Saturday, 31 January 2009

Weymouth Relief Road - archaeological rape and pillage

Looking across the ancient Dorset landscape from Maiden Castle.

Above the original road into and through Weymouth in Dorset is the Dorset Ridgeway, an area of obvious archaeology in the form of barrows and part of a much bigger ritual prehistoric landscape. I have just discovered that the new relief road around Weymouth has gone slap bang through the middle of this landscape. But hold on, it's alright, Weymouth Council kindly allowed archaeologists in EARLY so they could record it before it was utterly destroyed and covered in concrete. I realize that because I've not done any Dorset searches recently I had missed out totally on this happening, but it still makes my blood boil to think that there were probably several alternative routes, but this was deemed the best option as "only some archaeology" was in the way. That is the way Councils country-wide think about archaeology - it doesn't count for anything. Check out my friend Thelma's blog - the January 14th posting - for details of proposed housing on a garage site at Avebury. AVEBURY - the most phenomenal archaeological site in Britain (as far as I'm concerned it knocks Stonehenge into a cocked hat). She cites the reports of all the respected archaeological bodies concerned, who categorically state this redevelopment should NOT go ahead. The Parish Council said that they saw no reason why the houses should not be built and it was PASSED! For God's Sake . . . Not one blardy brain cell between the whole kit and caboodle.

Anyway, I digress. Here's your last chance to see what the archaeology looked like before half a million cars and lorries a day zoom over the top of this ritual landscape:

And here's a link to some wonderful aerial photographs of the Dorset archaeological landscape. Enjoy before THEY too are turned into housing estates.

I shall go and weep for the ignorance of men . . .

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Family History

Family history research is one of my winter hobbies. In summer it gets squeezed out by gardening, walking and other outside pursuits.

In pursuit of my husband's Manx ancestors last night, I came across the following:

In 1714 the Vicar, Matthias Curghey, inserted in the register " a receipt to cure the biteing of a mad dog. Take the leaves of rue pick’d from the stalks and bruise six ounces; garlick pick’d from the stalks and bruised, fetche four ounces; boil all these over a slow fire, in two quarts of strong ale, till one pint be consumed ; then keep it in a. bottle close stopt and give of it, nine spoonfulls to a man or woman warm, seven mornings together, fasting, and six to a dog.. This the author believes will not (by God’s blessing) : fail if it be given within nine days of the biteing of the dog. Apply some of the ingredients from which the liquor was strained to the bitten place. N.B. This receipt was taken out of Calthorp Church in Lincolnshire, where many in the town were bitten with a mad dog, and all that took the medicine did well and the rest died mad. The same receipt is hung up in Bradford Church in Wiltshire, where its efficacy had been approved on the like occasion."

I rather like the bit which says "all that took the medicine did well and the rest died mad." Hmmm!

My husband's ancestors were poor and lived thus:

Thick as the cottages are, they do not strike the eye; the walls of the huts are seldom above seven feet high, composed generally of sods of earth', and the roofs thatched with straw, which soon becomes of a murky hue. This straw is bound down with straw-ropes drawn over net-like, and fastened to pegs in the walls; this mode of thatching requires often to be renewed.

"The lower class of inhabitants live on meal of oats and barley, and fish and potatoes, with a small portion of flesh meat. Their breakfast is of meal pottage and milk; their dinner is of potatoes and fish; their supper pottage, or potatoes and milk."*Their bread is made of barley and oatmeal, and is formed into very thin round cakes like pancakes.

Taken from the Isle of Man FHS site.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

On the beach . . .

Looking across to the Gower Peninsula. The tide was out so far you could almost have walked all the way across.

I visited a friend today and as the sun was out, we thought we would take the dogs to the beach at Pembrey. I can't remember the last time we were at Pembrey - a couple of summers ago I think. It was one of those serendipitous days - just magic. I have NEVER seen the tide out so far - we walked out for about 3/4 mile and the 4x4s of the cockle pickers were out about a mile further than us. They must know the tides like the back of their hand - I wouldn't feel safe out that far when the tide turned.

This is her rescue greyhound having a hurtle.

We met up with this couple, their rescue greyhound and their family of Wolfhounds.

My friend with her happy dogs. You would not believe quite how MUCH beach there was today!

Ears flapping in the breeze, we lose a hound as he spots a potential friend!

The dunes are clad with marram grass and low-growing shrubs. In the summer, there are masses of little wild Violas, and Evening Primrose and many other wild flowers which tolerate poor - and dry - sandy soil. A good place for the Blue family of butterflies too.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Victorian Life

I did try to sort this out in PhotoImpression, but that never related back to the original scan . . . Ah well.

