Daisy – a Writer’s Progress

You know that theory, the one that believes that declaring your aims publicly helps you to achieve them; a bit like New Year’s Resolutions I guess. If the whole world knows you are trying to give up smoking, lose weight or run a marathon, then you feel you have a greater obligation to deliver. So, this is where I nail my own proverbial colours to the mast. A few people know that, since my last writing project finished, I have been toying with moving from non-fiction to fiction. I had a story in my head; I may still write it one day but then, suddenly, a new story has taken hold and won’t let me go. The characters and their lives have been whirling through my brain for a few months; I’ve tried to push them aside whilst other things needed attention but they hammer at my being when I least expect it. So, you heard it here first, one day there will be a novel, if I live that long. It was this or study for an MA in experimental archeaology – I may still do that. This is, in theory, cheaper and will be a more flexible commitment and anyway it just won’t wait. I don’t want to be the next best seller – that’s probably just as well – I just want to tell a story that is clamouring to escape.

I haven’t written fiction since my angst-ridden teenage years but I owe it to the heroines of my story to try to resurrect any talent that I may have had then, phoenix-like, from the ashes of my later middle years (I refuse to say old age). There will be no spoilers but from time to time, I will be blogging progress reports. Don’t expect tallies of thousands of words a day – oh well, if you must ask, 637 words so far. Predictably, this is a story set in the past, not the seventeenth century as you might expect but the more recent past, so I have plenty of research that needs doing along the way and progress in terms of words on pages will be slow. Periodically, you may see impassioned pleas for help from experts in x, y and z. The current x, y and z are diptheria, living with an anorexic adult child and coroner’s court procedure – any takers? You may even read of the harvest that I garner as a result of these research labours, or the frustrations as I furrow stonier ground.

My characters were all real people, dangerous I know. There will be none of this ‘any resemblance to real people living or dead is purely coincidental’ lark. The main events actually happened but the very raw, very real and in some ways very modern emotions, like the dynamics between the characters, I am having to weave from my imagination, empathy and best guesses. From the clues I have given, some of you will know whose story I am going to tell. I promise that I will try to deal fairly with all who tiptoe through my pages, or indeed crash boldly across my keyboard. I will not be altering the facts that I can uncover but this will be fiction not family history, so I will be inventing likely incidents and encounters to paint on to the factual canvas. Look out for the #Daisy to join the journey.


Maps, Surveys, Displays and Other Historical Randomness

I’ve been here, there and almost everywhere over the last few weeks. Trying to find various far flung places is not always easy and sometimes our not so trusty sat-nav fails us (see below for some of the gory details). Mapping our ancestors and the communities of the past is just as important as knowing where we are going in the present. Although it is not a course of my own devising, I am pleased to be tutoring the ‘Maps and Surveys – Locating your Ancestors’ course for Pharos Tutors, starting on 9th August. There may still be spaces, so please do book. The course is primarily about British sources but it is all online, so those of you with British ancestors can study it wherever you are in the world. Apart from a general overview, we shall be looking in detail at one of my favourite sources – the 1910 Valuation Office Survey, as well as the tithe maps and apportionments and enclosure maps. Do join me!

I certainly needed a map on several occasions recently. When we go out swording and spindling, which we’ve been doing a great deal lately, we take a vehicle of suitable dimensions – you try getting eighteen pikes (no not the fish) into a Nissan Micra. So not in the Nissan Micra then but for reasons we won’t go in to, in a vehicle with no way of charging the sat-nav. This means that, in fear of the battery running out, we delay turning on the sat-nav until we get to the point where we are almost lost. Sat-nav set for a school in south east Devon, via Crediton, to avoid as much rush hour traffic as possible and we are on our way. We get well beyond Crediton before we feel the need to turn on the sat-nav for advice. We follow Sally sat-nav’s exhortations to go right, left and ‘turn around where possible’ with only a few slight hiccups when we reach roads that have been built since she was last updated. Suddenly we appear to be miles away from where we should be. I resort to a map (once a girl guide …..) and we arrive with minutes to spare – good job I am genetically programmed to leave what is normally ridiculously early for any event. Later we realise the problem. Even though we were well past Crediton, we had asked to go via Crediton and that is what the sat–nav was trying to make us do – lesson learned.

