Writing Portfolio



The county of Wiltshire has long been noted for its ancient landmarks and monuments – there’s much more to it than just Stonehenge. To the north – just off the A4 as opposed to the A303 – is a village called Avebury, and that is home to the largest ancient stone circle in all of Europe. It may not have the immediate impact of Stonehenge – the number of stones has over the centuries been greatly reduced – but it has a distinct charm of its own, which is helped by the fact that part of the village actually lies within the stone circle. Plus, unlike Stonehenge, it’s free to visit and you can actually go up and touch the stones.

In fact, it could be said that the stone circle at Avebury, which dates back to the third millennium BC, is more of a circular enclosure with various arrangements of standing stones (including two smaller circles) inside, and that it’s merely a part of a whole complex of ancient structures in the vicinity, “one of a cluster of major prehistoric works,” according to the book Mythology of the British Isles by Geoffrey Ashe which I have been dipping into recently. Other stones form an avenue leading away from the Avebury circle towards a smaller site known as the Sanctuary, an easy-to-miss site close to the A4 which is not far from the burial mound that is the West Kennet Long Barrow and Silbury Hill, which looks man-made because it is (it’s the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, similar in size to the smaller pyramids at Giza); it dates back to around the same time as Avebury and apparently took several centuries to make.

The stone circle at Avebury, which as well as various other standing stones also encloses part of the village (including the pub, the Red Lion, which can therefore claim to be the only pub to be located within an ancient stone circle), is itself enclosed by a henge – a ditch and earth bank which would appear to have served as a means of restricting entrance to the site to certain key points (rather like, I suppose, the doors of a cathedral).

Quite a few of the stones are no longer there. Over time, some were broken up for use as building materials while others were removed to allow for cultivation of the land. It’s also been noted that even though there has been a Christian church at Avebury since the seventh century (it is located outside the stone circle), superstition about the stones led to the removal and burial of quite a few of them in the fourteenth century. It was this removal of the stones that led to the only known death to have been directly associated with them. “About 1320,” states Ashe, “a man who was helping to smash one of the stones was crushed to death when it keeled over on top of him. In 1938 his skeleton was found, with the tools of his trade – he was a barber-surgeon.” One imagines an itinerant tradesman unexpectedly getting roped into helping out with some heavy lifting while he was passing through the village, with fatal results.

As for what it was built for, that is a mystery that continues to fascinate – and the Neolithic people who built it left us no clues, as they were of a pre-literate age. The lack of human remains that have been unearthed precludes the notion of Avebury having been a place of death or sacrifice, and the best guess is that it was a temple used for ceremonies of some sort, in which the path of the sun played a key role, for the stones’ astronomical alignment has been remarked upon (light-heartedly as well as seriously; in 2014, the National Trust claimed that they were planning to move one of the stones at Avebury in order to align the circle with British Summer Time – a claim that was, of course, made on April Fools’ Day). What can be in no doubt is that this was clearly something of great importance to our Neolithic ancestors; even though the rocks/blocks are local (they are sarsen, a type of sandstone) it would have taken a long time to drag them over several miles before erecting them in pre-determined positions. To make the whole thing would have taken years, if not decades or even centuries (much like the building of cathedrals in the Middle Ages).

In the eighteenth century, the antiquarian William Stukeley pioneered archaeological investigative techniques at Avebury – taking notes, making drawings and doing careful measurements in a bid to unlock the mystery of the stones (at the same time as some of the local farmers were busy removing some of the stones, not out of superstition but in order to obtain building materials and clear the land for the plough). Stukeley figured out that there were two stone avenues extending out from Avebury – one, the Kennet Avenue, heading south-east to the Sanctuary and another, the Beckhampton Avenue, heading south-west (few stones from the latter had survived even in Stukeley’s time, and for many years archaeologists reckoned he’d got it wrong although buried stones have recently been unearthed along its route). He theorised that Avebury had been built by the Druids (who actually post-date the construction of the site) and that the avenues formed a ‘solar serpent’ and he reckoned that to be similar to symbols used in ancient Egypt. 

Wishful thinking, probably (as Ashe states, a “past guess at serpent-worship had no basis but the fancy that the Avebury-Avenue-Sanctuary formation was serpentine”) – although in Stukeley’s favour he was right about the Beckhampton Avenue, and by studying Avebury at a time when quite a few of the stones were being dismantled his contribution towards our understanding of the site is invaluable. He also seems like a fascinating chap, as antiquarians often do, being from a time when men could get away with having multiple scholarly interests (as well as digging around at Avebury and Stonehenge, he was a biographer of Newton, no less, as well as being a C of E priest who was obsessed about the Druids).

