summer of 1940 and things were grim. The island, in the middle of the Mediterranean was vital to the British campaign in North Africa and they were desperate to stop it falling into Axis hands.

    Axis aircraft based in Sicily 60 miles away were bombing Malta constantly and the British were struggling to keep them at bay with the limited fighter aircraft they could get through. In early 1942, it was decided that Spitfires were needed and 47 pilots (without the ground crews) of two auxiliary squadrons – 603 (City of Edinburgh) and 601 (County of London) Squadrons – with brand new Spitfires were discreetly taken into the western Mediterranean in the American carrier USS Wasp and in the early hours of 20 April 1942, they made a difficult take-off from the deck of the carrier to fly the 400 odd miles to Malta.

    An elevation of one of the Spitfire VCs flown by 603 Squadron to Malta. This one was flown by Bill Douglas. (c. Reproduced with the kind permisson of Richard Caruana, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    But only 46 arrived. Bud Walcott did not and it was immediately assumed that he had chosen to ‘desert’ to the enemy because he was frightened of flying in the Malta battle – said by some to be more intense and dangerous than the Battle of Britain. A signal from the Air Officer Commanding Malta to the Air Ministry in London stated that Walcott had ‘intended to desert’, that he had no intention of going to Malta and had previously landed in the Irish republic in an attempt to be interned and returned to the USA. It was subsequently suggested that having crash landed in ‘neutral’ Vichy French North Africa, he had made his way to the office of an American consul and been repatriated to his home country. It was also suggested that he had been seen in an internment camp but essentially, after taking off from Wasp, he was never seen again.

    Having been made, the allegation has been repeated in several works about the air fighting in Malta including, sadly, one of my own – although I did soften it because of the circumstances that Walcott found himself in. He was an American in a foreign air force, in a squadron in which he was disliked, about to be sent to some of the most vicious air fighting of the Second World War with no operational experience and finding himself in the more comfortable and familiar environment of an American warship.

    603 Squadron pilots on the deck of the USS Wasp, Walcott is in the back row, bareheaded. (c. Official US Navy photo, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    Could he be blamed for having second thoughts?

    I very quickly became concerned at the lack of evidence to justify the allegations made against him and together with a fellow writer and historian, Squadron Leader Bruce Blanche, tried to find out what evidence there was and if possible, establish just what did happen to Walcott. What we discovered was that Walcott’s life was buffeted by national factors out of his control – the Second World War and the Cold War and, intriguingly, that the decisions about what should happen to him when he landed in Dublin may have involved the head of the Irish government Éamonn De Valera and have been influenced by relations between neutral Eire and the United States. I suspect too, that some of the social attitudes within 603 and the auxiliaries who did not take kindly to the lively, almost brash young ‘Yank’ who arrived in the unit contributed.

    Walcott volunteered to fight for the British in the Second World War by joining the Royal Canadian Air Force – an act which could have cost him his US citizenship but he is given little credit for this. He was also involved in a frightening mid-air collision with another 603 Squadron Spitfire in which the other pilot was killed and this seems to have raised strong feelings of dislike for him in the unit. And these became to be expressed in the allegations against him all of which emanated from the squadron.

    603 Bill Douglas preparing his aircraft below deck for launching to Malta on 20 April 1942. Note the crude application of the blue paint particularly noticeable around the serial number. (c.Official US Navy photo, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    From the research we have carried out, I have been able to draw conclusions as to the quality of the evidence to support the allegations made and have found out just what did happen to Walcott both with regards to Malta and the rest of his life which came to a premature and rather tragic end in the early 1960s.

    I have to give my profound thanks to Squadron Leader Blanche for all of his help and encouragement without which this book would not have been written.

    The auxiliary squadrons were different to the regular RAF units. They drew their members from local areas and before the war, many of them were seen as gentlemens’ flying clubs for the wealthy young officers who joined as pilots and who – it has to be said – fought and died with great courage when war broke out. But many came from a privileged background – the nobility and the landed and professional classes. 601 was known as ‘the millionaires’ squadron’. The ground crews were also drawn from the local areas but tended to remain intact whilst the war progressed and the aircrews were killed, injured or posted on elsewhere to be replaced by non-auxiliary airmen. The essential spirit of the auxiliary squadrons resided with the ground crews who in some cases did not even regard some of the British pilots posted to the squadrons as real members of the squadrons because they were not auxiliaries.

    As an American, Walcott ‘ticked’ the wrong boxes and in my view paid the price.

    Bill Simpson's new book Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing is available for purchase now.

  • The Seventies Railway by Greg Morse

    A Class 46 on a 'parcels' in 1975, by which time Post Office traffic had dropped from its peak. (c. Colour-Rail, The Seventies Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    My earliest memory of the real railway is of the prototype High Speed Train plunging under a bridge near my Swindon home, but I got a much better look later in 1975 when a certain D1023 brought a long (long!) freight to a stand at the station while I was there with my Mum and Dad.