The illustration shows bathtime in a genteel Victorian nursery, with the nursery governess and her charges. It was an illustration from a serial, "Forlorn, Yet Not Forsaken" - the true story of a nursery governess (1885). It sounds full of the high melodrama which the Victorians loved.

A few more excerpts to continue from yesterday's Girl's Own Paper will have to suffice. I have my Gardening Head on and am full of plans (hopefully energy too!)

If you are ever left in charge of a range, once reading the tips below, I am sure you will be able to cope . . .

A good cook is very particular about her fire. She first pokes it well underneath, to clear it thoroughly from the dust and small cinders which will have settled at the bottom, pushing the live coals to the front of the range. She then puts fresh coal on the fire, choosing for her purpose not large blocks of coal, but what are called "nubbly" pieces. She does not throw these on from a scuttle, but arranges them with her fingers, protected by an old glove, so that they shall be packed closely, yet leaving room for a draught of air to pass between the lumps. She then sweeps up the hearth, collects the cinders, and places them with some coke or damped coal-dust at the back of the fire. A fire made like this will last a long time. As soon as the front part is clear and bright it is ready for the meal.

Some girls might be given a practical education, as in this extract from "Graduates in Housekeeping and How They Qualified" (1883):

All the girls learn how to dust a room and make a bed; to cut out, make, and mend their clothes; and those above fourteen years old learn how to arrange, cook, and serve a dinner; to keep accounts, to black a grate and light a fire.

The many courses of the typical Victorian meal in those days is summarised thus in "The Bride's First Dinner Party" (1887), when the heroine, Mabel, wishes to entertain 6 guests with a budget of £1 total expenditure (!). The menu was thus:

Potato Soup
Tomatoes Farcies
Rolled Loin of Mutton and Sour Plums
Mashed potatoes, with Brown Potatoes round Stewed Celery
Ready-made Pudding: Orange Jelly
Macaroni Cheese

Blimey - no wonder women picked at their food - imagine trying to eat this with a CORSET on!

Laundry was another issue:

Washing at home is, of course, the cheapest plan; and, in addition, you have the comfort of not being stinted. For a small family of two or three persons, you should wash every fortnight or three weeks, having a washerwoman in. She would probably take two days only if your servants did the folding and hanging out and helped in the ironing. 2s and 2s. 6d. is paid by the day, the latter for ironing. A washing-machine and a wringer simplify matters, and save in soap and time. About a bar of good old soap, four pennyworth of soda, and a quarter pound of starch would be enough. The clothes should be put in soak overnight.

Indeed, work WAS hard and in those times I may well have had to earn my living as a dressmaker, or worse still, as a seamstress:

"I used to get 1s 4d a dozxen for making and finishing, all complete, full-sized strong shirts. These had back-linings, straight bands, five buttonholes and seven buttons. If there were two gussets or vents put in, I had an extra penny a dozen. Buttons were found, but not needles or thread . . . I knew one woman athat never lay down in bed for three months, but took what rest she had sitting in a chair. Shew thought she should never muster courage to get up if she were once comfortably under the clothes. She had four children to keep somehow . . . For handkerchief hemming a penny-farthing a dozen, or 15d a agross, is paid. A girl I know does handkerchiefs, and gets 10s a week or so without expenses off. One week she'd been at it nearly night and day. She was saving for a new gown. She carried in 15s of work, and the master said she was earning too much, and knocked off 1s. !"

You can see why some people died of exhaustion in those days. Next time I am busy, I shall think to myself you don't know you've been born compared with women like those . . .

Monday, 26 January 2009

The Girl's Own Paper

Last year I found a lovely book called "Great-Grandmama's Weekly", by Wendy Forrester. Never was £1.99 better spent! It has extracts from this magazine from between 1880 and 1901 and is an absolute hoot to read in places, and in others, really shows how women have moved on.

Here are some extracts:
How Can I Look My Best? Happy is the girl, I say, who can take and enjoy a bath in pure cold, soft water every day of her life . . . Avoid coloured and over-scented soaps. Another mistake is the use of too rough a towel . . . a moderate degree of friction is all very well, but, dear me, you do not need to rub your pretty skin off.

To ensure perfect cleanliness, the hair should be washed once a fortnight. Do not use soap; the yolks of two new-laid eggs must be used instead. The water should be rainwater filtered - lukewarm to wash with, cold to rinse out. Afterwards, dry well and brush.

Why Am I So Pale?

Bad meat and fish are expensive, and three times the amount of good blood can be made from pea-meal, oatmeal, good bread, lentils, and mealy potatoes, with a littler butter and plenty of milk, for half the money . . . In conclusion, let me remind my readers of one lamentable fact: it is this - thousands of girls suffer from paleness of countenance through tight lacing . . .

