Writing Portfolio


Recent reads - four second-hand novels

A fascinating quartet of second-hand novels has been receiving my attention recently…

The Path of the King by John Buchan
Fan of John Buchan though I am, I sometimes come across works of his that I have not previously encountered; he did, after all, write a lot of books and not all of them are still in print. This one, The Path of the King (first published in 1921), comes in the form of a smart-looking red hardback which was published by Thomas Nelson (an Edinburgh publisher, which as well as publishing Buchan’s books employed him as a director; the Thomas Arthur Nelson to whom The Thirty-Nine Steps was dedicated was a descendant of the company’s founder in addition to being a friend of Buchan’s). Later described by Buchan himself (in his autobiography Memory Hold-the-Door) as “my first serious piece of fiction”, it is an interesting tale of how greatness in people can be transmitted down the family tree; sometimes, it  lies dormant for generations before re-igniting at the right time. The story begins with a prologue set some time after the American Civil War, in which three men around a remote campfire theorise on how the “spark” of “masterful men” can be found in the most unlikely places: “The things we call aristocracies and reigning houses are the last places to look for masterful men … who is more likely to inherit the fire – the eldest son with his flesh-pots or the younger son with his fortune to find? … The spark once transmitted may smoulder for generations under ashes, but the appointed time will come, and it will flare up to warm the world. God never allows waste. And we fools rub our eyes and wonder when we see genius come out of the gutter. It didn’t begin there.” I guess we modern folk would say it was all about genetics. This story begins with Biorn, a Viking prince, before jumping down a few generations to Jehan, a Norman knight – and so on. Rather like Buchan’s Sir Walter Raleigh, The Path of the King is less a coherent novel than a collection of short stories held together by a unifying thread or theme, which in this case is what happens to Biorn’s descendants down the centuries – men and women, some of them noble, some of them very ignoble indeed, all united by blood and by their possession of a family heirloom in the form of a gold ring, made from the amulet Biorn received from his father and which I suppose acts as the physical manifestation of the “spark”. They get caught up in events like the Norman Conquest, the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre and the Popish Plot, and they encounter real people like Joan of Arc, Sir Walter Raleigh, Oliver Cromwell and Daniel Boone. Eventually, the “spark” resurfaces in nineteenth-century America, in the form of Abraham Lincoln who is descended from Biorn on his mother’s side. He loses the gold ring, but it is no longer needed as it is he in whom the long-dormant “spark” will reignite – something his dying mother recognises. The epilogue has three men witness Lincoln’s funeral parade following his assassination; one of them (an American professor) remarks that “there goes the first American”, to which another (a British diplomat) replies: “I dare say you are right, Professor. But I think it is also the last of the Kings.” As novels go, this is very much one for those who are interested in history, and it reflects Buchan’s fascination with the New World and its ancestral links with the Old – particularly in his treatment of Lincoln and the admiration expressed for him by the British character at the end, which can be looked at in the context of people like Buchan looking to promote a spirit of cohesion between English-speaking peoples on both sides of the Atlantic. Reading this as an historical novel, it has to be noted that the the fact that so many real people and events over different centuries can be successfully woven into the plot in a way that it doesn’t feel like they’ve been crow-barred into it is testimony to Buchan’s great skill as an author.

The Courageous Exploits of Doctor Syn by Russell Thorndike
Having recently touched on this particular character when looking into smuggling on Romney Marsh, I was delighted to find a couple of old Doctor Syn paperbacks in a charity shop recently; the adventures of this most extraordinary of fictional clergymen, written by Russell Thorndike, ran to seven in total and have long been out of print. They make no claim to be great literature but as adventure stories they are most definitely up there with the exploits of (say) the Scarlet Pimpernel, Horatio Hornblower and Richard Sharpe. Published in 1939, Courageous Exploits was the fifth Doctor Syn book to be written, but if the novels are to be read in sequence it’s the fourth. By this stage in the series, the Reverend Doctor Syn is well established at Dymchurch as the much-loved local vicar and, under the identity of the ‘Scarecrow’, the ruthless leader of the Night Riders, the local smuggler gang (the secret of his identity is known only to a select few). Exasperated by the Night Riders’ continued success, the Admiralty has sent the ruthless Captain Blain down to Romney Marsh to defeat them and bring the Scarecrow to justice; his men are to be billeted in a local barn, while the captain himself moves into the vicarage! There follows a series of cat-and-mouse adventures, which could stand alone as short stories as well as parts of a coherent whole, as Blain tries to do his duty while Syn, or rather his alter ego the Scarecrow, rises to the challenge by growing ever bolder. A real historical person, the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), makes an appearance – as he does, funnily enough, in the adventures of the other three fictional heroes I have mentioned above. As is the case with “that demmed, elusive Pimpernel”, in Courageous Exploits HRH manages to encounter both Doctor Syn and the Scarecrow and respect the pair of them while at the same time remaining blissfully ignorant of the fact that they are the same person. This is good, old-fashioned adventure; a modern version would doubtless dwell more on the duality of Syn himself, the upstanding community leader who is also its most notorious criminal, and there would doubtless be a lot of trying to impose the values of the present onto late-eighteenth-century England which would mean that it would not be anywhere near as much fun to read. The Doctor Syn books may be out of print, but they are still worth looking into.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
As was the case with John Buchan, I first discovered P.G. Wodehouse when I was in my early teens, at first because of the superb Jeeves and Wooster TV series with Melchett and George from Blackadder – sorry, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie – in the title roles. They were brilliant in that, by the way, and it was but a short step from watching Jeeves and Wooster to discovering the books on which the series was based, of which the school library had a plentiful supply. Oddly, though, I never really progressed much beyond the Jeeves stories – the other Wodehouse creations, like Psmith and the Blandings crowd, didn’t really hold much appeal and while I have tried over the years to expand my horizons in the world of Wodehouse I always find myself coming back to the Jeeves stories. Maybe it’s because they are told in the first person, with that upper-class twit par excellence Bertie Wooster as the narrator, he being not so much an unreliable narrator but one who is not in full grasp of everything that’s going on. Luckily, though, he has Jeeves, the manservant par excellence who is able to extract his master, and at times his master’s friends, from the most unlikely and desperate of scenarios, allowing them to continue to amuse themselves, and us readers, at the Drones Club and various country houses. There are a lot of things going on in The Inimitable Jeeves, what with Bertie’s chum Bingo Little falling in love with every woman he meets, his rather scary Aunt Agatha trying to get Bertie married off at every conceivable opportunity, the mental-health specialist Sir Roderick Glossop (who, naturally, thinks Bertie’s off his rocker) putting in the odd appearance and his cousins Claude and Eustace (“the curse of the human race”) getting up to all sorts of shenanigans. Unlike some of the Jeeves books, The Inimitable Jeeves is actually not so much a novel as a collection of short stories (they first appeared in The Strand Magazine before coming out in book form in 1923), although some of them do follow on from one another. Some showcase Wodehouse at his best, with the humour deriving from the most unlikely sources. For example, ‘The Great Sermon Handicap’ is all about a group of young men, led by Claude and Eustace, placing bets on which of the local vicars in a corner of rural Gloucestershire will preach the longest sermon on a particular Sunday; naturally, Bertie and Jeeves get drawn into the mayhem that ensues. More of the same can be encountered in ‘The Purity of the Turf’ which involves bets being placed on, and attempts being made to rig, the races in a rural parish’s sports day (Mothers’ Sack Race, Choir Boys’ Hundred Yard Handicap, etc). There are some great set-pieces too, like the time Bertie has Sir Roderick for lunch on the same day that Claude and Eustace hide three cats and the top hat that they have stolen from Sir Roderick in Bertie’s flat, Bingo pretending to be a communist and Bertie actually getting one over on Aunt Agatha when the woman she’s been trying to set him up with turns out to be a jewel-thief. Finally, Bertie’s ongoing claim to be an author of romantic fiction under the pen-name of Rosie M. Banks (originally done in order for him to impress Bingo’s uncle so that he can persuade him to increase the ever cash-strapped Bingo’s allowance) gets exposed as a sham when it emerges that the woman whom Bingo has just married is not a waitress as he had supposed but none other than Rosie M. Banks herself. Only Jeeves can sort out this unholy mess. Hilarious.

