Writing Portfolio


Cocktail hour, part four

When getting ready to pour myself a Scotch-and-ginger recently, I grabbed hold of a tumbler which has cocktail measurements on the side. We have a set of four of these – one each for gin, rum, vodka and whiskey (I’ll let the Irish-American variant of the spelling pass); they’re square-shaped and each side has the measurements for a different cocktail marked on it. Out of curiosity, I had a look at the ones for the whiskey glass and found that one of the cocktails listed, the cablegram, wasn’t far off what I was planning to drink anyway. So, naturally, I opted to go the extra mile and turn my spirit-plus-mixer into a cocktail.

I’d not come across a cablegram before, it not being featured in our Vintage Cocktails book. It consists of whisky – over three fluid ounces of whisky if we’re going by the measuring-line on the glass, which we might as well do in the absence of any other instructions – mixed with a teaspoon of sugar and the juice of half a lemon, plus ice, topped with ginger ale. If three fluid ounces of whisky seems like quite a bit, I should point out that that is because it is; for reference purposes, a standard pub measurement of whisky (or any other spirit for that matter) in this country is 25 millilitres, which converts into less than one fluid ounce.

To all intents and purposes, it’s a whisky sour with ginger ale. On second thoughts, make that a pretty stiff whisky sour with ginger ale, for over three fluid ounces is a lot more whisky than I would usually put in a glass! But most enjoyable.


Interesting things in Wiltshire pubs (part 2)

Time to continue our tour of Wiltshire pubs that contain interesting things. From Avebury, let us journey further west (just under 15 miles by road) to Lacock. This village (or is it a town? It was given a market charter in the Middle Ages, which would technically make it a town even though there’s no longer a market) has remained unchanged for many years, with most of the buildings dating back to at least the eighteenth century. Lacock’s remarkably unspoiled appearance has made it a favourite with the makers of TV costume dramas, and it has appeared in plenty of those – Cranford, two versions of Pride and Prejudice, Moll Flanders and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (to name but a few) were filmed here, while the stately home, Lacock Abbey (“the birthplace of photography”, for that was where William Henry Fox-Talbot took the first photograph, in 1835), was Wolf Hall in Wolf Hall as well as being used as part of Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter films.

Lacock, which is almost entirely owned by the National Trust, has several pubs, including another Red Lion, but the one we’re interested in here is the George. As a pub name, the George also has more than one origin – either from St George or King George. The former has been recognised as the patron saint of England since the fourteenth century, although veneration of him in England goes back further. As for kings, there have been six of those but crucially that was the name of every King of Great Britain between 1714 and 1830 (starting with George I and ending with George IV), which is why the eighteenth century is sometimes known in this country as the Georgian period.

Inside the George in Lacock, we have our second unusual or interesting thing. In one of the rooms, there’s an old fire-place and in front of that is displayed an old spit or roasting-jack, as used for turning big joints of meat in front of open fires in the days before ovens. What is unusual about this one is that it was dog-operated, for it is linked by way of a pulley system to a large wheel in which a small dog was placed – the dog would run in the wheel, and that would in turn power the spit.

While such an arrangement seems odd at first, when you think about it it seems hardly surprising that people would have thought to get an animal to power the roasting-jack, for (as far as humans were concerned) being a ‘spit-boy’ was a low-paid, monotonous and – thanks to being up close to a roaring fire for long periods of time – uncomfortable job (see Tony Robinson’s TV series The Worst Jobs in History for more on this). Getting a dog to do it instead seems to have been a widespread practice by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – widespread enough for there to have been a particular breed of dog, long of body and short of leg, that was called the turnspit. Also known as the kitchen dog or the cooking dog, the breed does not seem to have been particularly well-documented, and it was more or less extinct by the mid-to-late nineteenth century, by which time automated roasting-jacks, powered by steam or by the hot air rising from the fire, were fairly widespread.


Interesting things in Wiltshire pubs (part 1)

Back to Wiltshire, that county in Southern England well-known for its ancient stone circles, Salisbury Cathedral, several Army bases and the fact that the M4 and the A303 go through it. In recent years it has played host to the reintroduction of the Great Bustard, a species of bird which became extinct in Britain in the 1830s (it’s Wiltshire’s county bird; more on that in the unlikely event of my actually seeing one). What is perhaps less well-known is that a couple of pubs in the county have some rather odd things in them…

First up is the Red Lion in Avebury

That’s a fairly common pub name, the most common in the country in fact. It’s one of those pub names that has more than one origin. A a red lion was the personal badge of John of Gaunt (the “time-honour’d Lancaster” who does the “this scepter’d isle” speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II, in real life a younger son of Edward III and the father of Henry IV). It was also the Royal arms of Scotland, which were merged with the Royal arms of England when King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. But then again, the Red Lion in Avebury could derive from the coat-of-arms of an eighteenth-century lord of the manor, Lieutenant-General Williamson, which can be seen on display in the local church.