It is not clear what a reader signing herself M.R. Norwood boasted of to merit the scolding she received in 1886, but it sounds rather like tight -lacing. She is told: We pity you! To what a miserable, unwholesome state of deformity you have reduced yourself! We do not open our columns to readers who boast of having so far degraded themselves . . . (Some girls wished to reduce 20" waists to 16"!!)

Lady Clarissa has our thanks for her receipe for certain troubles connected with the wearing of tight, hard, or ill-fitting shoes; but of which (we find it requisite to tell our girls) no one ever speaks in "polite society". It is very vulgar to speak of them excepting in the privacy of a bedroom, and to a very intimate associate. However, we willingly give the recipe . . . 1887. (I found this little short of amazing, when you think what is written or shown on tv in this day and age.)

Then there was the following recipe for a tooth-powder which I for one, would not care to use:
Charcoal is unsightly but very effective, and it can be made more so by rubbing up with an ounce of it as much quinine as will lie on a sixpenny piece; a few drops of otto of roses may be added. Ugh!

How to Look Well in the Morning:

Perfumed cod-liver oil may be rubbed well in around the eyes before lying down. This may not seem a very fascinating way of treating coming wrinkles, but it is often an effective one, for in this way the tissues under the skin are nourished to some extent, and kept full. Face massage may also be used.

I look foreward to your comments on living thus!

Sunday, 25 January 2009

How's this for a view?

These will probably look better blown up - just double click.

This morning's post only got posted because my finger slipped and I actually thought I had cancelled it in time! We had to go and collect our son from an overnight stay at his friend's up on the mynydd. It was misty and we arrived mid-breakfast, so I walked up the driveway of the smallholding with my camera.

The sun breaking through the mist - looking towards Black Mountain.

Looking the opposite way, across our (wooded) valley towards - eventually - Carmarthen.

Here is the square banked and ditched Iron Age Enclosure we can see from our part of the valley.

A general view across the fields near Llanfynydd.

Hoity-Toity . . .

I've not heard that expression for many a long year. Mum used to say it, as in "Don't get so hoity-toity with me young lady." Hmmm. I must have been a sore trial to her at times as we really didn't get on when I was growing up. Another expression along similar lines was "getting too big for your boots". I've not heard that for years either.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

The garden calls . . .

This is the other veg plot, last spring.

Now that January is moving on a little, and the bitterly cold spell we had has given way to normal Welsh winter weather, I have been sorting out the garden a little. My first task is to reclaim the bit of the paddock where I used to grow salad vegetables about 12 years ago. There is still a bit of the original herb garden struggling through the grass - Elecampane, Bronze Fennel and a large area of rampant mints! We've just laid a piece of rotten old carpet on the mints in the hope of killing them between now and spring - I have always been an optimist! Meanwhile, I have delineated the rough extent of the new plot with electric fencing (not turned on) and am clearing brambles each day. Ideally, my husband would be doing it with the slasher, which is so more time-efficient, but I enjoy plodding along, and it allows me to look, and sense, and smell, and listen to what is going on about me. It is quite surprising how much bird noise I have been screening out. When I actually listen, there is a cacophany of bird talk.

Working slowly gives me time to think things like, in the past I expect my ancestors would have left it a bit longer and made Bramble Tip wine and then put the bigger brambles through the maw or whatever it is called to get the spines off and then turn them into bee skeps or baskets. I think of Alex and Peter working in the Green Valley, clearing a long-abandoned field which was a mass of bracken, because they planned to grow peas there. I really must watch the DVD of the series again this weekend and get some inspiration.

This is a good time to plant soft fruit and indeed fruit trees. I had to go into the £1 shop in town on Thursday and came out laden. I bought 3 x Blueberries; a cabbage starter kit (about 80 seeds which is still going to be on the generous side to feed us here, even supposing half of them reach maturity); a bag of 50 Dutch iris; a paeony (Sarah Bernhart, which is pink); and two lots of seed selections. One is Nice & Spicy and has basil, chilli peppers, mustard greens, sweet pepper, coriander and oriental spicy leaf mix. The other is Mediterranean vegetables - tomato, basil, sweet pepper, salad rocket and oregano. Then I went into Wilkinsons and got 5 redcurrants at a pound each, onion sets, 2 rhubarb crowns, a Fig Tree (I always wanted another - had a great little one in my Piddletrenthide garden); onion sets, 3 baby lupins and took a chance on a Kiwi, which should grow in our warm south-facing yard.

I took cuttings from the established blackcurrants last year and have probably another dozen babies to plant up this year, plus a couple of gooseberry babies. First of all though, it's the big clear out in the paddock, so I shall carry on this weekend. I like a challenge!

When we move I am having a big greenhouse. What's more, I'm having a BIG polytunnel. I hope my husband is listening!