    I was completely rapt by the locomotive, which was long, blue and sleek, which seemed to block out the sky.  Though I was yet to start taking numbers, I did notice a long, black nameplate on the side. It said Western Fusilier.  I had no idea what a fusilier was, of course, but I knew I liked the word.

    All-too-soon the signal went green, the right of way was received and the big beast growled and moved forward. Before I knew it, the brake van's oil lamp was twinkling in the moonlight and it was gone.

    The end is nigh as Class 52s D1013 Western Ranger and D1023 Western Fusilier bring the 'Western Tribute' railtour into Bristol Temple Meads on 26 February 1977. (c. Rail Photoprints, The Seventies Railway, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

    I only saw one more ‘Western’ – though I didn’t know it – for I was witnessing an end and not a beginning. Anyone older (and wiser) than me would probably have been chasing the class on railtours like the ‘Westerns South Western’, ‘Western Talisman’ or ‘Western China Clay’, or making pilgrimages to the Graveyard – the Graveyard of the Diesels at Swindon Works, where many withdrawn examples sat forlorn, their fading paintwork peeling slowly in the sun.

    The writing had been on the wall not long after they’d started entering traffic in 1961, BR deeming their hydraulic transmission systems non-standard just four years later. Though the ‘Westerns’ and some of their five counterparts had been largely successful, all British Rail’s other regions were equipped to maintain diesel-electrics, which were also cheaper to build and maintain. Withdrawals were such that by April 1975, the ‘Westerns’ were the only type left in service. As they lacked the room to house the electric train heating equipment required by BR’s newer carriages, and as more of their work was taken (first by Class 50s usurped from Anglo-Scottish services by electrification, then by brand-new HST), their numbers ebbed and ebbed to the point that by February 1977 it was almost all over.

    It's around 21.15 on 26 February 1977, and with the suitably adorned D1023 now leading, the 'Western Tribute' tour prepares to leave Taunton for the final run back to Paddington. (c. Rail Photoprints, The Seventies Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    Imagine it’s Saturday 26 February, it’s half-eight, it’s sunny, it’s cold and you’re at Paddington for BR’s ‘Western Tribute’ tour. The action’s all on Platform 2, where a phalanx of spotters, rail fans and enthusiasts vie for a view of Westerns Ranger and Fusilier at the country end. Cameras click, microphones rise, rubbings are taken – you’d think the nameplates were seventeenth-century church brasses.

    Departure comes with an almighty roar, as the mighty duo draw the train over the points and on towards Westbourne Park. By the time they return – having taken in Swindon, Bristol, Bridgend, Swansea, Plymouth, Taunton and Reading – it will be twenty-to-midnight. Fusilier will return to its birthplace to be preserved for the nation; Ranger will make for Plymouth Laira, where it’ll shunt a few wagons on the Monday morning, before towing the ‘Tribute’s’ two understudies – Campaigner and Lady – to Newton Abbot. When the driver powers down, takes out the master key and climbs from the cab, that’ll be it…Ranger will range on BR no more.

    The End was covered on the local television news, it was covered in The Guardian too. No one had shed many tears when BR’s early diesel failures had been withdrawn, but those had died in the days of steam. The ‘Westerns’ might have seen off the Great Western’s mighty ‘Castles’ and ‘Kings’, but for younger believers, they were a favourite and their loss was much mourned. Of course it all made perfect sense if you were trying to run a railway, but still... thank goodness for memories. Thank goodness for preservation.

    Greg Morse's new book The Seventies Railway is aviable for purchase now.

  • The Sultans by Jem Duducu

    The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Rulers and Their World: A 600-Year History

    The Ottoman Empire is a topic that raises eyebrows. In some countries, it is a legacy best forgotten; in others, it is a hotly-debated topic and, in a handful, national pride has been nailed to this vital part of their history. Putting aside all the nationalist politics, the Ottoman Empire is a fascinating subject covering a dynasty that lasted 600 years. However, ignoring this empire is folly. What the Ottomans did and what happened after it was dismantled has affected the current politics in countries as diverse as Serbia, Iraq and Israel. My new book about the Ottomans attempts to put them into a historical perspective and also reveal the culture of the civilisation that is all too often overlooked in the quest for a purely military reading of their history or Western writers attempting to exaggerate the exotic rather than showing the similarities between the Sublime Porte and Western powers.

    Here then are just a few of the varied facts and stories about this empire that are so recent it's worth remembering that there are still a few alive today that were born subjects to the sultans.

    1) The founder of the empire was a man called Osman

    The imposing outer gate and wall of Topkapi Palace. The home of the Ottoman Sultans for centuries. (Author's collection, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    Osman, a Seljuk Turk, is the man who is seen as the founder of the empire. (His name is sometimes spelt Ottman or Othman, hence the term ‘Ottoman’.) The Seljuks had arrived from the Asiatic steppes in the 11th century AD and had been in Anatolia for generations, when Osman ruled a tiny Anatolian territory at the end of the 13th century and the early 14th century. He was very much a warrior in the mould of other great cavalry officers of the Middle Ages (like Genghis Khan before he won an empire).