Who Pays the Ferryman? by Michael J. Bird
The TV series of this name was before my time, but I’d vaguely heard about it from somewhere – it is set in the mid-to-late Seventies and concerns a middle-aged Englishman returning to Crete, the island where as a young man he spent part of the Second World War fighting in the mountains with the andartes of the Greek Resistance. He wants to try and reconnect with his wartime lover, but soon finds out that she is dead although she did bear him a daughter who is unaware of her true parentage. While many see ‘Leandros’ (Haldane’s nom de guerre among the andartes) as a returning hero there are a few who wish him ill because of what happened during the war. Seeing this in a charity shop, I was interested as I have previously read and enjoyed books about occupation and resistance during the War, both fictional (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Guns of Navarone, etc) and factual (Ill Met by Moonlight, and for what it’s worth the real-life Kriepe kidnapping gets referred to in Who Pays the Ferryman?, the implication being that the fictional Haldane was somehow involved in this operation along with Billy Moss and Paddy Leigh Fermor). The novel version of Who Pays the Ferryman? is based on the TV series, not the other way round (Bird, whose TV dramas were usually set in the Mediterranean, wrote both). It is pretty good, although there are some annoying typos which might indicate that publication was a somewhat rushed job, the TV series having been very popular in its day (1977). As for the plot itself, a slow-burner of a relationship between Haldane and Annika, the sister of his old love (she being unaware that Haldane is her niece’s biological father, and he being reluctant to commit to her for that very reason) plays out alongside sub-plots like an Australian visitor trying to lay the past (in the form of his late Cretan grandfather) to rest, the sudden appearance of Haldane’s (English) ex and Haldane’s restoration of an old caique (sailing-boat), while in the background a vendetta against Haldane establishes itself. The characters are well-rounded and very believable. It’s a good story which shows us that war casts shadows which continue to fall long after the guns have stopped, and that while actions always have consequences, it can sometimes take decades for the consequences to make themselves known. I liked this book enough to find some episodes of the TV series on YouTube, and very good it is too.


Welsh rarebit, courtesy of Ainsley Harriott

Browsing in a charity shop a couple of weeks ago, I happened across a cookery book by Ainsley Harriott. Remember him? He was a TV cook back in the Nineties, appearing on shows like Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook and Good Morning with Anne and Nick. I recall that one year, Alex and I bought one of his books, Ainsley Harriott’s Barbecue Bible, as a birthday present for Dad. Like quite a few other things that were big in Britain in the Nineties, such as Frank Skinner and Red Dwarf, his star may have waned but he’s still doing stuff, having resurfaced on Strictly a couple of years ago (Frank Skinner and Red Dwarf, by the way, are also still going, although the former isn’t as funny as he used to be and the latter is on Dave rather than the BBC these days).

Ainsley is still keeping his hand in with the cooking, for the book that I found was a (relatively) recent offering, published in 2009 by BBC Books no less. Just Five Ingredients is just what it says on the cover, offering (so says the blurb) “a collection of mouth-watering dishes that use a maximum of five ingredients – perfect for the time-short, budget-conscious cook.” Funnily enough, that’s the concept behind Jamie Oliver’s latest book, so you could say that Ainsley is ahead of the curve.

On flipping through Just Five Ingredients I saw a few recipes that I liked the sound of, so I bought the book which now stands next to another recent acquisition, Rick Stein’s Long Weekends. The first recipe as made from the book was Welsh rarebit – cheese on toast, but with the cheese grated and made into a sauce of sorts before being put onto the bread and toasted. No rabbits are involved (much like the toads that are absent from toad-in-the-hole and the woodcock that doesn’t appear in Scotch woodcock), and quite why it’s spelt ‘rarebit’ rather than ‘rabbit’ I am not entirely sure, although this dish is the only time when ‘rabbit’ is spelt as ‘rarebit’.

What goes into the sauce as well as grated cheese is a matter for debate; looking through some of our other cook books, there are a few variations although Worcestershire sauce and mustard of some sort (usually but not always English) are common features. Nigel Slater (in Real Fast Food) complains of “mixtures that will not thicken or that turn irretrievably lumpy”; he reckons on adding butter and a couple of tablespoons of beer, with the result to be eaten “as a snack with the rest of the beer”. Delia Smith has a Welsh Rarebit Soufflé (in Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course) and Welsh Rarebit Jacket Potatoes (in Delia’s How to Cook: Book One); the former includes butter, flour, French mustard, milk, eggs and cayenne pepper, while the latter has finely grated onion and “1 tablespoon Red Onion, Tomato and Chilli Relish (see page 188)”. Jamie Oliver’s, which can be found in Jamie at Home, is not just Welsh rarebit but “Welsh rarebit with attitude”, containing eggs, crème fraiche and “4 tablespoons of cheeky chilli-pepper chutney (see page 321) or shop-bought chilli jam”; like Slater, he says it’s best to have it with beer. Common consensus is that the cheese to be used is Cheddar, although Slater hedges his bets; “Stilton or Cheddar have enough of a tang to be interesting, Caerphilly or Wensleydale less so”. Going way back, Mrs Beeton calls for Cheshire or Gloucester cheese (she, of course, was writing at a time before Cheddar became the nation’s cheese of choice); she didn’t grate it, advocating that the cheese be sliced, toasted and then have “a little made mustard and a seasoning of pepper” spread over it. Mrs Beeton also has a recipe for Scotch Rarebit which involves a contraption called a “cheese toaster with hot-water reservoir”.

Ainsley’s five ingredients are vintage Cheddar cheese, eggs, English mustard, Worcesteshire sauce and, or course, bread (as far as he’s concerned, salt and pepper aren’t counted among the five ingredients, which is fair enough). The cheese is grated, the egg is separated. The yolk, along with the mustard and the Worecestershire sauce, is mixed in with the cheese. Then the egg white is whisked into stiff peaks – on reading this I groaned, for here was a job for the electric mixer which would in turn involve more washing-up afterwards than I’d hoped. Anyway, once whisked, the egg whites are folded into the mix (just like in Delia’s soufflé; Jamie, by contrast, only uses the yolks). It’s then baked in the oven until “risen and lightly browned”.

The result was very nice indeed. On the basis of this, I shall be using other recipes from this book, or maybe even using this one for other recipes, for Ainsley says that it can also be used to cover his salmon fish pie “(see page 130)”, or for “an interesting twist on cauliflower cheese!”


Jamaica Inn

[Spoiler alert – don’t read on if you do not wish to have the major plot-twist of Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier revealed to you.]

“Bodmin is the greatest and wildest stretch of moorland in Cornwall … I came unprepared for its dark, diabolic beauty. People say that my fictional characters seem to emerge from the places where my stories are set, and certainly when I first set eyes on the old, granite-faced inn itself it made me think there was a story there, peopled with moorland folk in strange harmony with their background.”