For Nancy, and anyone else who wants to try knitting dishclothes, here is the link to dozens of fabulous patterns - I have some fresh ones printing off as I type:

I thought you might like to see my current project - the "intake" area of the paddock which is going to be my extra veg plot and soft fruit garden.

As you can see - I have my work cut out!

I persuaded my husband to take the slasher to the area to the left of this which was covered in brambles, whilst I cleared dead leaves, ivy, old fencing (I hate using wirecutters as I always manage to pinch my hand) and I took a mattock to the bramble stumps. It's coming on, but it looks like there are the footings of a wall there - see stone to right - which drops away about 2'6" behind the bank/wall. Could be the wall of the Medieval Hall that was here, but whether I'm inside or outside of it I don't know yet. Possibly inside as we found - many years ago - some plaster in the soil hereabouts . . . Must get the metal detector out tomorrow.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Was Merlin a local lad made good?

Merlin as he appears in the book "Merlin: Shaman, Prophet, Magician" by John Matthews.

We moved to Carmarthenshire 21 years ago this March. I already knew of the town's connection with Merlin - how the town's Welsh name - Caermyrddin - was supposed to be linked to his name; how he was born/raised on Merlin's Hill, which is by Abergwili; how there was a Merlin's stone in a field nearby. We also have - or had - Merlin's Oak (The Priory Oak) which grew at the end of Old Oak Lane, and was encased in concrete to stop it falling and fulfilling the prophecy, "When Merlin's Oak comes tumbling down, so shall fall Carmarthen Town."

I think that books had a lot to answer for in the story of Merlin. Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100ish to 1155 and born in Monmouth), wrote Historia Regum Britannia in which Arthur was placed in the list of kings. Apart from establishing Arthur, Geoffrey mentioned Merlin, who was known in a literary sense from several Medieval Welsh poems. He first appeared in a book called the Prophecies of Merlin (Prophetiae Merlini), written about 1135 and then was included in the Historia. Many people are familiar with the prophecies which Merlin made about the fall of Vortigern and the rise and fall of Arthur. Geoffrey's Merlin is a romantic combination of Merlin the Prophet of the poems and the "young and prophetic" Ambrosius of Nennius' story. Nennius was a Welsh monk writing in the 9th century, and who first mentioned Arthur in his book Historia Brittanum. Bearing in mind he was drawing largely upon Celtic legend for his History of Britain, and bearing in mind that Geoffrey of Monmouth used it in his own Historia, the factual base of Merlin and Arthur becomes a game of smoke and mirrors . . .

As I learned when studying Archaeology, it is often the case that the same facts become recycled in a very parochial fashion, without looking outside of the box. This particularly so in the case of Pictish art. It would appear to be no different with Arthur and Merlin. In a severe case of Chinese whispers, a number of individuals would appear to have been combined. Recent research and books tie Arthur as strongly to Scotland, or to Wales, as he was ever tied to the West Country.

So what do we have factually to tie Merlin here? Legend has it that he was born in a cave (with a spring in) just outside of Carmarthen. Well, there is a small cave, housing a spring, at the bottom of Merlin's Hill, close to the A40. On the top of Merlin's Hill is an Iron Age hillfort, which gives great longevity to the habitation of the site.

The Black Book of Carmarthen does indeed include poetry which refers to "Myrddin" BUT it must be said that once again, this is the Myrddin/Merlin of legend as it post-dates Geoffrey of Monmouth's book.

Whilst there definitely was a Merlin's Oak, with pieces of it still in the possession of the local Museum and on display in the town hall, the actual tree was planted to celebrate the coronation of Charles II - the town stood for the King in the Civil War. It was killed by poison by a local chap, fed up with the youth of the town congregating beneath it - noisily (some things never change!)

In the 1970s Mary Stewart wrote a quartet of books about Merlin and Arthur - The Cystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment and the Wicked Day. They were good reading at the time, but again promulgating the same legends that Geoffrey began.

Below - the stone in Abergwili Churchyard.

There is definitely a Merlin's Stone, in a field near the bottom of Merlin's Hill. Merlin is supposed to have prophesied that one day a Raven would drink a man's blood off it. Merlin is also supposed to have buried treasure nearby and indeed, the stone was responsible for a man's death many many years ago, when some hopeful treasure-hunter was digging at the base of the stone and it fell on top of him! It is on an alignment with a small stone in Abergwili Churchyard, and also, further up the Towy valley, aligned with a largely destroyed Henge Monument in Nantgaredig. I would think, personally, that it has far more relevance to the prehistory of the Towy Valley than the early Medieval and Merlin. That is as PROOF positive as I can be, though, being a romantic, I would love to think that Merlin, and Arthur and his men still sleep with their swords at the ready, beneath Merlin's Hill, waiting for their call to arms to save us.