    It was with Osman’s successor that, on his day of coronation, the tradition of wearing Osman’s sword, girded by his belt, began. This was the Ottoman equivalent of being anointed and crowned in the West and was a reminder to all of the thirty-six sultans who followed that their power and status came from this legendary warrior and that they were martial rulers. This certainly rang true in the first half of the history of the empire, and for the next 300 years, sultans would regularly be seen in battle; but as the empire matured and then waned, so the sultans began to shirk their duties on the battlefield.

    Osman’s lavishly-decorated sword and belt are the Ottoman equivalent of the coronation crown jewels, but it’s doubtful that what is seen today (on display in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul) is what Osman held in his hand. Putting it simply, Osman was unlikely ever to have had such an impractical sword, but it could be that the original blade was later plated and embellished.

    Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the West, a founder of an idea and a near-mythical figure. During his lifetime, he was so unimportant that we have absolutely no contemporary sources about him. We don’t know what he looked like; we have no proclamations extant from his reign. Osman’s reign began in what was then the Ottoman Dark Ages.

    2) The Ottomans were unlucky

    The statue in Uzbekistan of Emir Timur, Tamperlane, the conqueror of the early Ottoman Empire. (Courtesy of Francisco Anzola under Creative Commons, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    Only once did a sultan die during a battle (in battle) and only one sultan was ever captured by an enemy. Unfortunately for the early empire, these sultans were father and son. In 1389, at the famous Battle of Kosovo, Murad I was in his tent as his forces fought a brutal and bloody engagement with Serb forces. A contemporary account states that, ‘… having penetrated the enemy lines and the circle of chained camels, heroically reached the tent of Murat (sic) … (and killed him) by stabbing him with a sword in the throat and belly.’

    While this account claims to describe how Murad died, it doesn’t ring true. The idea that a dozen Serbs were able to break through the entire central force of the Ottoman army, which we know held for the whole battle, doesn’t make sense. Instead, there is a later report that as the Serb lines crumbled, a Serbian aristocrat (often named as Miloš Obilić) pretended to defect and was brought before the sultan. Murad, believing that any change to the battle would finally break the deadlock, met Miloš in his private tent, where the Serb lunged forward and stabbed Murad before the guards reacted. This would make more sense against the overall events of the day. Either way, after twenty-seven years of rule, Murad lay dead in a pool of his own blood.

    Murad’s son and heir, Bayezid I, was present at the battle and had already proven himself to be a fearsome warrior. He was known as Bayezid Yildirm (thunderbolt) because he moved as quickly and struck as lethally as a thunderbolt. Amongst many other military successes, he was to annihilate the last serious crusade sent from Europe to counter the rising tide of Islamic power. However in 1402, he had to face a new threat, that of the legendary Tamerlane (actual title Emir Timur). The two warlords met at the Battle of Ankara, where more than 150,000 men, horses and even war elephants clashed.

    Accounts of the battle are fairly sketchy and often contradictory. What is clear is that a pivotal point in the battle took place when some of Bayezid’s Anatolian vassals switched sides or melted away, leaving him with an even greater numerical disadvantage against Tamerlane. However, the core of the Ottoman force fought bravely. The battle was vicious and the resulting carnage was enormous. By the end of the day it was said that around 50,000 Ottoman troops lay dead; the same was said of Tamerlane’s force. If these numbers are true (and there’s no way of knowing), it was one of the bloodiest battles in world history prior to the 20th century. Bayezid might have been up against a man who was his equal in leadership, but Tamerlane simply had more of everything - and some elephants.

    Bayezid had thrown all of his empire’s resources into the battle, but he couldn’t overcome the fact that Tamerlane’s empire was bigger. By the end of that violent and sweltering July day, Bayezid’s army was in tatters, and he and his wife had been captured, showing that Bayezid had personally fought to the bitter end.

    Bayezid’s death in captivity led to a period of civil war and infighting amongst his sons, each of whom wanted to become the next sultan. These events almost undid the empire just 100 years into its history.

    3) Ottomans are not the same as ‘Turks’

    The Ottoman Harem, a small village where around 300 concubines and their children lived. It was a palace within the Sultans' palace of Topkapi. (Author's collection, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Ottoman Empire is that many of the ‘Turks’ mentioned in the European chronicles were no such thing. It is thanks to European ignorance (that has lasted centuries) and to nation building in Turkey that the Ottoman sultans have become ‘Turkish’ sultans. Quite often in European Renaissance literature, the sultan was referred to as the ‘Great Turk’, a title that would have meant nothing to the Ottoman court. So let’s clear this up: the Ottoman Empire, for most of its existence, predated nationalism. The attacking forces at the famous ‘Fall of Constantinople’ against the Byzantine Empire in 1453 weren’t all ‘Turks’; in fact not all of the besieging forces were even Muslim.