So wrote Daphne du Maurier (in Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall) about the Jamaica Inn, a moorland pub/hotel located in a hamlet called Bolventor which is just off the A30 in the middle of Bodmin Moor, about mid-way between Launceston and Bodmin (both of which have at some point served as Cornwall’s county town). It’s about a mile away from Dozmary Pool, a small lake which some say was the lake where King Arthur received his sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. But I digress; back to the Jamaica Inn. Although much altered over the years (it’s been renovated considerably since du Maurier’s time), the current building dates back to around 1750 although there’s been an inn on the site since at least the 1540s, serving as a staging-post for the changing of horses on stagecoaches travelling on the London-to-Penzance road which, as the A30, would go straight through Bolventor until a by-pass was built in the 1970s. I cannot say what it is like as a pub, for I, like many a traveller in the West Country, have only ever used it as a brief stopping-point on the way home, as a last place to get a coffee and a few Cornish souvenirs before heading back across the Tamar.

It is, of course, famous today for being the main venue for Daphne du Maurier’s famous novel Jamaica Inn. Daphne du Maurier first visited the Jamaica Inn in the early 1930s at the suggestion of a friend of hers, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch – a prolific writer, known as ‘Q’, best remembered today for being the editor of The Oxford Book of English Verse. She ended up going there with Q’s daughter, and while staying there they decided to ride a few miles across the moor to visit someone. Unfortunately the weather turned, and in rain and fog they got lost – in the end, they resorted to leaving the reins loose and hoping that the horses would lead them back to the inn, which they eventually did.

It was her stay at the Jamaica Inn that inspired her to write the novel of the same name, her second, which was published in 1936. In early nineteenth-century Cornwall, Mary Yellan, a farm girl from Helford in the south-west of the county, goes to live with her aunt and uncle after the death of her mother. Her uncle, Joss Merlyn (who she has never met before) is the landlord of the Jamaica Inn, and even before Mary gets there on “a cold grey day in late November” we readers get the impression that all is not well there. The coachman initially refuses to go beyond Bodmin, and it’s only after Mary tells him that she’s the landlord’s niece that he is reluctantly persuaded to take her there, and he’s very cagey as to why (“Jamaica’s got a bad name … Respectable folk don’t go to Jamaica any more”).

Strange things are indeed happening at Jamaica, a roadside inn with no passing trade. Joss Merlyn is a violent drunkard (although, as he points out during one of his drinking-sessions, “I’m not drunk enough to tell you why I live in this God-forgotten spot”; that comes later), while his wife – the sister of Mary’s late mother – is a timid, almost ghost-like figure. The only activity is at night, when horse-drawn waggons occasionally arrive to unload vast amounts of goods at the inn (the passage in which Mary witnesses this from her bedroom window is particularly good). Then there’s the late-night drinking-session that occurs when strange men come from all over Cornwall, and which ends with Joss Merlyn ordering the murder of one of the men. Mary assumes that her uncle is heavily involved in smuggling – with the inn being used to store contraband that’s been landed all over the county – but it is actually worse than that. For Uncle Joss is not involved in smuggling but wrecking – the act of deliberately luring ships onto the rocks of the northern Cornish coast, and then murdering survivors and stealing whatever the ships are carrying.

Meanwhile, there’s Bodmin Moor itself, for this is a tale as much of a place as it is of people. All around Jamaica Inn and its nefarious goings-on is the brooding presence of the moor – “a silent, desolate country … vast and untouched by human hand; on the high tors the slabs of stone leant against one another in strange shapes and forms, massive sentinals who had stood there since God first fashioned them”. Like her creator, Mary Yellan goes for a walk out on the moor – she gets lost, and is saved (more or less) by the local vicar.

Ah, the vicar. The Reverend Francis Davey, who happens to be an albino, is the vicar of the village of Altarnun (like Jamaica Inn, a real place, located in the north-eastern edge of Bodmin Moor). He comes across as being a kindly man, but all is not what it seems. For it is the vicar who is the real villain of Jamaica Inn, the unlikely brains behind Joss Merlyn’s brawn. He’s only revealed as the villain of the piece towards the end, of course, after Mary finds a picture of his in which he depicts himself as a wolf preaching to his congregation who are shown as sheep.

I really enjoyed Jamaica Inn, even though reading it ‘blind’ – not knowing who the real villain of the piece is – is difficult, as the story is so well-known. Would I have seen that twist towards the end coming had I not already known that the vicar was the bad guy? It’s impossible to say. I’d’ve liked to have seen more characterisation of said villain, though, but that’s not really possible when his true identity is revealed so late in the novel (and, as we shall see, revealing him as the baddie-in-chief earlier would’ve ruined the whole thing). Part of me wonders if it might have worked better had du Maurier made Mary Yellan the narrator rather than telling the story in the third person. From my own perspective, though, the main thing I was wondering about was how the evil vicar compares to another fictional man of the cloth who turns out to be heavily involved in activities of a nocturnal and highly illegal nature.

I refer, of course, to Doctor Syn. How does the Vicar of Altarnun measure up against the Vicar of Dymchurch? It’s rather hard to say, for Doctor Syn (similarly not revealed as the smuggler leader until close to the end of the original novel in which he appeared) got to return in six adventures that fill out his considerable back-story – for which we readers must be thankful that Russell Thorndike’s acting career did not pan out as he’d hoped, forcing him back to writing novels. Daphne du Maurier, of course, was (unlike Thorndike) a novelist first and foremost, and she never saw any reason to return to the characters of Jamaica Inn (although it would be great to have had a sequel about how Mary Yellan’s relationship with Jem Merlyn pans out after they leave Cornwall at the end). Plus, of course, it is easier to make a smuggler leader into a sort-of hero (in a Robin Hood way) than it is a wrecker leader, given how the latter activity involves a lot of cold-blooded murder (or did it? This, I feel, is something that should be explored in greater depth in another ‘Historic English crime’ piece!). So, as far as the Reverend Davey is concerned, he’s a more out-and-out villain than Doctor Syn for that reason, but we have just a few hints at how a man of God came to be the leader of a gang of wreckers: “I am a freak in nature and a freak in time. I do not belong here, and I was born with a grudge against this age, and a grudge against mankind. Peace is very hard to find … I thought to find it in the Christian Church, but the dogma sickened me”. There are also hints at an obsession with paganism which might, if dealt with in any more depth, tie in with the elemental nature of the moor (“I have stood in the church at midnight, Mary, and listened to the silence; there is a murmur in the air and a whisper of unrest that is bred deep in the soil and has no knowledge of the church and Altarnun”), but no more. At the end, the Reverend Davey remains a bit of an enigma, just like Rachel in My Cousin Rachel. And it’s the enigmatic bit that makes Daphne du Maurier’s characters linger in the memory long after you’ve finished reading her books.

Even the ones you already know about, for Jamaica Inn has been adapted several times. Unfortunately, a couple of the more high-profile adaptations haven’t been particularly good, with the film and TV people failing to do the novel justice. There was that BBC adaptation back in 2014, which didn’t go down too well thanks to the almost-inaudible dialogue; the 1983 ITV version, with Jane Seymour as Mary Yellan and Patrick McGoohan as Joss Merlyn, is much better. And then, back in 1939, there was the Alfred Hitchcock version.

Jamaica Inn was to be the last British film to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock (until he returned to London, decades later, to make Frenzy). It wasn’t one of his better efforts. Problems began when he had to comply with Hollywood’s Production Code, which frowned upon negative depictions of the clergy – meaning that the Reverend Davey was replaced as the villain of the piece by a local squire called Sir Humphrey Pengallan (the English gentry, of course, was fair game). Hitchcock then managed to do away with much of the novel’s tension and suspense. This, one suspects, was mainly because Charles Laughton, the actor who played Sir Humphrey, was also one of the film’s producers and demanded that his character have more lines, forcing Hitchcock to have him revealed as the baddie sooner than planned. Daphne du Maurier didn’t like it, to the point that she apparently considered withholding the film rights to Rebecca, which had been published a year earlier. Thankfully, she relented, and Rebecca was made into a film by Hitchcock in America a year later.