Many, many books have been written about Merlin, and Arthurian legend - indeed we have a dozen or more ourselves. By all means read the books, visit Carmarthen and the other places associated with Arthurian legend, and then make up your own mind.

View of the Towy Valley, where Merlin may have roamed as a boy.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Update on Itsy

On Tuesday my husband and I went down to Pembrokeshire to see how Itsy had settled in. She has been there since early November and is now part of the herd, though there is a definite pecking order, with Pippin as Boss. I thought she would remember me, but her new life is far more important, and I did create complete herd anarchy by taking down some carrots for them, so there were ponies jostling each other for grub. She was very relaxed, and isn't bottom of the pecking order any more as she was here. She considers herself above Maisie, the rising 3 Exmoor filly, but when Maisie goes back home, I assume she may be below Bullseye then.

Maggie and Brian have a far better set-up on their smallholding than we ever had here, as they have fields to use and fields to rest, and drier better-drained land than us (our top field became an absolute quagmire each winter as it drained to the bottom). The ponies have a more natural lifestyle as they are currently on 8 acres, and can move around in a bigger grazing pattern than they had here, mimicking how they would act in the wild, where they would have had unlimited grazing.

Stay right THERE . . .

A carrot for Itsy, with Pippin looking hopeful.


Pippin re-establishing the pecking order after Itsy and Maisie had been having a kicking match!

Itsy finding some nettle roots, which are good for cooling the blood . . .

Bullseye who was a rescue pony.

They are brought in when the weather is foul, and had been in the night before. Itsy was in her "pyjamas" - in other words, had a stable rug on to keep her cosy whilst her turnout rugs were drying. It was a pretty cold day but we missed the brief hail shower I am glad to say. I should think the stable rug went straight into the washing machine as she decided she would have a good roll . . .

It was so good to see her so happy and well cared for, and clearly adored by two little girls . . .

And now for something completely different . . .

I am very busy with my crafting at the moment. I am working on two charity quilts and a hexagon quilt. The latter is for our bed, until I finally get around to finding some material to go with what I have put on one side already which is crimson/gold/purple etc - very Medieval looking. Haven't decided on a pattern yet either, but it will have to be easily-pieced on machine with not too many points.

The simple 6" squares charity quilt will be a single, and is to be raffled for a favourite charity of mine (who don't know they are getting it yet, and I won't mention by name in case the person concerned reads this).

The other charity quilt is for Lluest Horse and Pony Trust and is a joint effort along with the ladies from CL forum.

I have also been making knitted dishcloths. These two are the first I've made. The apple pattern was first, because it was the easiest, and then slightly more difficult - but still simple - was the hearts one. I've just sent them off, thinly disguised as face flannels, to my aunts in Romsey. I shall keep various dishcloths on the needles throughout the year so I can knit them up for myself when I'm out and my husband's driving.

The patterns for these can be found here.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

In sickness and in health . . .

In Victorian times - and of course before and since - the plants of pasture and hedgerow provided a medical cabinet which helped in all but the most severe of illnesses. Whilst some - more modern - folk set great store by patent medicines, the labouring families often had no money to spare for such quackery and wisely turned to herbal cures. However, having said that, the labouring poor of East Anglia - Lincolnshire and Norfolk especially, where lack of a good nourishing diet and long hours spent outside in all weathers made them martyrs to their rheumatism and neuralgia, were apparently all opium addicts! In 1867, the British Medical Association reported that over half of the opium imported into this country was consumed in those two counties alone. There was scarcely a marshland cottage in N. Norfolk or Lincs without its "penny stick or pill of opium, and not a child that did not have it in some form. Godfrey's Cordial, a mixture of opium, treacle, and an infusion of sassafras, was the usual comfort administered to a squalling baby when its mother was too busy working in the fields to feed it." (Pamela Horn: Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside).

Opium - in its many forms but especially as Laudenum (Branwell Bronte was an addict and even Queen Victoria had it administered when necessary) was the main painkiller in the 19th century. As Laudenum, the opium was mixed with alcohol, and it was widely prescribed for menstrual cramps amongst the better classes, and was soon being taken just to produce the swooning whiteness of a TB victim, as being pale and interesting was the fashion! (Thanks to Wikipedia).

On a more basic level, anything which required a poultice - from an embedded thorn to a septic wound, abscess or a boil, would have the commonest sort of all, that of bread, which I have used myself with great effect. Groundsel poultices were also used, and a horseman might bring home a mugful of bran (which was an effective poultice for an abscess or quittor in a horse). Bad bruising or even a broken limb might be bound with comfrey leaves - its local name was "knitbone" and it was also affective on wounds and torn ligaments. My late m-in-law swore by it, and still had a packet of dried leaves in the drawer at the time of her death a few years ago.