Further theorising came in the early twentieth century with the development of the notion of ley lines, the idea that prehistoric and not-so-prehistoric sites are not located at random points but are arranged in straight lines. Avebury plays a part in this. “One of the longest and most impressive leys in the country,” state Janet and Colin Bord in their book Mysterious Britain, “cuts through the southern edge of the Avebury circle … This ley or ‘dragon line’ stretches from Land’s End to Burrow Mump and Glastonbury Tor, thence on to Avebury, and eventually reaches Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, touching en route many hills and churches dedicated to St Michael”. Mysterious Britain is a work from the Seventies which focuses on Britain’s ancient monuments with a strong emphasis on the weird and the wonderful, and seems to take a lot of the mythology at face value (I suspect that Stukeley would’ve loved it). Ley lines are a good example of people making way too much about what is essentially a couple of coincidences, and in the case of the example mention it falls flat when you look at a map and realise that several the places mentioned aren’t really aligned on a straight line, although I guess it depends on how thick said line is (a mile, perhaps?), while Ashe hedges his bets by stating that the St Michael Line (as he calls it) is “not perfectly straight, but good enough to be significant”.

More seriously, the early twentieth century saw an archaeologist by the name of Alexander Keiller working at Avebury. His excavations led to the reconstruction of some of the stone settings, for he was able to find quite a few of the stones that had been buried and re-erect them in their original positions (or as close as possible); in addition, he marked the positions of stones that had been lost for good with concrete posts which he’d designed specially for this purpose. It was he who found the remains of the unfortunate barber-surgeon. It’s also thanks to Keiller that the site is the way it is today, for he was a wealthy man who purchased much of the land in Avebury so that he could carry out his excavations, and he later sold it to the National Trust – which runs the site today. It is most definitely worth a visit.


Curried ox kidneys

What do you do, cooking-wise, with ox kidney? Aside from steak and kidney pie or steak and kidney pudding, of course. Determined to have this piece of offal for dinner, for it had been taken out of the freezer and was calmly defrosting in the fridge, I took a look in the recipe books to see what I could find.

I would not be finding anything relating to what to do with an ox kidney in our latest acquisition, a slim hardback called The Curious Cookbook by Peter Ross. Peter Ross is a senior figure at the Guildhall Library down in the City, and it has the largest collection of historical cookery books of any British public library; turns out they did an exhibition on this very subject the other year. Mr Ross has been trawling this (doubtless fascinating) collection and has come up with over a hundred recipes from all points between the late fourteenth century and the Second World War. These are from the bizarre or absurd end of Britain’s long culinary history; if you’ve ever wondered how to make ‘porpoise with wheat porridge’ (a delicacy from 1450, that one), ‘stewed sparrows on toast’, ‘a pint of gruel for invalids’ or that medieval dish where you sew the front end of a cockerel onto the rear end of a pig (a ‘cokyntryce’, in case you were wondering), then this is the book for you.

If, however, you’re just after tips on what to do with hedgehogs, badgers (“there are very few recipes for cooking badger, which has been said to taste like gamey beef”) or squirrels, or if you want to know ‘how to avoid a bitter rook stew’ (that one being from the War, a time when ‘eating crow’ was clearly more than just an expression used by the GIs) then the answers can be found within these pages. It just goes to show, as they saying goes, that the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there – as Mr Ross says in the introduction, “what we ate in the past now seems extraordinarily strange, intriguing, revolting, or just plain curious”. He’s not kidding, and having read this engrossing and thought-provoking book, I am drawn to wonder what people in the future might think about what we in the present eat, and how they might in their own minds judge us for our culinary choices. Hopefully they will have a food historian who, like Mr Ross, manages to use the commentary to put the recipes in the context of the time when they were written.

As for ox kidneys, I would need to find a recipe of a more recent vintage although as far as offal is concerned Mr Ross hits the nail on the head with his comment that “the decline in the eating of offal can be mapped in direct relation to the increase in wealth of the British population who, given the choice, will often opt for more expensive and simply prepared cuts of meat”.