Anyway – the pub. The Red Lion in Avebury does have something that makes it unique, for it claims to be the only pub in the world that’s located within an ancient stone circle. Since I cannot think of any other ancient stone circle which has part of a village inside it, they’re probably right. So if you want to go for a pint in a pub that is truly unique, this one’s worth a visit.

Inside, there’s more. A mural on the wall shows a map of southern England, with the Line of St Michael marked out. This is probably the most famous ley line in the country, running diagonally from Cornwall to Suffolk, passing through such places as St Michael’s Mount, Glastonbury, Avebury and Bury St Edmunds, among others. Its saintly dedication derives from the fact that there are several churches or places dedicated to said archangel on its length – for example, the hilltop church at Brentor in Devon and the ruined tower atop Glastonbury Tor, as well as the afore-mentioned Cornish island. Some people get very excited by this; occasionally at Avebury, you may even run into someone who’s brought his divining-rods with him. Although I regard the notion of ley lines with a degree of cynicism, a journey along this one would certainly make for an interesting travelogue. Reading up on this, I note that I’m not the only cynic, for Geoffrey Ashe (in Mythology of the British Isles) refers to them as “modern myth” although he does note that “Avebury is at the point where it [the St Michael Line] cuts a parallel of latitude distant from the equator by exactly one-seventh of the earth’s circumference”; make of that what you will, if anything.

Of more tangible interest in the pub, though, is the well. Yes, the village well in Avebury – 86 feet deep, dating back to around 1600 and “believed to be the last resting place of at least one unfortunate villager” – is located inside the pub. How many pubs can claim to have a well inside them? And even if they do, how many of those wells have had a glass top put over them so they can serve as a table?

The presence of the well would seem to indicate that there wasn’t always a pub on this site – and there’s evidence for that, in the form of a map of Avebury drawn up by the antiquarian William Stukeley in 1724. His main purpose was to mark the locations of the stones themselves, and the locations of spots where stones had once stood, but he marked out other key points as well – his map shows a pub (“The Inn”) that is located on the other side of the road to the present-day Red Lion, although crucially (as far as this particular study is concerned) he didn’t mark the location of the village well.

To be continued...


Broadway Tower

To Worcestershire, where I was keen to indulge my love of climbing towers with Broadway Tower, an eighteenth-century folly located on the top of Broadway Hill, the second-highest point in the Cotswolds (it’s 1,024 feet above sea level, whereas Cleeve Hill in Gloucestershire is 1,083 feet).

Built to resemble a castle at a time when follies were all the rage among the landed classes, Broadway Tower is 65 feet tall and was the brainchild of the famous landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown although it designed by James Wyatt. It was completed in 1798. The money for the project was provided by Lady Coventry; the second wife of the sixth Earl of Coventry, she was curious as to whether a beacon atop Broadway Hill – a hill on which beacons were lit on special occasions – could be seen from her home in Worcester (22 miles away). The story goes that a fire was lit on the hill and, after noting that she could see it from Worcester, Lady Coventry celebrated by bankrolling the building of the folly (as you do).

In the nineteenth century, Broadway Tower played its part in early moves to preserve historic buildings. In the early part of that century it was owned by Sir Thomas Phillips, a book collector whose ambition was to own a copy of every book in the world; he didn’t achieve that but he was able to amass a collection of over 60,000 manuscripts and printed books, some of which he kept at the tower along with his printing press. Later that same century, it was used as a retreat for people involved with the Arts & Crafts movement like the writer and textile-designer William Morris; even though Broadway Tower wasn’t particularly old, he was so impressed by the place that he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877.

It’s sometimes described as being built in the ‘Saxon’ style, but I find that a bit dubious as stone castles only really started to be built in this country after the Norman Conquest. Up close, it’s a three-sided (and three-storey) structure, and the views from ground level are pretty good. I was there on a particularly windy day, but that didn’t really matter too much; more importantly, there was no rain and the sun was poking through the clouds – a lovely November day, in other words. On the way up (there are two narrow spiral staircases, one designated as ‘up’ and the other as ‘down’), the first and second floors have little exhibits dedicated to William Morris and also to the Royal Observer Corps (nearby there is a memorial to the crew of a Whitley bomber that crashed close to the tower in 1943, and there’s also a Cold War nuclear bunker close by).