Bee stings were treated with a dab of bluebag - the Reckitt's blue of my childhood, which went into the final white wash to make the whites yet whiter still. A dab of vinegar was the treatment for wasp stings. A friend of ours who is a beekeeper, always grew Marshmallow plants in his garden, as he said that the leaves were also effective in the treatment of bee stings.

The leaves and flowers of Marshmallow made into ointment, were also a country treatment for boils. "Lily leaves were used for cuts, dock leaves for galled feet, dandelion roots for liver troubless, coltsfoot leaves for asthma and bronchitis, rue pills for tonic, whilst the leaves of camomile, yarrow and agrimony were used as a Yarb Tea" drunk for general good health.

Witchcraft still held sway in remote rural areas and old superstitions were still being passed down through families. The cure for a 'bleeding tumour' was supposedly to place the hand of a dead person upon it - this wisdom coming from the grandmother of an old Norfolk labourer in the 1860s. Should a child be born with a rupture, it was believed that a straight young ash plant should be split down its length and the child passed between the two halves, which were then bound back together with string. If the sapling grew together again, so would the rupture be healed . . .

In 1880 a vicar noted - doubtless with some alarm - that one of his parishioners (an elderly woman) 'said the Lord's Prayer backwards to get rid of an infliction which has been "put" on her. She promised me to say it forwards three times a day, but added, "unless the trouble comes back, and then I will say it backwards again".'

Superstition also led Hertfordshire labourers to carry a small potato in their pocket to ward off rheumatism, whilst in Norfolk a pig's foot bone, or small pieces of brass, copper and zinc in a bag were to serve the same purpose.

So the next time you reach for a dock leaf after you have been stung by a nettle, think of your ancestors . . .

It didn't do to get sick . . .

I mentioned in my last post how epidemics would sweep through a small community and rob families of their loved ones, and the children were particularly vulnerable, as my g. grandmother discovered when she lost all three children in the space of a week. I would have gone mad with grief, and I'm sure she did as it was eight years before my grandfather was born.

In my husband's family, his mother, born a century ago in 1909, remembered when the four children came down with Scarlatina. She was probably the first to take ill with it, and can remember helping her mother nurse the others. The Dr insisted on a sheet being fastened over the doorway, which was sprayed with some noxious substance in the hope of preventing the spread of the infection. Yet it is a disease one scarcely hears of these days, and certainly not with a fatal outcome. The full blown version is Scarlet Fever and it is basically when the Streptococcus germ which normally lives in the throat, gets onto the skin and causes a general infection with the accompanying red rash. In my late m-in-law's day it also carried the risk of Rheumatic Fever and indeed, her younger sister did contract this, and was treated like an invalid the rest of her life and yet she lived to a grand old age despite the presumed "weak heart" which was the likely result of the Rheumatic Fever.

In Pamela Horn's "The Victorian Country Child", she writes of Scarletina sweeping through schools, and of course, as one had to pay for the Dr to call in those days, things would have to be pretty desperate before that happened (often too late to save the affected child). Home remedies were the first resort. Children who had long journeys on foot to and from school, would be sat around with wet clothing and shoes in the schoolroom, and it was noted that these were the children who often fell prey to illnesses such as Diptheria, and the ill-ventilated classrooms only helped to spread infection. There was an outbreak of Scarlatina at the Cholsey School in Berkshire in 1877-78, and the school log book noted:

16 November - a few scholars absent with scarlatina. Warned all the scholars that if any of their brothers or sisters were taken with scarlatina THEY were not to come to school.

19 November - Three more cases of probable scarlatina. Warned Jesse Corderoy and his brother not to come to school for a fortnight as Rhoda, his sister, seems to be taken with it.

29 November - Still a few cases of scarlet fever . . . The sanitary inspector for this district came this morning and made enquiries about it and precautions taken to prevent it spreading.

4 December - A few more cases of scarlatina.

20 December - Attendance still very low in consequence of illness. Walter Smallbones - scholar in the third class - died and was buried during Christmas week . . .

Whooping cough was also a killer, especially of little girls. One Wiltshire doctor at the turn of the 19th century, noted that "I never remember a boy dying of it." This same doctor recalled that pneumonia was particularly dangerous . . ." it had a dreadful crisis, during which the patient very often died. During this crisis they would have a very high temperature, would be blue in colour with a hacking cough. . . If they lived, their temperature would suddenly drop, and an hour or two later they would be sitting up in bed and demanding a beef steak; but even then they needed careful watching, and stimulants had to be kept handy, to see they did not slip away . . ."

In most households, prevention was deemed better than cure, and Saturday night was not looked forward too, as that was when such remedies were usually administered! In the spring, the blood would need cooling with treatments such as brimstone and treacle or nettle tea. Malt and cod liver oil and Epsom salts were regularly administered, as were senna pods to "regulate the bowels"!