I found an ox kidney recipe courtesy of Delia Smith, who explains (in Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course) that, as well as being “an essential ingredient for steak and kidney pie or pudding” because “no other type of kidney will give it the proper, traditional flavour”, ox kidney is “not recommended for grilling or frying”. However, Delia goes on to state that “it is excellent stewed, braised, or especially curried”. Curried? Hmm. Curried ox kidney (“another very economical, yet rather special, curry”) it would be, then. Most of the ingredients for that were already in the house. The ox kidney is cut into pieces and any bits of fat removed; it’s then browned and put to one side. Then some chopped onion is fried, and to that is added ground coriander, ground turmeric and cumin seeds – followed by natural yoghurt, tomato purée, water and garlic. To this, the kidney parts are added with some chopped-up green chilli and the lot is then brought to be boil and then put on simmer. Easy enough.

But what to have with it? Rice is the obvious accompaniment for curry, but I’d had enough of rice because I’d been working my way through a leftover risotto which had been my lunch for most of the week. So what else? Potatoes? I turned to Camellia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India which has a tried-and-tested recipe for potatoes with peanuts – boil the potatoes in water with some salt and turmeric, then heat up some oil, add cumin seeds and a chopped green chilli, then add the potatoes and roughly-ground peanuts and stir. That would do nicely.

And as a side? How about something involving carrots, since there were some of those kicking around? I found in the Panjabi book a recipe for carrot koshumbir. What is that, I hear you wonder, is that? Well, it’s a type of cachumber which, Ms Panjabi explains, “is to an Indian meal what salsa is to a Mexican one. It provides raw vegetables with a tangy touch … In Western India, in Maharashtra and along the west coast, cachumbers are particularly popular and varied, and are known as koshumbir … They are sol tasty that they can be served as a salad or side vegetable.” I must admit I was a bit unsure about serving myself a raw vegetable as a side, but I figured I might as well have a go. All I had to do was grate up some carrot, mix it in with a small amount of dessicated coconut and add lime juice, sugar, salt and yet more roughly-ground peanuts. Then heat up some (more) cumin seeds and green chilli (to be honest I just used some of the cumin and chilli from the potato recipe) and add those.

So that’s what I did – curried ox kidney, served with potatoes with peanuts and a side of carrot koshumbir. And it was delicious.


The Capital Ring: summing-up

So what to do after finishing the Capital Ring? Write about it, of course – for The Archer, our local volunteer-run newspaper here in East Finchley for which I have been writing for the past half-a-dozen years. Appropriate, really, for I only found out about the Capital Ring by virtue of living in East Finchley which is on the route. My write-up, which made it onto the back page, can be found here:


Looking around, and atop, Bath Abbey

To Bath, originally founded by the Romans as Aquae Sulis and later rebuilt in the eighteenth century (like the Romans before them, the Georgians saw the city as a place to go and take to the waters which are said to have healing properties). Unlike many a Roman settlement, it was actually built as a spa town not as a garrison, and the idea of going to Bath for one’s health, or for pleasure, was one that was as enthusiastically embraced by well-off people in the eighteenth century as it had been by well-off Romans. Today, the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and my general rule of thumb is that if a place has been given that status, it’s got to be worth a visit.

I was particularly interested in the abbey – or, to give it its full name, the Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul. Old churches are always worth looking around, and this one is particularly impressive – and, indeed, bigger than some cathedrals (although like the cathedrals it does have plenty of enthusiastic volunteers who are always there to answer any questions you may have, however obvious). And yes, even though it does not have a cathedral Bath is still a city (the two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand; Guildford and Southwark, for example, have cathedrals but are merely a town and a London borough respectively). Despite the name, Bath Abbey is in fact the main parish church for Bath – the ‘abbey’ part doesn’t mean that it’s a monastery (it isn’t, although it used to be prior to the Reformation) but the church is allowed to call itself an abbey due to its historical significance.

Principally, this significance is because in the year 973 a coronation took place there. King Edgar, sometimes known as Edgar the Peaceful, was in that year crowned as King of England at Bath Abbey. Somewhat unusually, he’d already been the king for 14 years so one wonders how St Dunstan, his Archbishop of Canterbury and principal advisor, was able to persuade him to wait for so long. The great-grandson of Alfred the Great, Edgar is sometimes referred to as the first King of England, but I’m not so sure about that – although his reign was a period in which England was consolidated as a unified kingdom under the Wessex dynasty, the honour of being the first Anglo-Saxon king to rule over the whole of England must surely go to his uncle, Athelstan, who had conquered the Viking kingdom of York.