How Henry Blofeld almost played for England

Earlier this month, legendary cricket commentator Henry ‘Blowers’ Blofeld – he of the plummy upper-class voice and penchant for counting pigeons and buses – retired from Test Match Special at the age of 77. After the Test match on which he had been commentating ended a short while later, he did a lap of honour of the ground and was given a standing ovation by the spectators. In an age in which a pre-requisite of sports commentary would appear to be having excelled at the highest level of the sport in question, it’s unlikely that we’ll see his like again. It is also highly unlikely that we will ever witness a septuagenarian dressed in a mint-green blazer and scarlet trousers doing a lap of honour in front of an adoring crowd ever again, even at Lord’s.

His father, as is reasonably well-known, provided the name of one of the great villains of twentieth-century fiction; Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was at Eton with Blofeld senior and that is believed to be where he got Ernst Blofeld’s surname from.

But did you know that Henry Blofeld almost played Test cricket for England? 

The records show that he was a promising schoolboy cricketer (he even hit a century at Lord’s, for the Public Schools against the Combined Services) but due to a road traffic accident in his teens – he was hit by a bus while riding his bike – a career as a cricketer was a non-starter. Nevertheless, he did play in 17 first-class matches, most of them for Cambridge University (in typically self-deprecating fashion, he has described himself as “an opening batsman of sorts … the worst Blue awarded since the war”) as well as turning out for his native Norfolk in Minor Counties cricket in the late Fifties and early-to-mid Sixties.

Career-wise, he spent a few years in a merchant bank before going into sports journalism, and by 1963 he was reporting on cricket for The Guardian. It was in this capacity that he went to India to cover England’s 1963-64 tour.

That was one of those sub-continental tours where several of the visiting side were laid low due to either gastric problems or injury in the warm-up games, to the point that by 20th January 1964, the eve of the of the second Test at Bombay, the England squad had just ten fit players (including, somewhat unhelpfully, both wicket-keepers). Wisden would later describe the situation as a “hospital background”. With no chance of anyone flying out from back home at such short notice to make up the numbers – the mid-Sixties were modern but not that modern – the man from The Guardian was told by the England manager David Clark that the pair of them were the only available options, and as Blowers was the younger man by two decades he would most likely get the call-up.

“I replied I would certainly play if needed,” Blowers later recalled, “but if I scored 50 or upwards in either innings I was damned if I would stand down for the Calcutta Test ... I suspect that David’s reply was unprintable.” He was told to get a good night’s sleep, just in case, but as the enormity of his situation sunk in he barely slept.

The following morning, it turned out that his batting services would not be needed; England, in this case, did not expect. But only just. One of the sick, vice-captain Mickey Stewart (Alec Stewart’s dad) discharged himself from hospital and declared himself to be fit to play even though he clearly wasn’t. Thus did “the oddest England side ever to have played an official Test” (according to the reporter from the Daily Telegraph) take to the field, with just ten fit players and a tail-end that started with the number six batsman (Middlesex’s J.S.E. Price, who usually batted at eleven, would end up going in at number eight). India won the toss and elected to bat first, and by tea on the first day Stewart was back in hospital and would play no further part in the match; Kripal Singh, the hosts’ twelfth man, was called upon to field for the visitors. They were expected to lose, but curiously India failed to push home their obvious advantage and the match ended in a draw.

For the third Test, help from home arrived in the form of Colin Cowdrey, who had not been selected in the first place because he’d still been recovering from having his arm broken while batting against the West Indies at Lord’s the previous summer. He would score centuries in the third and fourth Tests. The five-Test series ended in a draw, with neither side winning any of them.

Blowers, meanwhile, continued to work in print journalism until 1972, when he joined the TMS team.


The wonderful story of the Minack Theatre

Down in the far south-west of Cornwall, beyond Penzance which is as far as the Great Western Railway goes, there’s a small coastal village called Porthcurno which can be reached from the A30 via St Buryan (a village named after a sixth-century saint who has a walk-on part in the King Arthur legends). Porthcurno – the name means ‘Port Cornwall’ – is famous for having been the place where underwater telegraph cables used to enter the sea; the first of those was laid in 1870 to provide communication between Britain and India, and Porthcurno’s importance as a major submarine cable station lasted until well into the twentieth century (that, by the way, is just part of a running theme about Cornwall being a centre of global communications, which also takes in the Falmouth Packets of the eighteenth century and the satellite station at Goonhilly).

Today, Porthcurno is a seaside village with a truly stunning beach surrounded by granite cliffs – it’s part of the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (which itself composes of just over a quarter of the county). That alone would make the place worthy of note, but what concerns me today is what’s on top of the cliffs immediately to the west of the beach.

Accessible from Porthcurno via either the winding coastal footpath or a steep, narrow road stands an open-air theatre that is truly unique – for it has been carved into the clifftop, and the stage has as its backdrop the view out to sea. If you were to peruse a list of the world’s most stunning theatres, you would in all probability encounter this one, the Minack Theatre. And the story of how it came to be is as impressive as the place itself.

That it exists at all is due to the determination and vision of one woman – Rowena Cade, who was originally from Derbyshire but who moved down to Cornwall after the First World War. She bought the Minack headland above Porthcurno and there she built herself a home, Minack House. A Shakespeare enthusiast, she got involved with the local amateur dramatics group, and when in 1929 they were looking for a suitable venue to stage an open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream she gladly offered them the use of a grassy meadow on her land. This was a great success, and a couple of years later they decided to do The Tempest.

But where could they stage that? Rowena Cade reckoned she had the answer – those cliffs below her house would be ideal, and what better backdrop could there be to a performance of The Tempest than the sea? She needed to make a few changes, though, and over the winter of 1931-32 she and her gardener, Billy Rawlings, worked hard to move granite boulders and carve out a stage and terraces for seating, hauling materials from either the house above or the beach below; that last one was essential as she needed sand to make concrete for the seats (it being more or less impossible to make seats out of the granite that was already there).

The Tempest was duly performed in the summer of 1932. The performers got changed in Miss Cade’s house, while cars parked atop the cliffs provided the lighting. Some of the audience had to take deck-chairs down with them, for there were only a few rows of terracing. It was a resounding success, even getting a positive write-up in the national media (The Times, no less). That spurred Miss Cade on, and over the next few years she and Billy Rawlings worked hard to improve the theatre. More sand was brought up from the beach to provide concrete for the seats, pillars, steps and walkways – which were decorated with Celtic carvings, done by Miss Cade herself with the aid of a broken screwdriver. The stage was gradually built up too – over time there was added a throne for Antony & Cleopatra, and a balcony for Romeo & Juliet.

The Second World War put a stop to theatrical proceedings – Cornwall’s beaches were potential landing-grounds should an invasion have happened, and the telegraph station down at Porthcurno, a major communications centre, was considered to be at risk from attack. Tunnels were dug underneath it, and up at Minack a pill-box was hastily constructed. That, though, did not stop the Minack Theatre from being used as a filming location for the 1944 movie Love Story. The theatre needed a lot of work after the war finished, and it wasn’t until 1951 that it reopened with Tristan of Cornwall (the pill-box had by this point become the box office).