Quack doctors plied their trade at Fairs and the weekly markets, and in Banbury, Oxfordshire, a boy at that time remembered that a Mr T J Norton, a "Botanic Electric Practitioner", was "primarily a herbalist, selling such things as juniper berries, ginger and cough mixtures, but he also tried to cure people of various complaints by electric shock treatment."

Home remedies were the main treatment for illness. Earache was often treated by binding half a cooked onion against the affected ear, or placing a (smaller) cooked shallot in it - a measure which appears to have worked. In my own household, a local herbal Dr (qualified) advised a neighbour to use the leaves of Navelwort, steeped in a little boiling water and then ground with a pestle and mortar, as an effective earache treatment. I tried this firstly on myself and then on the children and found it to be successful, though whether I would have had the nerve to take them to the official Dr afterwards, with green inner ears, was never put to the test!

For mumps, goose oil and flannel was used and for a chest cold, the patient would have a shield-shaped piece of brown paper placed on the chest and spread with hot tallow, which was left in place until the cold and cough disappeared. Onion gruel was a remedy for sore throats and coughs and mistletoe berries considered a "shure cure for the Hoping (Whooping) Cough". In East Anglia, a fried mouse was considered the only cure for Whooping Cough - even up until the 1920s! Horehound mixed with honey was also a sovereign remedy for sore throats and chesty colds (you can still buy Horehound tablets in some sweet shops - the one in Lyndhurst I visited last year stock it). Camomile tea was taken "to ward off colds, soothe the nerves and as a general tonic." Celendines were said to cure "weak eyes", a fast-bleeding cut could be staunched by a handful of cobwebs (I have found this in stable books too for helping ease a wound on a horse), but if you were out in the fields, then the best thing was to find a horse and rub the cut on it - presumably the scurf aided the clotting. Treatment for diarrhoea was acorns - dried and grated and the powder taken as necessary.

To be continued . . .

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Cottage Living . . . Part 1

What was probably the reality of country living for many people in Victorian times. Cottage near Whitney-on-Wye.

The following poem "Old Cottages" was written by a neighbour of Helen Allingham (Myles Birket Foster). After firstly describing the romantic vision of picturesque cottages, he follows on with this:

All these I know, - know too, the plagues that prey
On those who dwell in these bepainted bowers:
The foul miasma of their crowded rooms,
The fever that each autumn deals its dooms
From the rank ditch that stagnates by the door;
And then I wish the picturesqueness less,
And welcome the utilitarian hand
That from such foulness plucks its masquing dress,
And bids the well-aired, well-drained cottage stand,
All bare of weather-stain, right angle true, -
By sketchers shunned, but shunned by fevers too."

If you look at the paintings by Helen Allingham, of beautiful thatched cottages with roses round the door, you could be led to believe that their occupants had an interior which looked as if it came from Country Living. Sadly this was far from the case, as it outlined in the lines above. It is ever brought to mind for me when I look at the tiny outline of a ruined cottage which might have house a family of anything up to 10 children and parents, and sometimes the aged grandparents too. At bedtime they must have been stacked like sardines. When my mum and her 4 brothers and sisters came to stay with their cousins in Aberbargoed, they would be toe to nose in the bed - four heads one end and 4 the other with the cousins!

You have only to look at the headstones in any country churchyard - take Haworth, where the Brontes lived, as an example, to see that the average life expectancy was only 25 years, because there were SO many childhood and infant deaths from disease. At Haworth, the water supply for the village ran through the churchyard and it was said that the lower down the hill you were, the less chance of reaching adulthood a child would have. Headstones saying "and 10 children lost in infancy" or individual child deaths with the little one just a toddler of 1 to 4 years old. In Devon, in the village of Littlehempston, my g. grandmother lost her three children to disease in just 6 days - two of them on the same day. She asked to be buried with them on her demise. It was eight years before my grandfather was born and I always wondered whether she turned from her husband's advances because she couldn't bear the thought of losing another child. Diptheria, Scarlet Fever, Measles, Whooping Cough, TB, even Cholera and Typhus, could wipe out a whole family.

When you think of these cottages, do you see flagstone floors? The reality was that they were mainly bare earth, easily swept out, but in winter, rain seeping under the doorway (for the floors were often lower than the threshold and outer level) would soon turn the floor to tacky mud near the doorway. We have dreadful draughts in this house, from ill-fitting doors and windows, but think how it must have been in some cottages, with window frames stuffed with rags to keep the piercing wind out, and holes in the rotting thatch letting in the rain.

Sanitary arrangements were less than satisfactory, and an outside privy might well be shared by two or three large families. The contents were collected by the night soil men. I remember staying with the aunt and uncle of my ex-husband back in the 1970s, and they still had no bathroom or running hot water in the house, and the cold water had to be pumped into the sink with an ancient cast iron contraption. The toilet was in a tin shed up the garden, and you shared it with various gardening tools and a rat trap!