From the top, the views are amazing – it’s said that at least a dozen counties can be seen from it (sources vary, though, but that’s probably more to do with local authority boundary changes over the years). As well as the cities of Birmingham and Coventry, you can see as far west as the mountains of Wales and as far east as the Chilterns. My only regret was that I hadn’t bought my binoculars.


The Writers' Museum

Up in Edinburgh recently, I had a walk around the Old Town and, after enjoying the view from Castle Rock and checking out St Giles’ Cathedral, I chanced upon the Writers’ Museum, located in a courtyard just off the Royal Mile.

Well, seeing as I occasionally volunteer at Dr Johnson’s House down in London (and had just chanced upon a pub close to the castle which has a plaque outside saying that Samuel Johnson had dined there with James Boswell in 1770), I had to go in and have a look around. The building itself is called Lady Stair’s House and dates back to 1622 (as can be deduced from that year being carved onto the lintel over the front door) although it’s named after a woman – the widow of the Earl of Stair – who bought it in 1719. Having restored it in the late nineteenth century, Lord Rosebery (briefly Prime Minister in the 1890s; Winston Churchill later quipped that he “outlived his future by ten years and his past by more than twenty”) donated it to the city of Edinburgh for use as a museum in 1907.


The museum is a delightful building whose three floors (accessed by two staircases, one a spiral and the other, main one having uneven stairs – an old anti-burglar trick) are devoted to three of Scotland’s most famous writers (two of whom were born in Edinburgh): Robert Burns (1759-96), Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894).

Burns, now regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, collected old folk songs from across Scotland (something that was being done by various writers across Europe at the time) as well as writing his own material, which includes ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘Address to a Haggis’ (as recited after the haggis is piped in at a Burns Night dinner) and that poem in which he says that the “best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” do something in the Scots dialect that I can’t pronounce although I do know that it translates as ‘often go wrong’. The artefacts of his in the museum include a cast of his skull (made when his widow, who outlived him by 38 years, was laid to rest alongside him) and a sword-stick – a slim sword concealed in a walking-stick, which he had because he worked as an exciseman as well as being a writer.

I’d already seen the Scott Monument on Princes Street, a large Gothic tower that I was not surprised to learn is the largest monument to a writer anywhere in the world (it is not far from Waverley Station, Edinburgh’s mainline railway station which I suspect is the only train station in the world that’s named after a novel). The museum has Scott-related items of a more personal nature, such as his childhood rocking-horse (with one foot-hold higher than the other, for he suffered from polio as a child) and a lock of his hair. I’ve often thought that Scott – who met Burns when he was 15 – is one of those writers I should read more of – I’ve only read two of his books; Ivanhoe many years ago, after watching a TV adaptation of it, while a couple of years back I made heavy work of Waverley. Scott, I was intrigued to learn, was made a baronet not for his writing but for finding the Scottish crown jewels (which hadn’t been used since the seventeenth century and were thought to have been lost), and he was also the man who co-ordinated George IV’s visit to Edinbugh in 1822, a spectacular affair that did much to establish tartan as a potent symbol of Scottish identity (it had previously been banned in the wake of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745) and only took three weeks to plan.

The part dedicated to Stevenson is in the basement. This contains a wooden cupboard, once owned by Stevenson’s father, that was made by no less a person than William Brodie, better known as Deacon Brodie, a notorious eighteenth-century public figure in Edinburgh; a respectable cabinet-maker, locksmith and city councillor by day (he had the title ‘deacon’ not out of anything to do with religion but because he was head of a trade guild), he was also a thief and a burglar (many of his victims being people who he had made locks for!) by night. The pub named after him on the Royal Mile, not far from where he was hanged in 1788, plays on this dichotomy by showing both sides of his personality on either side of the sign. Amost a century later,  Deacon Brodie would serve as the main inspiration for Stevenson’s novella Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There’s also some interesting information about Treasure Island (he came up with the map first, and worked the story around that). Although his literary reputation did for a time suffer at the hand of those snobs of the Bloomsbury Set, Stevenson’s legacy has been enormous – just think of how many stories derive from those two that I’ve mentioned! As for me, I’ve always meant to read some of his travel writing but, as with more Scott, it’s just something I don’t seem to have got around to.

There were some pictures of other Scottish writers on the walls; I was pleased to find a photograph of John Buchan, although the most impressive picture was the tapestry depiction of Burns, Scott and Stevenson.