Amongst all the school bookings have been talks to grown-ups. One was at Devon Rural Archive. We needed a map to find that one too but what a gem. A really great set up, a full house and a very appreciative audience for my seventeenth century gardens presentation. A visit is definitely recommended. Then there was a talk to a Somerset WI who were celebrating their 85th birthday, a yummy birthday tea as well on this occasion! We decided to combine this trip with picking up a ‘collection only’ chest of drawers that I had purchased on eBay. Again we have the large pike-carrying non sat-nav charging vehicle. First finding the industrial estate where the chest of drawers is hiding, comparatively straight forward. Next, getting the chest of drawers into said vehicle – Ah. I had sensibly measured the space at home where it was to go and it fitted. Had I measured the vehicle. Err…. that would be a No. Well, in the end, with much manouvering, we inserted said chest of drawers into said vehicle. Had it been a centimetre larger in any direction we would have been in trouble.

Our local history society has been on display at various events in the village and beyond lately. A few days ago we were part of an open day at a nearby iron age hill fort. Actually getting to the display area by the fort was a logistical nightmare. We needed to get a table, display boards and various books and papers to what was effectively the middle of nowhere. You will note also that this was a hill fort, the clue is in the name. Our Iron Age forebears liked to have a commanding view. We did find the nearest point on the road with the aid of maps, directions and signs erected by the organisers. Sat-navs are no use for hill forts surrounded by woods. We then had to get our equipment along the footpaths to the hill fort. Chris manfully agreed to risk life and vehicle by driving along a bridleway but it was still a jolly long way to transport our belongings. I can verify that I am just too short to comfortably carry a pasting table half a mile without it banging on the uneven ground. Having been blown away at the recent Buckland fete, on this occasion, we were adamant that our display needed to be under cover and out of the wind. Sure enough, we were provided with a large tent, with jolly, retro curtains. Unfortunately, this was a hot day with no sign of wind or rain, so any perusal of our display was limited by how long the public could endure the heat and humidity in the tent! Luckily, we were helped by landrover transport on the way back to civilisation.

We now seem to have summer at last, just as I planned to do things to the house and garden that require temperatures of under 30 degrees, not that I am complaining. I also have visits from small persons to look forward to over the next couple of weeks – hurrah!

Harnessing the Facebook Generation: ideas for involving young people in family history and heritage and other news

Busy, busy, busy. What with the job I must not mention, now almost completed and Swording and Spindling like mad it has all been very hectic. It is especially satisfying to have spent five days in schools in the last fortnight and to have been so well received by staff and students (they all asked us back next year – what more could we ask for?). In the same fortnight, two talks for adults as well, so much for ‘retirement’.

TDSCF3191hings have taken a bit of an Australian turn lately. I spoke to the Society of Australian Genealogists about causes of death. Sadly this was not an all expenses paid trip; my presence was merely virtual. In addition, the Australian company Unlock the Past have published another of my booklets Harnessing the Facebook Generation: ideas for involving young people in family history and heritage, something I feel very strongly about. It can be purchased from the publishers.  It is also available as an ebook and it should soon be on sale in print form from UK and Canadian outlets. It is always exciting to hold the actual copies in your hand, even though you know what is inside! Australia are going to have their own Family History Expo in October; the down under equivalent of RootsTech or Who Do You Think You Are? Live. Unfortunately I won’t be going but if you are in the right hemisphere, do give it some thought.

I have also been ‘Racing’ for Life in aid of Cancer Research. Despite the temperature suddenly soaring to 10 degrees above anything I had encountered so far in what has laughingly passed for our summer, I survived. I was under strict instructions not to ‘race’; really difficult when you are as competitive as I am. So no trying to come in under 40 minutes as I usually do. Still I did get round the 5km in under three-quarters of an hour, so I guess I just have to grow old gracefully and be content with that. There is still time to sponsor me.