From then, it went from strength to strength. Performances were staged every summer, regardless of the weather, a tradition that continues to this day (weather conditions have to be truly appalling for a show to be cancelled, and anyone planning on taking in a show at Minack should bear in mind that umbrellas are banned, however heavy the rain). Rowena Cade continued to work on the place during the winter, using whatever materials came her way; more seating tiers were added, along with an access road, a car park and some proper steps on the footpath connecting the theatre with the beach. There’s a lovely story about how she even indulged in a spot of wrecking when a Spanish ship carrying timber foundered on the rocks below. She made her way down the cliffs and helped herself, carrying a dozen or so 15-ft beams up to her garden single-handedly, one at a time. When the police came to inspect the wreck, they realised that some of the cargo was missing and started asking around; Miss Cade told them what she’d done, but the cops took one look at this somewhat frail-looking woman and decided that she was obviously having them on. Thus cleared of suspicion, she used the wood to build a dressing-room.

She was still doing heavy lifting and mixing concrete into her eighties – she had the theatre registered as a charitable trust in 1976 and died in 1983, aged 89. Her legacy lives on. Today, plays at the Minack Theatre attract some 80,000 people every year, with a further 150,000 just going to look around the place – which, needless to say, is most definitely worth a visit should you find yourself in the area (and, if you can time it so you can catch a local storyteller retelling the story of how the theatre was built, so much the better). It’s truly unique, and it still very much reflects the vision of its most remarkable founder.


Historical English crime: Smuggling on Romney Marsh (part 2)

The smuggling of wool out of England declined in the early eighteenth century, as European weavers found cheaper sources of wool elsewhere and other clothing materials, such as cotton, started to appear in Europe. That did not mean that smuggling was at an end, though – in fact, smuggling as it is popularly perceived today was just getting started, for by that time there was more money to be made smuggling goods into Britain (and it was indeed Britain by this point, the UK having been created as a result of the Act of Union in 1707). Products like alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea all had high import duties imposed on them, which led to much smuggling of such goods. Tea in particular was an expensive drink, yet in the early eighteenth century the English were well on their way to becoming a nation of tea-drinkers.

The smuggler, therefore, came to be seen as a public benefactor who could supply tea – or brandy, or tobacco – at a reasonable price. Not everyone thought well of smuggling, though. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, often preached against it, although for the most part his words fell on deaf ears; more than a generation after him, attitudes towards smugglers were better summed up by the essayist Charles Lamb, who described the smuggler as an “honest thief” who robbed “nothing but the revenue – an abstraction I never greatly cared about”. Smugglers could also pay quite well, and many a farm labourer supplemented his meagre income by way of some nocturnal fetching and carrying (quite literally ‘moonlighting’).

Being located on the edge of Romney Marsh, the Sussex port of Rye was very much a smugglers’ town where the magistrates and the riding officers struggled and often failed to keep things under control. Two such magistrates were James Lamb and Allen Grebell, who we have previously encountered as (respectively) the intended victim and the actual victim in the ‘murder by mistake’ case. These gentlemen, who both served as Mayor of Rye in the early-to-mid eighteenth century, are on record as having acquitted those accused of smuggling due to insufficient evidence on more than one occasion, such decisions perhaps being taken more out of fear for their personal safety than any other consideration. Both knew what happened to Gabriel Tomkins, a bailiff who’d arrested one Thomas Moore for a smuggling-related offence at Rye in 1735. After being bailed, Moore went to the Mermaid Inn, nowadays a famous old pub-cum-hotel but then a notorious smuggler hang-out, where he met with several others. Unfortunately for Tomkins, he happened to be staying at the Mermaid Inn. Moore and his friends forced the bailiff out of his room, dragged him out into the street, relieved him of the bail-bonds and arrest warrants that he had on him, took him down to the harbour and put him on a ship to be taken overseas. He was only rescued from that last bit because the captain of the local revenue ship heard what had happened and ordered all of the ships in the harbour to be searched.

The smugglers were violent men, notorious for killing riding officers and anyone else who took too close an interest in their affairs – so much so that many ordinary people were only too happy to turn a blind eye to their activities, such was their fear of incurring the wrath of the smugglers. Lamb and Grebell, and others like them, would have found themselves and their families in danger had they taken a firmer approach to smuggling (Tomkins was lucky he wasn’t killed). At the time, the most notorious group of smugglers operating in the Romney Marsh area were the Hawkhurst Gang, named after the Kentish village of the same name, who during the 1730s and 1740s terrorised Kent and Sussex. They were regular customers at the Mermaid Inn – and when they drank there, they’d sit with their weapons on the tables, clearly with no fear of the authorities.

The seeds of their downfall were sown in October 1747 when they were expecting a large consignment of tea which was due to be landed in Sussex but which in the event was seized when the ship that was carrying it was intercepted at sea and taken to Poole in Dorset. The tea was taken to the custom house at Poole, and it says something for the audacity of the Hawkhurst Gang that they decided to go to Dorset, attack the customs house and steal ‘their’ tea. They duly managed to pull off this heist, but several months later one of their number was arrested in connection with the raid and imprisoned at Chichester. The rest of the gang decided that in order to protect themselves, anyone stepping forward with evidence against their incarcerated comrade should be killed.

Two men – the custom house keeper and a shoemaker – came forward as witnesses to the raid. They were on their way to have their evidence taken by a magistrate when they stopped at a pub called the White Hart in a village called Rowlands Castle (then in Sussex, now in Hampshire). Unfortunately for them, the pub landlady was an ally of the smugglers and she quickly sent a message to the Hawkhurst Gang. It wasn’t long before seven of them turned up; posing as locals, they plied the witnesses with booze until they passed out. When they came to, they found that they’d both been tied astride a horse. The smugglers whipped them and took them to a well where they threatened to throw them in. They then whipped one of them to death and attempted to hang the other; they botched that, so they threw him down the well, and then threw some big stones in after him to finish him off.

When the bodies were found, the sheer brutality of what the smugglers had done turned many against them, and one by one they were rounded up. All seven went on trial for murder at the Chichester Assizes; they were all found guilty and six of them were hanged (the seventh died in prison before he could be taken to the gallows). Of the remaining members of the Hawkhurst Gang still at large, one of them accused another of stealing some of the tea that had been taken in the raid; he beat him to death and hid his body in a pond. He was later arrested for that murder, and he too ended his life on the gallows almost two years after that fateful consignment of tea had been seized. That, more or less, was the end of the Hawkhurst Gang.

But their downfall did not deter others – indeed, it left a vacuum that other smuggling gangs were quick to fill. The situation on land was bad, for even if a smuggler was arrested it was notoriously difficult to secure a conviction, such was the intimidatory nature of the smuggling gangs. At sea, meanwhile, the revenue men were invariably outnumbered – in 1720, for example, the captain of the Rye revenue ship reported: “3 large Calais sloops loaded with brandy &c lye now off this Harbour, about 30 men in each sloop watching for my comeing out. If I have not more men or a Man of Warr ordered to cruise with me I am useless, & the rideing officers dare not appear on ye coast.” Throughout the eighteenth century, there were never enough revenue ships to deal with smugglers, with the various overseas wars in which Britain was involved meaning that for long periods of time the Royal Navy wasn’t able to help out in any great numbers.

As far as the government was concerned, smuggling was a clear public order problem, especially in Kent and Sussex where smuggling gangs were to all intents and purposes private armies; troops were posted to coastal towns but they could be withdrawn at times of war. On Romney Marsh, it was said, “the smugglers go around in such large gangs and are so daring that it is absolutely necessary to have military force”. There was an obvious solution, and that was to cut the import taxes so as to make smuggling economically unviable. Pitt the Younger understood this, and in the 1780s he cut the duty on tea and reduced the duty on French wine, but any hopes of putting a stop to smuggling by lowering import duties were dashed when Britain found herself at war with Revolutionary France in 1792 (a situation that would last, on and off, until 1815); in times of war, taxes had to go up.