    More than thirty of the sultans were the sons of women from the harem. Why is that salient? Because none of these women were Turkish; none of them were even born Muslim. Most of their backgrounds have been lost to the mists of time, but it seems most were European Caucasian girls, so Serbs, Greeks, Ukrainians. It is likely that later ‘Turkish’ sultans were genetically far more Greek than Prince Philip.

    Similarly, any of the legendary Janissaries (including the famous architect Mimar Sinan, who started his career as a Janissary) were all Christian children who had been brought into this elite fighting force and then converted to Islam. The best modern analogy to describing anything Ottoman as ‘Turkish’ is like saying that the anything from the British Empire was exclusively ‘English’.

    4) Suleiman was even more magnificent than you think

    A contemporary western portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent, arguably the greatest of all Ottoman Sultans. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    In the West he has become known as Suleiman the Magnificent. In the East he is remembered as Suleiman the Lawgiver. However here is a full list of his titles and they are fascinating:

    ‘Sultan of the Ottomans, Allah's deputy on earth, Lord of the Lords of this world, Possessor of men's necks, King of believers and unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of the East and the West, Majestic Caesar, Emperor of the Chakans of great authority, Prince and Lord of the most happy constellation, Seal of victory, Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world, the shadow of the almighty dispensing quiet on the Earth.’

    I think we can agree that his business cards would have been awesome!

    Let's break things down: The first title is obvious and ‘Allah’s deputy’ implies his supreme Islamic authority without overstepping the mark (the word ‘Islam’ means ‘one who submits to God’). The ‘possessor of necks’ harks back to his father Selim’s practice of beheading even senior officials; anyone who displeased the sultan could expect to be beheaded for certain crimes.

    The next few titles are unexpectedly Roman. The Ottomans were aware that when they conquered Constantinople (in essence, the Eastern Roman Empire) the titles of ‘emperor’ and ‘Caesar’ still had importance. Claiming to be ‘Emperor of the East and West’ was not only an exaggeration, but also a direct challenge to the authority of Rome which, at this point, was hopelessly outclassed by the Ottomans.

    ‘King of Kings’ may sound a little Biblical, but that's only because the Gospels took the title from the Persian emperors’ shahenshah, literally, ‘king of kings’. So, again, the Ottomans are challenging a major rival, but this time it’s in the East, the Safavid Persians.

    The next few titles are little more than showing off, but then we come to ‘Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world’, which shows that the sultans were well aware that their empire was multi-cultural and multi-religious, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others all living together, not necessarily in harmony, but much better than anywhere else at the time. The ejection of the Jews and Muslims from Spain was still fresh in the minds of those living in the first half of the 16th century.

    Only two of Suleiman’s military campaigns failed; everything else he swept before him. When he wasn’t in the saddle, he was sitting in his opulent palace in the largest city in Europe. His empire stretched for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in all directions. If anyone should be called ‘magnificent’, Suleiman fit the bill perfectly.

    5) Perhaps the most disgusting name for a cake ever was the so-called Roman placenta cake

    I hasten to reassure the reader that placenta is not one of the ingredients in what is a delicious confection. The cake was originally a multi-layered pastry with cheese, covered in honey and bay leaves.

    The name is misleading as it is thought to come from the Greek ‘plakous’, meaning thin layer (the same root word for the term ‘placenta’). It is mentioned by a few Roman writers, including Cato, so it was obviously well known in his day and ... well, delicious enough to write about. These Roman references attest to the ancient origins of this allegedly ‘Turkish’ pastry.

    By now you have probably realised that we are talking about [a variation on] baklava. There are some differences from the original version because today it’s made with filo pastry, the cheese has been replaced with ground nuts and, while honey is still used, sugar-based syrup is far more common. While it is likely that baklava originated in the Byzantine imperial court, the recipe was also to be found in the 16th-century kitchens of Topkapi Palace. We know that baklava was first mentioned in English in 1650, so this exotic pastry has been known even in Western Europe for centuries.

    6) The greatest humiliation in Ottoman military history was inflicted by Napoleon

    The Ottoman Empire was a forgotten alley in the multiple alliances created to stop Napoleon. In this British cartoon, the Ottomans are shown to be strong but barbaric. (Courtesy of the Rijks museum, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    On 20 May 1799, Napoleon laid siege to the port of Acre, where he fired the few cannons he had at the mighty defences, while the defenders sought refuge behind the city’s walls. As Napoleon was now committed to the siege, Ottoman forces were able to gather a relief force and marched to the aid of the city. Napoleon had always picked competent generals and, even though his force was small, Jean-Baptiste Kléber was a battle-hardened and highly capable general. His force of around 2,000 men (later joined by a little 2,000 of Napoleon’s men) met the Ottoman relief force at Mount Tabor in Palestine. By comparison, Abdullah Pasha al-Azm, the governor of Damascus, had gathered an army of over 30,000. The French were outnumbered about 9-1; but, as we have seen, numbers don’t count for everything, and the Battle of Mount Tabor was possibly the greatest (often forgotten) humiliation of Ottoman martial power.