#EUref A Historian’s Perspective

I am making a once in a lifetime exception to my self-imposed embargo on blogging about politics or religion, on a day that I feel may be marked by the historians of the future as a memorable day. Undoubtedly today is a watershed, perhaps a watershed on the scale of the Norman Conquest, Henry VIII’s capricious decision to divorce Anne Boleyn, or the loss of America as a colony. You are probably aware that these were not events that resulted in peace, prosperity and religious freedom for all. Whether today will be memorable for good or ill remains to be seen. In a recent Facebook post, I referred to one of the historical quotations that adorn the headers and footers of my website. Now I would like to draw your attention to the one at the top of the home page, George Santayana’s ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfil it’. Time will tell quite what we have condemned ourselves to fulfil in the wake of the whole referendum debacle. I am not writing this as a passionate advocate or adherent of either ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. To be so would be to ignore the all too apparent flaws in one scenario or the advantages of the other. As the campaigns lurched uncertainly into action I sat firmly on the fence. I tried, I really tried, to balance emotional gut reaction with economic reality. Both sides bombarded us with rhetoric, invective and contradictory information. As a historian, I am all too aware of propaganda and spin and we had both in good measure. My working life requires seeking evidence, verifying sources but it seemed that, for much of the information, there was none. It all boiled down to a frying pan – fire decision. The EU is clearly restrictive and broken but the isolationist alternative was fraught with uncertainty and bigotry.

I am actually not so concerned about the outcome of the vote, hardly the overwhelming endorsement some would have us believe. In the end, after much thought, the ‘winner’ wasn’t actually the outcome that attracted my X in the box but that is largely immaterial; I could see pros and cons to both options. My fear, concern and profound sadness today is because the campaign has been accompanied by so much intolerance, bigotry and downright hatred. No one, on either side of this deeply divisive debate, can feel that the run up to what some are terming ‘Independence Day’ has been anything but dirty. The prejudice and fanaticism has been fueled and proliferated by that double-edged sword, social media. Even people I believed to be perceptive have seemed to accept what was clearly errant nonsense as the inveterate truth.

I can respect anyone who cast their vote, in either direction, following thought and deliberation. Sadly many have voted on the basis of scaremongering, or have made their choice because of the alleged charisma of the leading advocates of one cause or the dislike of those fronting the other. Unsupported statements have been hurled by both sides, things got personal, childish, ridiculous. Where was the evidence? The convincing data? Twentieth century political history has never been my favourite period but it doesn’t take an historian to draw the parallels that have already been drawn with the blinkered adulation of Herr Hitler, who was hailed as the saviour of post world war I Germany. He was going to make Germany great. It seemed such a good idea at the time. Now are we heading for our own hate-fuelled Kristallnacht or have the ultra right-wing, who tarnished others who believed ‘Leave’ was the right option, been placated by today’s result? If so, for how long?

I can’t help feeling that those claim that Brexit is the solution to all our problems are being blinded by euphoria. Leave or Remain – either route would have been beset with uncertainty, faction and the need for hard work and compromise. The divisions in our country have become a chasm and it is far from being over yet. There is a mutual back-patting amongst those in the Leave camp and talk of ‘getting our country back’. Beware of what you wish for. We have not ‘got back’ the country of the halcyon pre EU days. Days which lie largely in the imagination. The country we have ‘got back’ is a shadow of its former self; diminished by what will inevitably and understandable be the defection of Scotland. A country fractured by the attitude that those of different opinions, cultures and faiths are somehow of less value. A country where distorted stereotypes are applied to those of a particular ethnicity, belief or sexuality. A country where political hatred sees the murder of a woman who was working for what she believed to be the greater good. A country that seems to have forgotten the concepts of compassion, of compromise, of caring. As for one gloating Leave activist who commented that we had won the country back without a shot being fired, insensitively ignoring Jo Cox’s murder, in one respect he is right, a war has been created. War is never pretty, there are no winners and we can only speculate on who will be the casualties that Brexit and the aftermath will leave in its wake.

If the new Britain, for it will be many decades before it can become Great, is to work it will need every iota of forgiveness and fortitude that we can muster. We will have to learn to accept others who are outside our comfy ‘exactly like us’ sphere and learn to work in harmony. We need to stop moaning about what is wrong and strive to put it right. America is no longer the land of the free, Britannia has long since ceased to rule the waves. World events of the past weeks are destroying people’s faith in humanity. However much you wanted to leave the EU, this is not a time for unadulterated elation. When cloud nine bursts it will become clear that we are embarking on a hazardous journey without sat-nav, survival kit and for some, without a moral compass. We may have done the right thing, this may be an unremitting disaster, while it all unravels and it become clear which of those alternatives is the actuality, the UK needs the healing balm of kindness, understanding and forbearance.

