Elizabeth Hawksley

Gold has always been a key to power: it doesn’t corrode, so it holds its value, and, as every ruler knows, access to gold is essential for paying armies and controlling the state. Furthermore, in skilled hands, this precious metal can be transformed into beautiful and desirable objects which, in turn, help to cement alliances, reward allies and demonstrate the power of the ruler.

The Goldsmiths’ Company’s leopard’s head symbol entwined with vine leaves on the mantelpiece in the Court Room (Photo by Elizabeth Hawksley)

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I’ve always enjoyed pageantry. I confess that the sight of soldiers in uniform, wearing crested helmets and scarlet jackets, sitting on gleaming black horses and being put through their paces by an even smarter officer, gladdens my heart. So, today, I’m visiting the Household Cavalry.

Visitors watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony in Horse Guards Parade. 

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Recently, a friend and I visited the Walthamstow Wetlands, a new haven for birds and insects in north London. The story of how it came about is a very 21st century one – and, in these days of doom and gloom, very cheering. The A to Z of Victorian London from 1888 shows the River Lea meandering through marshland. An 18th century stretch of canal called ‘River Lea/Lee Navigation’ (the spelling varied) had been dug to bring goods from the country up to London, and, parallel to the canal, the Mill Lead powered several water mills, indeed, four mills are mentioned in Domesday Book. The area was good for fishing, and that was about it.

River Lea Navigation canal

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Illuminating the Dark Ages is no easy task, as I discovered when I went to the British Library’s new Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition. There are a lot of illuminated manuscripts, most of them beautiful, but what, exactly can they tells us about that troubled period? A surprising amount, as it happens.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the glories of Anglo-Saxon craftsmenship. This illuminated manuscript was produced in the monastery on Lindisfarne in 715-720 AD. Its sophisticated designs owe much to Celtic art.

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The Charterhouse has to be one of the most interesting buildings in London. Its story begins with the arrival of the Black Death in 1348, continues through the upheavals of the Reformation, the ups and down of educating schoolboys for nearly two and a half centuries, not to mention a direct hit from an incendiary bomb in May 1941. It’s a wonder there’s anything left of it at all.

Entry to the Charterhouse from Charterhouse Square

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I have long been fascinated by the Victorian age. It was a time of huge contrasts, as well as social mobility- certainly for men. But what about women? At the beginning of the Victorian age, they had no legal existence, they couldn’t vote, nor have a bank account, and what work opportunities they had, in factories or shops, say, were were less well-paid than men. As for any more professional position – forget it. The choice of jobs for most middle-class women was being a governess or lady’s companion for, at most, about £35 a year, or, for a few talented writers, actresses, artists or musicians, you might be able to make a decent living, if your father or family were also in the same profession.

The Awakening Conscience 1853 William Holman Hunt, Tate Gallery

However, there was an alternative – a shocking one; become a mistress.

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Open House weekend in London happens once a year, in September; when all sorts of buildings which you can’t usually see inside, both public and private, are open to the public – for free. This year, my niece and I decided to visit the tomb of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), Victorian explorer, soldier, linguist (he spoke at least forty languages), scholar and prolific author and translator who had long been a hero of mine.

Sir Richard Burton’s tomb in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen’s in Mortlake

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Lord Byron (1788-1824), Romantic poet; a man fatally attractive to women; a friend of many literary figures of his day, including the atheist poet, Shelley; a fighter for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire; and an intrepid traveller, was a man who tended to leave scandals in his wake. In 1809, when he was twenty-one, he left England for the continent on what he called a ‘pilgrimage’. In effect, it was a Grand Tour, taking in Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Albania and Greece, and it seems to have involved a lot of drinking, stupendous scenery, and sex.

Ancient Apollonia, the Agonothetes Monument; a reminder that Albania was once part of Greece  

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I have a wonderful book of advertisements in ‘The Times’ from the 1870s. As well as being a mine of information about everyday life in  London at that date, there is also a section of personal advertisements, many of which could be the basis for a novel.

Looking for a plot? How about:

C.C.C.C. Do not despair, my Marguerite. Only have patience. I hope we shall meet on the 3rd at P. Be cautious and attend to all the advice I gave you. Do write to the London address if you possibly can, and tell me what has happened that prevents your writing. If I wrote in l.j. it would betray us. Thine for ever, B.B.B.B.

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I recently visited the excellently-presented exhibition: Roman Dead: death and burial in Roman London at the Museum of London Docklands. I knew that Romans were taught to face death unflinchingly and expected to be stoical, but, wandering round the exhibition I began to question this. I came to the conclusion that, in spite of their general bloodthirstiness as far as death in the arena or wholesale slaughter on the battlefield went, the Romans had a surprisingly uneasy attitude towards death on a personal level. Death was seen as polluting, and the house where a person had died became a polluted space. Until the proper burial and cleansing rites had taken place, the dead person’s soul could not rest in peace. And an unquiet soul who was vengeful or upset could seriously affect the living.

Teenage boy buried with a baby and a 4-year-old child, probably his siblings. Research shows that he was brought up in a Mediterranean country. Unusually, there are a few grave goods like the pottery jar.

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