Smuggling as a large-scale criminal activity therefore continued into the early nineteenth century, a time when the threat of a French invasion led to new coastal defences on and around Romney Marsh. A defensive ditch called the Royal Military Canal was dug, and a series of fortifications called Martello Towers were built (some of these can still be seen at various points along the Kent and Sussex coasts). The invasion never came, but after 1815 these defences were combined with an increased military presence in the area and the enforcement of a naval blockade at sea to serve as a significant deterrent to smuggling.

But smuggling persisted – many ex-servicemen who now found themselves unemployed took to smuggling, and bloody encounters between smugglers and government forces were now the order of the day. By this time, the biggest smuggling gang on Romney Marsh was the Aldington Gang, named for the Kentish village of the same name but also known as the Blues on account of either their blue clothing or the blue flares they used for signalling. They were active from around 1817 and were invariably heavily armed and didn’t think twice about shooting a revenue man or a blockader. In February 1821, some 250 of them went to the beach at Camber to unload a smuggled cargo. This attracted the attention of the blockaders, a party of which attacked the smugglers and pursued them inland to Brookland, where the Aldington Gang turned and fought in a skirmish that came to be known as the Battle of Brookland. Five men were killed and around twenty wounded, but in the heat of the fighting the gang’s leader, one Cephas Quested, ordered someone to shoot one of the officers of the blockade force. Unfortunately for him, the man he’d given the order to was a blockader not a smuggler, and Quested found himself under arrest; he was subsequently tried and convicted at the Old Bailey and hanged at Newgate.

Subsequently, the gang was taken over by one George Ransley, the landlord of the Bourne Tap pub in Aldington. Under him, the Aldington Gang prospered for several years, landing contraband on the coast between Rye and Deal despite the blockade. Their success came to an end in July 1826 when a blockade officer was killed when he tried to stop the gang running a cargo ashore at the beach at Dover. The government moved fast, and Ransley and several others were arrested in the months that followed. Nineteen of them went on trial at the Maidstone Assizes the following year, and although all of them were found guilty of offences that carried the death penalty their sentences were commuted to transportation; Ransley ended up in Tasmania.

The Aldington Gang were the last of the big smuggler gangs. In 1831, blockade duties for Kent and Sussex became the responsibility of HM Coastguard which had been founded some nine years earlier; this force was well-armed and well-disciplined. There followed various skirmishes between the Coastguard and the smugglers, the last serious one taking place at Pevensey in 1833. By this time, events were turning against the smugglers. Police forces were being established to keep law and order on land, and attitudes such as those expressed by Charles Lamb (see above) were becoming out-dated, for by the dawn of the Victorian age the smuggler was seen not as an honest thief but as a threat to public order. Finally, in the 1840s the government showed its commitment to free trade by slashing import duties, after which smuggling became a somewhat unimportant activity.

But in a sense, it has lived on. The many tales of smuggling on and around Romney Marsh have long provided a source of literary inspiration. Rudyard Kipling, who lived in Sussex for over thirty years, wrote the poem ‘A Smuggler’s Song’ (“brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk…”) which can be found on the back wall of the Mermaid Inn. 

At around the same time, the Rye-based author Russell Thorndike created the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn – the mild-mannered vicar of the Romney Marsh parish of Dymchurch who also happens to the ruthless leader of the local smuggler gang. This remarkable character first appeared in the novel Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh in 1915. A couple of decades later, Thorndike (an actor as well as an author, and the brother of the actress Sybil Thorndike) returned to the character with six other adventures (Doctor Syn Returns, The Courageous Exploits of Doctor Syn, etc) which are set prior to the first novel. There was a movie in 1937, starring George Arliss, and another one in 1963 with Patrick MacGoohan.

Thorndike, by the way, wasn’t the only author to be inspired by Rye and the surrounding area. Henry James and E.F. Benson both lived there, while the town is said to have provided Enid Blyton with the setting for her Famous Five adventure Five Go to Smuggler’s Top. John Ryan, the creator of the ineffectual cartoon pirate Captain Pugwash, also lived in Rye (contrary to urban myth, the characters in Captain Pugwash did not have sexually suggestive names).

Although the Doctor Syn novels have long been out of print, Dymchurch’s most famous resident, and probably Romney Marsh’s most famous smuggler (even though he’s fictional), is still celebrated in a biannual event called the ‘Day of Syn’ which takes place at Dymchurch over the August Bank Holiday weekend in even-numbered years. There’s also a steam locomotive named after him on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway.


Historical English crime: Smuggling on Romney Marsh (part 1)

My travels have recently taken me to Romney Marsh, a fascinating part of the world down on the south coast. Low-lying and sparsely populated, it covers around 100 square miles, mostly in Kent but stretching over into Sussex as well.

Romney Marsh – “where the roads wind like streams through pasture and the sky is always three-quarters of the landscape” (according to John Betjeman, and who am I to disagree with him?) – is a large, flat, low-lying and almost empty area with several isolated churches (indicating abandoned or ‘lost’ villages) which was long regarded as both a potential weak point in the event of an invasion from continental Europe – of which more in later posts – and a paradise for smugglers.

Smuggling began in the Middle Ages, and it began with wool, a commodity that formed the backbone of the medieval English economy; it was said that in Europe, the best quality wool came from England. English wool was therefore highly prized by weavers on the continent, and during the reign of Edward I exports of wool were therefore taxed – which is where the smugglers got started, for it was the customs system as introduced in the late thirteenth century that created smuggling. Wool was smuggled out of England via small harbours and beaches, especially on the south-eastern coast which is the closest part of England to mainland Europe. On Romney Marsh – prime sheep-grazing country to the extent that there is still a breed of sheep called the Romney – the smugglers flourished. They became known as ‘owlers’ due to the owl-like noises they used to communicate at night, which was when most of their activities took place, and so the smuggling of wool became known as ‘owling’.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, high export duties and a somewhat ineffective system of control meant that the owlers went more or less unchallenged. A century later, the smuggling of wool out of England was declared to be punishable by death – but did not deter the smugglers, who if anything acquired a more ruthless character, arming themselves to prevent arrest. The customs or revenue men, known as riding officers, were both too few and too poorly-equipped to stop them, though, and Romney Marsh and the various Cinque Ports, along with their accompanying ‘limbs’, got a reputation for lawlessness as a result. This can be seen in the events of 1669, when a man called William Carter, who had set himself up as a smuggler-catcher and managed to get a warrant from Charles II to that effect, arrested the captain of a ship for wool-smuggling and got the magistrate in Folkestone to commit him for trial. However, on arriving in Folkestone with his prisoner, Carter was pelted with stones by the women of the town, who’d been encouraged by the captain’s wife; in the face of such an onslaught, the smuggler-catcher had little option but to let his prisoner go.

Even corrupt officials got involved. This is illustrated by an event that took place in Hythe (one of the five original Cinque Ports) in 1692, when riding officers seized 16 bags of wool in a barn belonging to Julius Deeds, the Mayor of Hythe. Deeds sent his servant, Thomas Birch (who was also a parish constable), to retrieve the wool. He got arrested, and at the subsequent trial the defence tried to argue that the riding officers had acted illegally on the grounds that they had not been accompanied by a parish constable. The prosecution replied that the constable who should have been accompanying them was – you’ve guessed it – Birch himself! Despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt, the jury accepted the defence’s argument that the wool had been due to be sent to another part of England rather than abroad, and acquitted him. Such instances were not uncommon.