Finally, there’s currently an exhibition at the Writers’ Museum devoted to a modern Scottish writer – Ian Rankin, for 2017 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Rebus books, the Edinburgh detective having made his first appearance in 1987’s Knots and Crosses. Rankin wrote that after having the idea of updating Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde into then-modern Edinburgh, which is why the reader is for a time led to suspect that the troubled detective is also the villain of the piece (and he could easily have been, for at the time Rankin had no plans to bring him back for more). I like the Rebus novels, to the extent that I made a point of seeking out the Oxford Bar when I was in Edinburgh last year, so I loved that there was an exhibition devoted to them at the museum.

All in all, well worth a visit.


More on Avebury

Writing about Avebury some time ago, I noted that the eighteenth-century antiquarian William Stukeley had theorised that the two stone avenues radiating out from the stone circle had formed a ‘solar serpent’ pattern. He got this idea because the route taken by said avenues (only one of which still partially exists) can be interpreted, and indeed was interpreted by Stukeley, as being representative of the body of a snake, passing through Avebury itself and ending at the head – which took the form of another (smaller) stone circle called The Sanctuary which is located just under two from Avebury itself (there are no stones left there, and nowadays their positions are marked by concrete blocks).

I happen to go to Avebury rather a lot, and I’ve found a reference to this notion in an old building in the vicinity of the stones. St James’s church in Avebury dates back to at least the seventh century although the nave of the current building dates back to around 1000, with the aisles, chancel and so on being added later. Rather tellingly, the church itself is located outside the stone circle (after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, the circle came to be seen as the work of the devil), but who knows if any of the masonry is made up from smashed-up stones that once formed part of the circle? 

Quite a few old English churches have some special features, and the church at Avebury is no exception. It has a rare example of a medieval rood screen, an installation intended to separate the nave from the chancel; most of these in English churches were done away with during the Reformation, although in the case of the Avebury church it was hidden and later restored. There is also a hagioscope – a small hole in the interior wall dating back to the fifteenth century, used to ensure that the mass taking place at a side-altar could be synchronised with the mass at the main, central altar. On the wall under the tower is a Royal coat-of-arms, which all C of E churches were once required to display by law (quite a few older churches still do; the Avebury one dates back to the reign of George III). 

And then there’s the stone font, reckoned to be Norman or perhaps even Saxon, upon which is carved the image of a serpent-like creature being stabbed in the head by a human figure. Perhaps this symbolises the coming of Christianity in the Dark Ages, or perhaps it hints at the notion of the old stone circle being part of a larger, serpent-like structure. Perhaps that’s where Stukeley got the idea from, for although he’s not listed as having been a former vicar of that parish, he was a C of E priest who spent some time in the area, so he must have been aware of what was, and still is, on the font.


The Death of Stalin

To the cinema – our wonderful local one, the Phoenix – to see The Death of Stalin. Earlier this month, we’d managed to miss one of ‘my’ films, Goodbye Christopher Robin which was not in the cinemas for long (that was the one where I got to stand next to Margot Robbie; now we wait for the DVD to come out to see if that scene ended up on the big screen rather than the cutting-room floor), and even though I wasn’t an extra in The Death of Stalin I did want to see it. Well, having studied Russian history (among other histories) at university, I couldn’t have not wanted to see the demise of said blood-soaked Soviet dictator and the subsequent power-struggle as interpreted by the man behind The Thick of It.

While I’m aware that this is not a film to everyone’s tastes, I must say that I really enjoyed it. So what if it has apparently gone down badly in Moscow, and that there are some people in the West who would most likely dislike the film because even today they venerate the man (revered as ‘Uncle Joe’ during the War) whose death is the plot catalyst? Some historical events are perhaps best presented on the big screen as farce, and I’m not sure if the machinations that went with the aftermath of Stalin’s death could be presented in any other way. How else, for instance, could a situation where no-one wants to call a doctor because they’re afraid to make a decision without deferring to a higher authority, even though said higher authority is lying unconscious and incontinent on the floor, he being a man of whom they’re all scared and also a man who has recently sent many doctors to the Gulag, be interpreted? And, prior to Stalin’s demise, what of those dinners that he had those in his inner circle attend, where they were forced to sit through bootleg Westerns, drink vodka (Stalin had his own special bottle, which actually contained water so that he would be able to observe what the others said while under the influence) and dance for his amusement for no better reason than, as Khrushchev later remarked, “when Stalin says dance, a wise man dances”, and woe betide anyone who said the wrong thing or, worse still, passed out? I also liked the accents – or rather, the lack of Russian ones. Actors all trying to do the same accent can be a distraction, especially if it’s badly done (which is usually the case) and I thought it a smart move to do away with attempts at doing so here. Besides, the accents that were used here do actually work with the real-life people who are depicted. Thus, Nikita Khrushchev becomes ‘Nicky’, a street-smart New Yorker (played by the “funny-looking guy” from Fargo) and Georgy Zhukov a bluff, no-nonsense Northerner, while Malenkov sounds like what he was – weak, ineffectual, somewhat colourless and utterly unable to control events even though circumstances have left him in charge, however nominally.