    The Ottoman forces were made up of Sipahis, Mamelukes and other brave but outdated warrior classes. From dawn to late afternoon, Kléber sat in the hollow anti-cavalry squares, resisting every attack by Pasha al-Azm’s men. The Ottoman governor’s losses were mounting, but his army so dwarfed the French force that he could afford them. Meanwhile, after ten hours of fighting under the sweltering sun of Palestine, Kléber’s men were tired, thirsty and dangerously low on gunpowder and ammunition. It was then that Napoleon arrived with about 2,000 men, not enough to match the numbers in the Ottoman army but enough to distract them by sending a few hundred men to attack and loot the Ottoman camp. Abdullah Pasha al-Azm thought Napoleon’s tiny force was the vanguard of a larger army and panicked, thinking he was about to be attacked from the rear and flanks. He ordered a general retreat, at which point the two French forces charged the disengaging Ottomans, and the orderly Ottoman retreat turned into a messy rout.

    Total losses of Ottoman soldiers were around 6,000 killed and another 500 captured, versus two dead French soldiers. An army of around 4,500 had fought an army of over 30,000 and not only won, but sustained just two fatalities. It was a devastating humiliation for Selim III, and a spectacular triumph that allowed Napoleon to continue his siege of Acre (although he would not take the port and this would mark the furthest extent of his conquests in the Middle East).

    7) The Ottomans outlasted all their main opponents… just

    From the middle to the end of the empire, when it was on its long slow decline to collapse, the empire faced three main rival powers that crop up again and again in Ottoman history: to the East, the Persian Safavids; to the north, the Tsars of Russia and to the West, the Habsburgs.

    The Safavids fell first to Afghan invaders in 1736; and, while Persia/Iran would remain an opponent to the late Ottoman sultans, it was never the same expansionist threat it had been earlier under the Safavid dynasty.

    Similarly, as the Tsars of Russia began to spread their power south towards the Crimean peninsula and the Black Sea, the Ottomans began to lose ground and were forced to fight multiple wars with the Tsars. The most famous of these in the West is the Crimean War, when France and Britain joined sides with the Ottomans to prop up the failing state against the rising star of Russian power. However, the sultans were still seated in power when the last Tsar, Nicholas II, was first deposed and later shot.

    The Habsburgs and Ottomans fought so regularly that Vienna was twice besieged by Ottoman forces. There were so many clashes between the two empires that some of the war names were half-hearted, such as the Long Turkish War (1593-1606). However, during the last war the Ottoman Empire was involved in (the First World War) the Ottomans were on the same side as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led by a Habsburg. That dynasty didn’t quite make it to the end of the war, whereas the Ottoman Empire survived for a few years after it. The Ottoman sultans didn’t have time to gloat, however. The empire was dismantled by the victorious Allied powers of First World War, and a way of life that had lasted from the Middle Ages into the 20th century was gone by 1922, when the last sultan, Mehmed VI, was forced into exile.

    Jem Duducu's new book The Sultans: The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Rulers and Their World: A 600-Year History is available for purchase now.

  • The Royal Marines and the War at Sea 1939-45 by Martin Watts

    HMS Glory pictured in 1946. (The Royal Marines and the War at Sea 1939-45, Amberley Publishing)

    As an academic historian and lecturer this is the first time that I have written for a general readership as well as a specialist audience. History, in popular culture and media, has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the past twenty five years, and I think this is mainly due to research of lived experiences, often referred to as history from the bottom up. One of the effects of this approach is to bring to life both collective and individual experiences, so that readers can appreciate the consequences of the actions and behaviours of states, organisations and those in power, upon the ordinary and not so ordinary person. This allows for a more balanced and nuanced interpretation of the past and, by invoking the human condition, takes public discourse in history to a more engaging and per4sonally involved level.

    Sergeant Major Nobby Elliott (The Royal Marines and the War at Sea 1939-45, Amberley Publishing)

    In this book I have sought to combine history from the top down, using primary sources to analyse strategy and the design and function of ships, with history from the bottom up, whereby the wartime career of a great uncle has been used to provide a spine for the history I have to tell. My great uncle Nobby Elliott served in the Royal Marines 1924-50 and spent 5 years at sea, as a gunlayer, during the Second World War, serving in 3 types of warship and in all maritime theatres of war. My hope, supported by the extremely helpful team at Amberley, is that this combination will add to public knowledge and understanding of the prolonged and desperate war fought at sea, in the face of two foes - the opposition and the unforgiving waters that threatened the very survival of friend and foe alike.