Rant over. If anything is ever normal again normal service will resume shortly.

The Land of the Hoggs, more Ornithological Ramblings and Sunshine!

We have chosen today to drive through the striking Northumbrian countryside to one of my favourite places on earth. The visibility isn’t bad and it isn’t raining, this must count as summer. We drive along the back roads with the Cheviots as a backdrop but the Otterburn Ranges are being just that, shooting ranges, so, not wanting to be shot, we skirt the Northumberland National Park. A note for my Australian readers, unlike Australia, who seem to call any public open space a National Park, in the UK it has to be something seriously special to be awarded that status. This area is spectacular and Northumberland has to be one of the most beautiful counties if you like wide open expanses and a raw kind of beauty and I do. You will not find comfy chocolate-box scenery here but skies stretch forever and the sheep on the rocky outcrops are looking decidedly dishevelled in the period between lambing and shearing. I sometimes wonder if there is some weird genetic memory at work that attracts me to certain places. My great grandfather, John Hogg and his ancestors came from these wild outlying hillsides between Hadrian’s Wall and the Scottish border, before moving in to Morpeth.

443 Thockrington 2 June 2016We are heading for Thockrington where the Hogg family lived in the eighteenth century. I am 99% certain that my great great grandfather was baptised here. The grain of doubt comes from the fact that gg grandfather changed his age and birth place at every conceivable opportunity and even swaps John for George on one occasion. Despite having two ‘wives’ one of whom he acquired during the period of civil registration (whoopee, a marriage certificate with a father’s name you’d think) no marriage records have been found. Anyway back to Thockrington. This is an amazing place with views that are virtually unchanged since the Hoggs were here (as long as you stand with your back to the wind turbines). Here you are on top of the world, absolutely the right place to build a church and a truly spiritual place, whatever higher being you might subscribe to. I maintain that everyone should visit here but not all at once, obviously and not when I am here. If you take my advice be prepared for driving a fair way along single track road, possible across cattle grids, depending on your direction of approach, driving through a farmyard and finding a church, a farm and absolutely nothing but awe inspiring scenery as far as you can see in all directions. Do it, it is worth it. Just to add to the glory the sun comes out.

We drive back through the ruggedly picturesque Great Bavington, which is probably where the Hoggs lived, whilst being baptised and buried in Thockrington; Bavington is a hamlet and not a parish in its own right. Bavington boasts the oldest Presbyterian Chapel in Northumberland. It now functions as a United Reformed Church. Outside is a plastic box full of water and snacks and walkers are invited to help themselves to sustenance in return for a donation. What a wonderful idea, I do hope it is not abused. Swooping swallows dart across the fields, these have been my favourite bird since I won a badly written book about swallows as an infants’ school prize. Lapwing and swifts are also in evidence. The hedgerows abound with a blue and purple comfrey, a variety that is new to me.

We are only a couple of miles from Wallington House and as I neglected to get my National Trust passport stamped yesterday, we decide to call in again for this purpose and also to use the facilities that are distinctly lacking in Thockrington and Bavington. As the weather is now almost seasonable, we take the riverside walk round the estate. This is great for flowers and birds and today’s tally includes a baby moorhen, Canada goslings, a goldcrest and even a glimpse of a retreating kingfisher. I have only seen a kingfisher a handful of times, the only disappointment was that this and the gold crest were not photographable.

There is an antiques ‘emporium’ near the campsite. There should be a government health warning about such things. Do we buy beautiful china, furniture or jewellery? No. Our idea of holiday souvenirs include a helmet, two small horn beakers and a substantial pewter mug to add to the stuffed rat that we purchased in Eyemouth, well they are tax deductible.

Well, dear readers this concludes the holiday, thanks for travelling along. Ramblings about my weird historical life will resume shortly, although I am about to enter that black hole that is the job I must not mention. Said job, family visits and other work will keep me from ‘normal’ life for a while. What exactly is ‘normal life’?