In the 1890s, a report on housing in certain villages in Dorset, Essex, Kent, Somerset, Surrey, Wiltshire and Worcestershire recorded that the average 2 storied cottage would have, downstairs, a living room 12 foot square by 6 foot high, and a small back scullery or pantry. Upstairs would have one decent sized bedroom and a smaller one into which the staircase often led - in fact, the staircase was quite often just a ladder. (Think Stack Square here, and the Coal House families, where the arrangement was much the same.) The upper floorboards rarely benefitted from a ceiling beneath them, so any sweeping (or washing) of the upper room would result in dust or water dropping down into the room below. Windows were sometimes of a design which would not open, and this must have led to unbearable stuffiness on a hot summer night. The thatch was often home to small birds, and insects, and I can still recall my dad telling me about one lad in Bovey Tracey who lived in a thatched cottage with a Hornets' nest in the thatch above his bedroom window. My dad was naturally somewhat wary of going to play at his place!

In some village communities, there was a village baker who would allow villagers to bring bread or the occasional pie or cake to be baked in the residual heat of his oven, once the loaves had been removed. Here in Wales in pre-range times, the primary cooking was done over an open fire using a cast iron cauldron. We have a roomy one downstairs, and there was a broken one in the brambles at the ruins of a cottage near Colomendy recently - someone had taken a hammer to it and smashed it in half. There was a particular way of loading the cauldron, with vegetables and perhaps a steamed pudding being hung in nets above the stew - which was more root vegetables with a scrap of meat and fat in for flavour and with dumplings floating on the top to fill up the corners. Luckier families would have a bread-oven for baking in, but these were generally confined to the farmhouses.

I shall try and get part 2 written for tomorrow . . .

Saturday, 17 January 2009

The Saturday Walk - 17th January

Overnight rain has brought the river levels up considerably.

I am getting back into my walking routine again, now I've finally shaken this cold off, and that means that one of the weekend days is a longer walk - 2 hours instead of one, and about 5 miles in distance. Today I went "round the block" cutting across country on a local trackway I used to ride Fahly along. As I expected, it was half under water as in winter it turns into a stream, especially after the rain we had last night.

I soon warmed up - especially after the first steep hill - and first of all gloves, then fleece hat, and finally jacket were removed, but then the clear blue skies clouded over and this afternoon's weather front began to put in an appearance. Now we have 10/10 cloud cover again, my pine tree across the lane, which acts as a weather vane when it comes to wind, is starting to sway about, and the pundits foretell heavy rain this afternoon and night.

No obvious forsaken cottage ruins to note today. A possible end wall of one in about two acres of what is now woodland, but very poor self-sown mainly ash woodland, none of it more than about 60 or 70 years old. A cottage and an acre or two was quite often the size of the smallest holdings hereabouts. Also a probable back wall of a cottage in a dingle beside an abandoned quarry, set against a higher bank and very straight-edged.

Overnight rain had meant that the river had risen a couple of feet and was beginning to quarrel with the boulders mid-stream.

The view from the top of the first hill. Our house is out of sight behind the farm mid-photo.

This cottage smallholding has been on the market recently. Some work has been done on it but no-one is living there yet.

Sunshine for a little while first thing. Here we are looking towards the far side of the Towy Valley.

It is such an inviting old lane, unchanged over the hundreds of years it has been in use between farms.

Above and below: Just after it turns into a stream (we know them as "winterbournes" in Dorset), the trackway ahead narrows and the main path curls off to the right, where there is a new house built.

A barn now, with a blocked-in window, but this was probably the original cottage which has been modifed now that there is a late Victorian farmhouse. It was bigger than most round here, and well built, with the dressed ashlar stone at the corners.

The lane homewards. As I walked along the lane, flurries of Fieldfares clattered from the hedgerows ahead of me, angling away like jet fighter pilots in an air display. Two buzzards were circling overhead, being mobbed by crows, and I saw the first harbingers of spring in the leaves of primroses, dandelions, goosegrass, and in sheltered spots, long shoots of stitchwort, and the almost perennial leaves of wild strawberries and foxgloves.

Looking across the fields of the Towy Valley.

This is little Coedsaithpren nestling amongst the trees. If I remember rightly, a Clog Maker lived here back in the 1881 census, and indeed, the current owner found a wonderful clog above the door of one of her barns.

I couldn't resist this photograph. It lends a whole new meaning to the words "sunken bath" and reminded me of the Titanic going down!

These are someone's tidy ewes, who insisted on walking ever faster in front of me down the lane, heading towards a busier road, but fortunately I managed to skip past them where the lane widened, and turn them back.