By 1698, the government had resorted to forbidding anyone who lived within 15 miles of the sea in Kent or Sussex from buying wool. In addition to that, all sheep-farmers living within ten miles of the sea in said counties had to account for all of their fleeces for up to three days after shearing. Riding officers were appointed in greater numbers and could call on armed cavalry – dragoons – to help them against the smugglers. Owling persisted, but by the 1720s it was in decline.

But that did not mean an end to smuggling on Romney Marsh.

To be continued…


The White Horse of Cherhill

If you’re on the A4 heading east from Bath, you’ll pass through a Wiltshire village called Cherhill just before you get to the turn-off for Avebury. Just after Cherhill, take a glance at the hillside on the right, for there, carved into said hillside, is a white horse. If you’re heading west from Avebury, pull over before you get to Cherhill and take a look at the White Horse of Cherhill.

There are quite a few hill-figures in that part of southern-central England where the bedrock consists of chalk. A couple of these are of men (naked men at that, as anyone who’s ever seen the Giant at Cerne Abbas in Dorset will testify!), but the majority are of horses. One is ancient indeed – the White Horse of Uffington in Oxfordshire, which is reckoned to have adorned the hillside there since the late Bronze Age – but most of them are of a more recent vintage. The one at Cherhill is still pretty old, though, although it ‘only’ dates back to 1780.

It is the creation of a doctor from the nearby town of Calne. Christopher Alsop was known locally as the ‘Mad Doctor’, presumably because he decided to cut the image of a horse onto the hillside. Actually, he didn’t do the cutting (the removal of the top-soil to get at the chalk beneath); his servant did that, while the Mad Doctor sat in a chair at the bottom of the hill shouting instructions through a megaphone.

Quite why the Mad Doctor did this is not entirely clear. He was a friend of George Stubbs, the famous painter who specialised in pictures of horses, so the hill-figure may have been done as a tribute to him. It’s also possible that he might have done it to show his support for the Royal family of the time, the Hanoverian dynasty whose symbol was the white horse of Hanover (that is also one of the theories regarding the older white horse at Westbury, also in Wiltshire, although some reckon that that one is much, much older, having been cut to commemorate Alfred the Great’s victory over the Vikings at nearby Ethandun (modern-day Edington) even though there is no mention of that particular hill-figure prior to the mid-eighteenth century). Or it could be that the Mad Doctor was doing some advertising for a local pub, the White Horse – as the A4 was a coaching road (the Great West Road, also known as the Bath Road) in the eighteenth century, that might be plausible – but then again, maybe the White Horse pub is so named because of the white horse on the hill, rather than the other way round!

Close to the White Horse of Cherhill is a stone obelisk. It is the Lansdowne Monument, erected in 1845 by the aristocratic Lansdowne family to commemorate … themselves. Or rather, one of their ancestors, Sir William Petty (1623-87) – an economist, scientist and philosopher who was a founder-member of the Royal Society. He was a friend of Samuel Pepys, who in his diary described Petty as “one of the most rational men that I ever heard speak”.



To Suffolk, and a chance to take a look at a town that no longer exists.

Well, sort of. Today, Dunwich is a small coastal village with a quiet shingle beach from which you can see Southwold – key landmarks being St Edmund’s church and the lighthouse – to the north and the dome of the Sizewell power station to the south.

There are low cliffs at the back of the beach. It’s part of an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – to all intents and purposes, one level down from a National Park) and has a couple of nature reserves in the vicinity, most notably the birding heaven that is the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve just to the south. The sort of place where a P.D. James murder mystery might take place. As you drive into the village, though, the ruins of a Medieval monastery give an indication that at some point, Dunwich was much bigger than it is today.

Back in the Middle Ages, Dunwich was a thriving port town – one of the most important on the east coast of England. In the Dark Ages it was known as Dummoc and was the capital of the Kingdom of the East Angles. It was considered important enough for the Knights Templar to build one of their churches there (similar in structure to London’s Temple Church, apparently), and several monastic orders had priories there. Recent archaeological discoveries have shown that ship-building was a major local industry.

So what happened? Dunwich has often been described as a town that was lost to the sea, which is partly true as much of the old town now lies beneath the waves as a result of centuries of coastal erosion. Storms also played a part too, though, for much of the damage was done by six big storms – one in 1286 and two more the following year, then another in 1328, another in 1347 and the last in 1362 – which between them destroyed much of the town. Subsequently, it was largely abandoned and as a result sea defences were not maintained – which meant that over time the cliffs were eroded over time, causing the ruins atop them to fall into the sea as the cliffs receded. The last of the Medieval town’s eight churches, All Saints, was abandoned in the eighteenth century and gradually fell into the sea in the early twentieth.

Local legend has it that the bells of the vanished churches can still be heard from the sea on calm nights!

In recent years, Dunwich has attracted much attention from marine archaeologists who have used sonar and acoustic imaging cameras to map the seafloor all around what used to be the town. Ruins were identified, which were subsequently examined by divers. This has made Dunwich the largest underwater medieval site in Europe, while back on land it has also featured on Time Team.

The monastic ruins that survive today do so on account of the fact that Dunwich’s Franciscan priory was built to the west of the town. The ruins of the Greyfriars (so called because the Franciscans wore grey robes) are the last of what remains of Medieval Dunwich.

The priory was closed down in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries; it was later rebuilt during the eighteenth century but then demolished in the nineteenth, leaving the monastic ruins that we see today. There’s a very nice short circular walk in Dunwich that takes you from the entrance to the car park at the beach, along the top of the cliffs, past the Last Grave (all that’s left of the churchyard of All Saints) and then right past the Greyfriars before you head back to the beach.

Definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area!


When gulls attack

They warn you about the seagulls in Falmouth.

If you’ve got food and are eating it at an exposed place like the quayside, there is every likelihood that the gulls will attack you and steal your food. I’ve heard talk of it in the pubs and the B&Bs, and I have seen it for myself – a young chap who’d got his dinner from the chippy (Harbour Lights, the best one in town) and was heading for a bench with a view out across the harbour when a gull came and hit him on the back of the head. He dropped his food, turned round to see who’d hit him, and when he turned back the main part of his dinner – a battered sausage so freshly cooked you could still see the steam coming off it – had gone, along with quite a few of the accompanying chips.

The good people of Falmouth – Britain’s most south-westerly port and a great place to visit – do not like the seagulls. They’d rather like there to be a cull, or some sort of means of keeping gull numbers under control, and earlier this year a West Country MP even managed to ask a question in the House of Commons about whether gulls could be culled. The answer was no, because internationally most species of gull are declining in numbers as there is less and less food for them at sea; perhaps that is why so many of them have started to look inland for something to eat. One species, the Herring Gull, has even made it onto the RSPB’s ‘Red List’ of threatened bird species, while the rest are on the ‘Amber List’ as their numbers have moderately declined over the last few years. Not that that’s any consolation to the lad who had his battered sausage nicked … by a Herring Gull.

There are four species of gulls that you will most likely encounter. There’s the Herring Gull, which is easily recognisable with its light grey back and wings and the distinctive yellow beak with a red spot. It will go just about anywhere for food; my copy of the RSPB Handbook of British Birds describes it as having a “wide range of food, from offal and carrion to seeds and fruits … eats the young and eggs of other birds, catches small mammals, scavenges on shorelines and rubbish tips”. Smaller is the Black-headed Gull, so-called for the chocolate-brown hood that it has during the summer (don’t ask). Although they’re gulls, they’ve been fairly common inland for as long as I’ve been birding. And then there are the two black-backed ones, the Lesser Black-backed Gull (which has a dark grey back and wings) and the Greater Black-backed Gull (this one, our biggest gull, does indeed have a black back and wings). The Greater Black-backed Gull can be really vicious – it “hunts in a variety of ways and takes a wide range of food. Kills and eats young seabirds … robs others of their food, will catch fish or feed on carrion, either in the water or washed up on the shore … has been observed scavenging road kills. It will kill and eat mammals, such as rabbits.”