    Over 70 years have passed since the end of the war, and it seems to me (as a former merchant seaman) that public awareness of Britain's dependence upon the sea and ships is not what it used to be, and I hope this book will go some way to restoring the balance and acknowledging the debt that is owed to those who lost their lives in the ocean wastes.

    Martin Watts new book The Royal Marines and the War at Sea 1939-45 is available for purchase now.

  • Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France' by Moya Longstaffe

    Joan of Arc depicted by Albert Lynch in Figaro magazine, 1903. The epitome of the received Joan image; anyone would recognise this figure, despite the fact that no portrait from life of the Maid exists. (Author's collection, Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France', Amberley Publishing)

    The facts of Joan of Arc’s life are (and always have been) well known, established beyond dispute. Her life and death are fully documented from childhood to her very public execution in Rouen. Both in the chronicles of the time and above all in the verbatim proceedings of the two trials. The first of which (1431, Rouen) condemned her and the second (1452-56, essentially appeal proceedings, with hearings held in Rouen, Domrémy, Orleans and Paris) which annulled the verdict of Rouen. I devote three chapters of the book specifically to the first trial and examine the second trial in the final chapter (there are twenty-one chapters in total).

    What challenges our understanding is the transformation of this quiet, obedient and pious child into the young girl who, overcoming all opposition and barriers, determinedly made her way to the king and persuaded him to let her lead an army to lift the siege of Orleans and next, again despite all opposition, led him through hostile territory to his coronation at Rheims. What was the nature of her inspiration? What did she tell the king in that first famous interview that left him radiant with joy? I can only present the evidence and leave the reader to ponder it. Throughout her trial, Joan stubbornly refused to divulge the secret she had revealed to Charles VII.

    A more imperious Joan. 'Joan of Arc imprisoned in Rouen' by Pierre Henri Revoil, 1819. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art via the Isaacson-Draper Foundation, Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France', Amberley Publishing)

    No startling new facts about Joan are likely to be unearthed. We would like to have a contemporary portrait, but none has come down to us, although one at least did exist and she mentions it during her trial.  One important document is missing: the proceedings of the commission which examined her at Poitiers. Before she was allowed to set out for Orleans. The panel, numbering about twenty members, was composed of several bishops and senior clergy, mostly qualified in law or theology. No-one knows what happened to this document, we only have a summary of the findings. Quicherat, the editor of the five great volumes of the two trials (1841-1849), writes, Posterity will forever mourn the loss of the minutes of Poitiers, the finest document, I have no hesitation in saying, that we could ever possess on Joan of Arc, since that immortal young woman showed herself there in all her freshness and inspiration, full of gaiety, vigour, enthusiasm, replying spontaneously to unbiased judges that she was sure to win over”. A copy must have been sent to Rome, but so far all searches in the Vatican archives have yielded nothing.

    A 1905 photograph of the keep of Rouen Castle, which is now known as the Tower of Joan of Arc. This tower, with walls four metres thick, is the only remaining part of the castle of Rouen, dismantled in 1591. Joan was imprisoned in one of the other six towers, but was taken here and threatened with the instruments of torture on 9 May 1431. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France', Amberley Publishing)

    The social, political and military history of the quarrel between France and England from the turn of the fifteenth century until the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453 is of course presented and examined in all its complexity. In France that covers the reigns of Charles VI and Charles VII, in England that of Henry IV and Henry V, ending during the reign of the unfortunate Henry VI. In Burgundy it covers the reigns of the devious Duke John the Fearless and that of his son, Philip the Good, the magnificent Duke of the Western World, with his three wives (not all at the same time!), twenty-four mistresses and eighteen illegitimate offspring,

    Above all, I wanted to bring to life Joan, as we hear her describe her childhood and adolescence and her career in her own words, recorded in the minutes of the first trial, and as we meet her again in the testimony of childhood friends, neighbours, comrades–in-arms, and various persons who had observed her or played a more active role during the Rouen trial. The second trial is a very important source of evidence, often unfairly overlooked or decried (pace George Bernard Shaw, that wicked old tease). But of course, we can understand her properly only in her time and it was equally important to bring to life the people of France. From the nobles at court and in the army to the terrible distress of the poor ordinary inhabitants of besieged towns, of the countryside and villages, suffering all the ills of war, from famine to the utter destruction of homes and fields and the rampaging of mercenaries on the loose.  I hope that the overall picture I have painted is full and fair.

    Moya Longstaffe's book Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France' is available for purchase now.

  • Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society by Iain Ferris

    The Nile Mosaic, Praeneste/Palestrina. First quarter of the second century AD. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Palestrina. (Author's phote, Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society, Amberley Publishing)

    My newly-published Amberley book presents a broad analysis of the place and role of animals in ancient Roman society and their meaning and significance is interpreted in cultural terms. Animals were highly significant and important in the Roman world and in the Roman imagination. Most obviously, there would have been working animals on the majority of Roman farms and animals were often kept as household pets. Meat and fish were highly important ingredients in Roman cookery and supplies had to be located and maintained. Animals were also commonly employed in warfare in the Roman period. The story of the extraordinary slaughter of animals in the Roman arena for entertainment and by organised hunting inevitably hangs heavily over this study. Animal sacrifice was considered as central to the practice and rites of Roman religion according to many authorities. Less obvious, but no less important, was the widespread appearance of images of animals as attributes of various Roman gods and goddesses, the creation and acceptance of the idea of mythological animals and beasts, and the meaning of the symbolism of animals in the ancient world. Finally, consideration has been given in the book to the concept of Nature and the natural world as filtered through the Roman cultural gaze and how this may have impacted on various manifestations of apparent cruelty to animals in Roman society. Along the way readers will also learn about some more esoteric topics. Did the Romans keep domesticated weasels in their homes to combat mice, rats, and snakes, for instance? And did they really eat dormice?

    Dolphin grave marker. First half of first century AD. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia. (Author's photo, Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society, Amberley Publishing)

    As has been the case with all my previous books there is a great deal of reliance here on visual evidence, that is representations of animals in Roman art and particularly in the form of sculptures, and as images on coins, mosaics, wall paintings, and decorated everyday items. The book is also a story of how art depicting animals became as much a part of Roman culture as real animals played in Roman society. There can be no doubt that image and imagination together helped shape the Romans' understanding of Nature.

    This study is not in any way a natural history of any particular species of animal, but rather of humans at a certain point in time and of the way they behaved towards animals, as far as we can gauge and understand such a set of relationships. Readers of books on so-called Celtic religion will often have come across the thesis that Celtic people were somehow more attuned to Nature than their Roman and Romanised counterparts and that their religious beliefs and practices reflected a symbiotic link between Nature and Celtic culture that simply did not exist in the Roman world or was not as well developed. However, this would appear to be somewhat of an academic straw man, and it is difficult to see that this was in fact true when it can be demonstrated without doubt that Roman culture and religion were equally in touch with the natural world, as readers will see throughout the course of my book.

    Of course, there were animals in the Roman countryside, both wild and farmed. But one might deduce from many modern studies of the Roman world that there was a complete split between town and country and that city life was antipathetic if not exactly opposite to Nature and to most extents free of animal life in general. From nits in their hair and intestinal worms, from mosquitoes in the marshes in and around Rome, from thrips in their milled grain to mice in their kitchens, from passerine birds in their gardens to scavenging, opportunistic foxes in the back alleys of houses and on the fringes of the cities animals were indeed ever present, providing a kind of murmuring undercurrent and susurration to Roman urban life. Throw consideration of guard dogs and other working animals and pets into the mix and then suddenly the Roman city seems to have been a natural host to animal life.

    Guard dog with Cave Canem (Beware of the Dog) inscription. House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii. 63-79 BC. (c. Eufrosine, Wikimedia Commons, Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society, Amberley Publishing)

    The most disturbing and distressing aspect of this study is undoubtedly consideration of the astonishing cruelty of animal spectacles in the arena that appear to have begun in Rome in the third century B.C., and perhaps whose origins lay in the triumphal displays of captured African elephants staged by Marius Curius Dentatus in 275 B.C. and Lucius Caecilius Metellus in 250. Many early arena shows were simply displays of exotic animals for the general public, allowing them access to the sight of creatures that otherwise at the time might have been only seen by their elite contemporaries and those Roman aristocrats who had used their wealth and connections to stock their own vivaria or animal enclosures in Rome and its environs. Exotic animals like elephants were sometimes trained to dance, walk on a tightrope, or pick up items, according to Pliny the Elder and other ancient writers. Animal shows involving violence and combat, known to the Romans as venationes or hunts, possibly began in 186 B.C. when lions and leopards featured in a show sponsored by Marcus Fulvus Nobilior. Whether the animals fought each other on this occasion or fought against human performers is unknown. Certainly, it would appear that bloody venatio shows developed out of the culture of gladiatorial spectacles. The last recorded venationes in Rome took place as late as A.D. 523. While acknowledging the cruelty and human suffering associated with the gladiatorial shows, discussion in the book is restricted to the animal games and the arena executions involving animals.

    A captured elephant in transit. Detail of the Great Hunt Mosaic. Piazza Armerina, Sicily. After AD 320. (Photo c. Professor R.J.A. Wilson (Vancouver), Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society, Amberley Publishing)

    The sponsorship of public gladiatorial and animal shows became a way for the rich and powerful of Rome to display their wealth and enhance their status, influence and power. Sponsorship itself became a locus of political competition in the late Republic and was to become a facet of Roman imperial largesse. In his Res Gestae, a quantified justification of his reign and achievements, the first emperor Augustus proudly claimed that at twenty six venationes held during his reign a total of three thousand five hundred African animals had been slain, setting a high bar for those emperors that followed. When the Roman poet Juvenal complained about the political apathy of his fellow citizens of the late first and early second century A.D. and their failing to react against the unreasonable or eccentric behaviour of autocratic emperors he coined a famous phrase that would resonate down the years. These citizens craved and were satisfied with panem et circenses, that is bread and circuses, he wrote. Many emperors too found that the provision of mass entertainment and the occasional public distribution of free grain easily diverted critical attention away from the more negative aspects of their reigns. The provision of such spectacles was a necessary strategy for making imperial power visible in Rome.