There are, inevitably, several examples where Mr Iannucci is a bit economical with the actualité. Well, he did admit to as much in the trailer, which boldly (baldly?) states that this film is “loosely based on the true story”. Was there really a panic at a Moscow concert because Stalin had heard the live performance on the radio and wanted a recording, and in the absence of an actual recording they had to re-do the whole thing, making the tired performers and the audience who hadn’t already left stay, getting in extra audience-members off the street and getting a second conductor out of his bed because the original conductor had fainted, in order to perform and record a repeat-performance just for the tyrant’s pleasure? Probably not, but to emphasise from the start the paranoia that Stalin was capable of generating among his own subjects after the best part of three decades of purges, show trials and rule by terror it’s a pretty good introduction. There are a few historical liberties with the historical people shown here too, although you can understand why the changes that have been made for dramatic licence were made. Molotov, for example (here played by Michael Palin, a veteran comic actor being somewhat appropriate for a subject who was, by 1953, one of the last remaining Old Bolsheviks), had been removed as foreign minister in 1949, although he would be reinstated after Stalin’s death; that said, his wife had been consigned to the Gulag and Stalin was planning to have the man after whom that most lethal of cocktails was named sent there too, and was only prevented from carrying this out by his own death. Similarly, Marshal Zhukov (Jason ‘hello to Jason Isaacs’ Isaacs, really playing it up) wasn’t the head of the Red Army at the time of Stalin’s death, the dictator having consigned him to the provinces because he was paranoid that the famous general would be more popular than he (there being only  room for one at the top in the Stalinist cult of personality); but he too came back after Stalin’s death, and relished the opportunity to settle some old scores, especially with the secret police chief Beria.

While we’re on that subject, how come Simon Russell Beale (the actor who plays Beria) isn’t on the posters? Perhaps it is something to do with the notion, picked up on in the closing credits, about how once people were purged images of them were removed to the point of photographs being doctored, and this in a time long before Photoshop (there is, for example, a famous picture of Lenin haranguing a crowd which had the right-hand side cropped in Stalin’s time because Trotsky was standing just to the right of the podium from which Lenin was speaking). Maybe it is appropriate that a secret police chief who is very much the dark heart of this film gets the ‘un-person’ treatment.

That Beria, a man who Stalin introduced to FDR as “our Himmler”, got to Stalin’s dacha first once the man of steel’s incapacity was eventually discovered and news of it relayed to the members of the Politburo, is well-known, and his acting quickly to rifle through the contents of the safe while the tyrant lay prone on the floor (did that really happen? If so, how do we know this?) echoes Robert Harris’s treatment of the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death in his superb novel Archangel. An odious individual on many levels (Stalin himself, who had dirt on everyone, never liked the idea of his own daughter being alone in the same room as his secret police chief), Beria subsequently acted as though he had already seized control for himself even though he was really part of a triumvirate or troika with Malenkov and Molotov while consolidating his hold over the security services. That he underestimated Khrushchev is without doubt, for it was Khrushchev who with Zhukov engineered Beria’s denunciation and arrest at a Politburo meeting in June 1953 (although, unlike in the movie, the meeting in question was chaired by Khrushchev, not Malenkov, and Beria’s execution did not take place until December of that year). And it was Khrushchev who, three years later, would move to seize supreme control for himself, denouncing Stalin and Stalinism in the process. Sometimes, it’s the one you least expect.

But I digress, trying to go into the real history after enjoying myself watching The Death of Stalin (as you do, or at least as I do). I liked it. Amusing, and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. Thought-provoking. Worth watching.


Getting my name in print

The other day I got an email advising me of the fact that a couple of articles that I wrote for the excellent Londonist website have made it into print form by way of a new book that they have out.

Well, naturally we had to buy the book. Londonist Mapped is now on display in our lounge; a hardback with 96 pages, it’s a really cool book adorned with lots of lovely and fantastically-detailed hand-drawn maps that accompany some of Londonist’s best articles. On that particular subject, I’m pleased to say that my article about how London’s docks got their names has become ‘A Brief Guide to London’s Docks’ on page 16, accompanied by a map drawn by London-based artists Luke Agbainmoni, while a couple of entries from my one about how London’s castles and palaces got their names have made it into ‘Stately Homes of Southwest London’ on page 64.

It really is a superb book for anyone interested in London … but I say it who shouldn’t, of course!


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 incredibly clever manservant 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 Alan Haldane, 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.