Although I’ve been told that gull attacks have been on the rise, they’re not a new thing by any means. At least, not in Cornwall. Back in the early Fifties, Daphne du Maurier wrote a short story, ‘The Birds’, about what happens when the birds – not just the gulls, but the crows and all manner of little garden birds – somehow co-ordinate attacks on people; “birds that by nature’s law kept to their own flock and their own territory, and now, joining with one another in their urge for battle”. Seen from the point of view of a Cornish farm labourer who tries to defend his family against the attacks, it’s a tale of suspense in which no-one seems to realise that, somehow, evolution is turning against mankind: “As he jumped the stile he heard the whirr of wings. A black-backed gull dived down at him from the sky, missed, swerved in flight, and rose to dive again. In a moment it was joined by others, six, seven, a dozen, black-backed and herring mixed … Covering his head with his arms he ran towards the cottage. They kept coming at him from the air…”

Some say that Daphne du Maurier got the idea for this story after seeing someone attacked by a gull in St Ives, but the lady herself told the following story (in Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall) of how ‘The Birds’ came to be: “Walking down from Menabilly to the farm one day, I caught sight of the farmer on his tractor ploughing the fields, a cloud of screaming gulls circling above his head, and thought, ‘Supposing the gulls attacked!’ That picture started the brewing process...”

Alfred Hitchcock later made it into a famous film, and although he set that film in California (he being based in Hollywood) the fact remains that the original story is set, and was inspired by something that Daphne du Maurier saw. and subsequently thought, in Cornwall.

I am not quite sure where the story about Daphne du Maurier witnessing someone being attacked by a gull in St Ives comes from, but to many it does ring true, for the gulls who frequent St Ives are to this day regarded as the worst offenders in terms of attacking people for food. Woe betide anyone who tries to eat their pastie while walking alongside the harbour there! It has to be said, though, that their Falmouth equivalents are catching them up.

They warn you about the seagulls in Falmouth.


Various myths and legends concerning Dartmoor

To Dartmoor, the greatest expanse of wilderness in Southern England, and one of 15 National Parks in the UK (England has 10, Wales 3 and Scotland 2). 

A bleak but beautiful expanse of high ground in the middle of Devon, Dartmoor consists of some 368 square miles of bogs, granite outcrops (tors) and heather-grown moorland as well as lots of isolated farmsteads, a prison, various disused tin mines and granite quarries, a strong military presence (the north-eastern part of it has been an Army firing range for over 200 years), the sources of several Devon rivers (not just the Dart) and a few fine examples of clapper bridges which date back to Medieval times. 

Animals on the moor are mainly cows, sheep and ponies – those last being the descendants of the pit-ponies which were used when the moor was a centre for tin-mining.

And, of course, it is the source of many local legends.  Dartmoor is said to be haunted by (among others) pixies, a headless horseman, a few monks who got lost crossing the moor in the Middle Ages and several large black dogs – some of whom are said to go hunting with the ghost of an evil squire. The Devil crops up a few times, having visited a village in the middle of the moor during a storm in the seventeenth century and having also had at least one soul sold to him. In the twentieth century, several road accidents on the moor were attributed to the ‘hairy hands’, a pair of disembodied hands that apparently grabbed the steering-wheels of cars (or the handle-bars of motorbikes) and forced vehicles off the road; one suspects that quite a few of those accidents occurred at night, probably not long after the pubs had closed.

Quite a few of the tors are subject to various myths and legends. Hound Tor, not far from the road between Bovey Tracy and Widecombe-in-the-Moor, is said to have been created as a result of a pack of hunting-hounds being turned to stone by some witches who were upset that the dogs had knocked their cauldron over while they were chasing a hare; the huntsman accompanying them was also turned to stone – the granite stack that is Bowerman’s Nose, about a mile from Hound Tor, to be precise.

Tales of ghostly dogs are not unique to Dartmoor. Such stories abound across England (most counties have at least one), and as far as Dartmoor is concerned there’s the yeth or yell hound – a spectral dog which is supposed to be the spirit of an unbaptised child which roams the moor at night, making wailing noises. This is said to have been one of the inspirations for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles which is set mainly on Dartmoor.

Conan Doyle stayed at a hotel in Princetown (the Royal Duchy Hotel, now one of three National Park Visitor Centres on Dartmoor) while he was working on The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was published in 1902 (after being serialised in The Strand Magazine); this marked Sherlock Holmes’s first re-appearance since being apparently killed off at the Reichenbach Falls in ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem’ back in 1893 (the success of The Hound of the Baskervilles prompted Conan Doyle to revive Holmes on a permanent basis, with the story usually hailed as Holmes’s ‘return’, ‘The Adventure  of the Empty House’, appearing in The Strand Magazine in 1903).

As well as the yeth hound, Conan Doyle also drew inspiration from the story of Richard Cabell, a seventeenth-century squire who lived in Buckfastleigh on the south-eastern edge of Dartmoor. He loved hunting and is said to have murdered his wife and sold his soul to the Devil. When he died in 1677 and was laid to rest in the churchyard at Buckfastleigh, a pack of phantom hounds is supposed to have raced across the moor to howl at the graveside, and Cabell’s ghost has (so it is said) been seen hunting on the moor with the ghostly hounds on the anniversary of his death. In an attempt to lay his soul to rest, a heavy stone was placed over his grave and a mausoleum (known locally as ‘The Sepulchre’) was built over it. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Cabell became the dastardly Hugo Baskerville – the ancestor of the Baskervilles and the source of the family curse (the story, as told to Holmes and Doctor Watson at the start of the novel, is that Hugo sold his soul to the devil in order to abduct a young lady, only to meet his end by way of an encounter with a giant hound).

But the purchase of the soul of a member of the local gentry was not the only piece of Devil’s work on seventeenth-century Dartmoor. Over at Widecombe-in-the-Moor there’s a fine fourteenth-century granite church dedicated to St Pancras; it is somewhat on the big side for the small village it serves, which has led to it being known as the ‘cathedral of the moor’. On 21st October 1638 it was struck by lightning. During a service. The north-eastern pinnacle of the tower was dislodged and fell through the roof, killing four and injuring many others (some of whom later died of their wounds). An eyewitness report of sorts exists in the form of a poem written by the local schoolmaster, although the highly informative guide to the church (a booklet which can be purchased in the church for £1) adds to this by including an account, apparently from a pamphlet published in London a couple of weeks later, which states that the vicar tried to continue with the service, only to find that the surviving members of his flock “durst not proceed in their publick devotions, but went forth of the Church”.

According to local legend, the storm was the work of the Devil, who had come to take one of the parishoners; various reasons are given depending on where you hear or read of the story – the man in question has been described as an adulterer or a gambler (who had lost to the Devil at cards but failed to pay up), although the afore-mentioned church guide states that he was merely guilty of having “fallen asleep during the afternoon service”. The church is most definitely worth a look around, but then you tell me the English country church that is not!

That said, Widecombe-in-the-Moor is perhaps best known for the song about a group of yokels, including Uncle Tom Cobley, all riding to that village’s fair on a grey mare (the fair still takes place, in a field just outside the village, in September). Their somewhat improbable ride is depicted on signs throughout the village. 

Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for the horse, and according to the song it too is said to haunt the moor…