    Once the Romans started to think of exotic animals as commodities for their use and amusement it validated and indeed institutionalised the ill treatment that certain kinds of animals experienced in public spectacles. There had never been such a marked instance of this circumstance before: violence towards animals was part of a wider progression towards greater violence of human towards human. The market for exotic animals thankfully collapsed after the end of the Roman Empire in the west and this must have allowed damaged ecosystems to start recovering and depleted animal populations to start to grow again. Irreversible regional extinctions though had taken place.

    A history of animals in Roman times such as that presented in my book is not parallel to the history of Roman imperialism or of Roman culture; rather, it is part of the same study, and certainly should be. The book proposes a way to understand ancient Roman culture through analysing the society's relationship with animals. If negative Roman and animal relationships resulted in some form of psychic damage, at least my account hopefully takes something from the discussion of its once living subjects, almost their very flesh, skin, and breath, and looks at how they were woven into the complex tissue of historical memory that constituted Roman culture, so that these animals may live again conceptually for us through consideration of their existence.

    Iain Ferris' new book Cave Canem: Animals and Roman Society is available for purchase now.

  • Abandoned Villages by Stephen Fisk

    Some of the farmhouses at Cosmeston. The nearest building on the right is a bakery, and on the left there is a round pigsty, which is sometimes occupied by a pig. (Abandoned Villages, Amberley Publishing)

    I retired in 2003. Having worked as a clinical psychologist I left with no plans at all for the future, but reasonably confident that new interests and activities would soon begin to come along. One of my biggest interests since then has been the abandoned villages of Britain.

    An early inspiration was Richard Muir's wonderful book The Lost Villages of Britain. Before long I was exploring the sites of villages not far from my home in South Wales. Cosmeston, the only deserted medieval village that has been reconstructed; Kenfig, the castle and town built by the Anglo-Normans as part of their attempt to conquer this part of Wales, but almost completely covered by sand during huge storms in the fifteenth century.

    Top o' th' Knoll in Haslingden Grane. For about fifty years from the 1830s, Top o' th' Knoll was the home of Andrew Scholes, otherwise known as Owd Andrey - a man of many talents. (Abandoned Villages, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

    Over the next few years I enjoyed trips to all parts of Britain. In Sussex, for example, I went to Tide Mills and Lowfield Heath. Tide Mills got its name as it was close to a flour mill driven by tidal power. The mill closed in 1883, but the village survived until the early part of World War Two. Lowfield Heath, on the main road from London to Brighton, lost its attractions after the development of Gatwick airport very close to it. By 1974 everyone had moved away and it was turned into a trading estate (but luckily one of my favourite churches was allowed to remain standing).

    Another trip took me to Lancashire and Greater Manchester. Local history expert Alan Crosby was kind enough to meet me at Haslingden Grane and show me around the valley. Many fascinating ruins survive, the most splendid being Top o' th' Knoll, the home of Andrew Scholes. Andrew Scholes, otherwise known as Owd Andrey, was a poet and violinist, but remembered above all for building a cart inside his house and then finding it was just too big to get out of the door.

    On the same trip I visited three reservoirs close to Rochdale. In the Cowm valley life became increasingly difficult after the reservoir was constructed and the last residents moved out in 1950. Both Watergove and Greenbooth reservoirs have textile mills and small villages submerged beneath them.

    Croick church in Strathcarron, where the people of Glencalvie stayed for a few days before departing. On the left you can see the east window, where messages were scratched to record their plight. (Abandoned Villages, Amberley Publishing)

    A longer and very memorable trip took me around much of Scotland. I saw several places near the sea where in various ways shifting sand led to villages being abandoned; the remains of villages close to mining and industrial enterprises that were gradually deserted after those enterprises came to an end; and in the far north of Scotland the empty sites of communities where people were evicted during the Highland Clearances of the nineteenth century.

    After a while I began to think about publishing the results of my travels and research. A book or website were the options. I decided to develop a website, the Abandoned Communities website, and I am very glad I made that choice. A website makes it much easier for readers to get in touch, and I have many people to thank for telling me about abandoned villages I did not know about; people who lived in abandoned villages or their descendants who have given me information and photographs of life in their village while it still existed; and even one or two people who have explained the meaning of local words or have offered to read or interpret old documents that I was having trouble with. Having said that, I am now very grateful to Amberley for giving me a chance to produce a book as well.

    Stephen Fisk's new book Abandoned Villages is available for purchase now.

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