Dodging the Weather Again

Here, I am stepping in the footsteps of my ancestors, the Hogg family. We start by revisiting St Mary’s, Morpeth, which was closed on my last visit and proved to be so again this time. Given the size of the graveyard, there is no hope of locating the three family graves that I know are here, especially as they probably don’t have marker. There is an address for a ‘parish office’ about a mile away that is theoretically open. We drive off there but only have a road name and not a number. None of the houses or bungalows in the road look remotely like a parish office and no one available to ask seems to have heard of a church, let alone a parish office. We give up and have a quick walk round Morpeth. I am fascinated by the courts that hide behind the main streets and which were once the homes of my ancestors.

440 Wallington House Central Hall 1 June 2016Scotland is apparently bathed in sunshine. Typical, here we have drizzle and falling temperatures. Time for another National Trust property near you visit, this time to Wallington House near the weirdly named Cambo. The house was built for William Blackett in 1688 and then passed into the Trevelyan family, who, as the name suggests, originated in Cornwall. The most notable feature of this house is a central courtyard, which was covered over in the 1850s and decorated with murals depicting the history of Northumberland, for which the artist, William Bell, was paid £100 a panel. We are supposed to spot stuffed squirrels in the various rooms. I clearly need a two year old with me for this. Mind you I was not helped by the sample squirrels being three times the size of the hidden ones. There is a group called Robson’s Choice playing the Northumbrian pipes in the hall. These are very different from Scottish bagpipes and are much more suited to an indoor performance. They are not blown but the air is injected by squeezing bellows strapped to the elbow. My favourite features are once again the kitchen and also a series of photographs of former servants that are on display as part of a ‘Silent Voices’ project.

As we leave, the custodian asks if we are going to look round the gardens. Has she stepped outside lately? We have brought clothes suitable for northern summers but they are seriously inadequate for what the weather has thrown at us on this trip.

Across the Border Again and a Lesson in Hydraulics

So yet again we cross the border and are on the doorstep of Eyemouth World of Boats as it opens. A lovely lady directs us on a short drive to the storage sheds. She makes no mention of ostriches, perhaps I misunderstood. She had said that she was unable to locate the boat we were interested in but when we provide a few more details (like giving her the correct name) we are in luck. I can see why this is a health and safety nightmare. Someone has removed the steps up to a three foot high platform on which most of the boats are stored. Undaunted, we scramble up on the platform and are able to see the Flying Foam. Ironically she was on display at World of Boats until last year when she was moved to make room for the whaler.

We manage to get back in order to move the van at the approved time and head for a site near Alnwick, which we are learning to call ‘Annick’, so that we sound like locals. We have been to this site before (see archive posts for October 2012 for that visit) and we are on the adjacent pitch to the one that we occupied on that occasion. Unusually, I have planned no itinerary for this part of the holiday. The weather is still demanding an inside venue so it is a case of looking for a National Trust property near us. This turns out to be Cragside, near Rothbury. We encounter a first at a National Trust property, we have to queue to get in. The house has been subject to several extensions and is a distinctly strange shape. The imposing Victorian house was the home of the Armstrong (later Watson-Armstrong) family. William George Armstrong, was an engineer who specialised in hydraulics, meaning that there are various gadgets in the house. Cragside was the first house in world to be lit by electricity that had been generated by water power. He also installed a hydraulic lift in the 1870s.

Unusually, there are decorative tiles on the walls, up to dado rail height, on all floors. There is a very interesting kitchen, with high ceilings and a mechanical jack to turn the joints of meat. There is an over-the-top chimney breast in the drawing room, probably installed to impress the future Edward VII, who visited with his wife and children in 1884. There is also an exhibition about the local businessman, David Dippie Dixon, who, amongst other things, was in charge of the Northern Picture Puzzle Exchange. These were not the lobed jigsaw pieces that we are used to but interlocking, push-fit puzzles.

438 Cragside Rhododendrons 31 May 2016Cragside has plenty of opportunities for outside exploration, with gardens and extensive grounds. Given the temperature, we opt for driving along the six mile estate drive, which commences by driving under an arch through the house. This is obviously the right time for a visit as the rhododendron lined woodland paths are spectacular. It is a shame that we have neither the time, energy, or the warmth, to explore on foot. Home then via a quick shopping stop at Rothbury.