Edgar’s coronation is significant because it was the first time when records were taken of what had happened at an Anglo-Saxon coronation; thus did the service carried out by St Dunstan in 973 form the basis for all subsequent coronations of English, and later British, monarchs (for example, Handel’s Zadok the Priest, based on the bit in First Kings about said priest anointing King Solomon and the people rejoicing, was written for George II’s coronation in part because that particular Biblical text had been used at previous coronations because it was known to have been used at Edgar’s). The ‘peaceful’ tag, by the way, is not due to his personality – he is said to have killed one of his noblemen who had the temerity to marry a noblewoman who Edgar himself had wanted to marry (and after killing said nobleman, he did indeed marry said noblewoman) – but the nature of his sixteen-year reign, which was unusually peaceful with no foreign invasions or internal rebellions.

Before entering the abbey, there’s plenty to look at if you observe the building’s west front from the Abbey Churchyard (that being the name of the square where you can also find the Roman Baths). To the sides of the window are representations of Jacob’s Ladder, referring not only to Jacob’s dream in Genesis but also to a dream that was had by Oliver King, the Bishop of Bath & Wells (a title that always makes me think of Blackadder) who rebuilt Bath Abbey in or around 1500; the twin ladders show angels climbing Heaven-ward, although if you look closely it really does look as though some of them are actually making their way down. Peter and Paul, the abbey’s patron saints, flank the wooden door which, like many a west door of many an English church, is almost always closed (the entrance door is on the left).

Inside, there’s a great fan-vaulted ceiling made from the local Bath stone which also provided the building-material for much of the city; while the modern abbey building dates from the rebuild that was initiated by Bishop King in the sixteenth century (it wasn’t completed by the time of the Reformation, when the monks were kicked out, and it wasn’t until 1572 that it became the parish church of Bath), the ceiling we see at the abbey today is actually the result of a Victorian restoration job – the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott, no less.

More fun is to be had on the tower tours, which are £6 and take place every hour on the hour when the abbey is open (except when there’s a service or special event on) – these have to be paid for in advance on the same day, and can be booked out quite quickly at weekends, but they’re well worth going on if you can get a place.

You’re led up a narrow spiral staircase onto the roof, and thence to the bit above that fan-vaulted ceiling (you can see where they put the keystones, and there’s even a small hole in which you can peep down to the nave below) and the bell room. 

Then it’s up to the bell-ringing room for a lesson in this history of bell-ringing at the abbey (the quarter-hourly chimes are automated, nowadays) before ascending higher still to the belfry. Of particular skill is change-ringing, which is where the bell is manipulated via the rope until it’s hanging upside-down, which then makes it easier to ring in a pre-ordained sequence (this is where the expression ‘ringing the changes’ comes from). Bath Abbey has ten bells, the biggest of which is the 33 cwt (just over 1½-ton) tenor bell, which carries a rather nice inscription:

All you of Bathe that hear me sound
Thank Lady Hopton’s hundred pound

This refers to a seventeenth-century benefactor who paid for the bell, although it doesn’t tell the full story. The bell actually cost £160 (a small fortune in those days), and although it was agreed that Lady H. could pay for it in instalments she had in fact paid barely £20 by the time she died; she did, however, promise in her will that her family would pay the rest! More drama occurred in 1869 when the bell cracked during ringing-practice, resulting in it having to be (very carefully) taken down to ground level and transported to London via canal to be recast. Unfortunately, when it returned to Bath and was put back in place, it was found to be out of tune and so had to be removed and sent back to London for another recast. It wasn’t the foundry’s fault, though, for the abbey’s long-serving organist had gone to London with the bell to supervise the tuning process, but he was by that stage going deaf and hadn’t told anyone.

From there, it’s over to the clock face – the inside of the clock face to be precise. The clock looks out over to the north, and from ground level you would think that the face itself is all a single pane of glass. This is not the case – for the Roman numerals also act as the edges of several panes of glass, which is pretty clever if you ask me. Today the clock is lit from behind by electric lights but in the nineteenth century, the clock was lit by gas-lamp, and in order to prevent accidents a man was paid to sit in the small space behind the face and check on the lamp; monotonous, but at least it was indoors (there were worse jobs to be had in times past, as anyone who’s ever seen Tony Robinson’s superb doco The Worst Jobs in History will know).

So that, along with some fantastic views of the city from the roof, was the tower tour of Bath Abbey!