Elizabeth Hawksley

A.D. 71, and Marcus Didius Falco, Lindsey Davis’s intrepid sleuth in The Iron Hand of Mars, is in Germania Inferior on a mission from the Emperor Vespasian. Reluctantly, he goes to Vetera, once a huge double fort on the River Rhine, now bearing all the hallmarks of a savage attack, with broken siege engines, toppled platforms and clear evidence of destruction by fireA few years before, it had been almost totally destroyed by the Batavian uprising, headed by rebel chief, Civilis, once Rome’s ally. It is only just recovering.

The impressive Gate House certainly makes a statement

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‘Ightham Mote, wrote Nigel Nicolson (son of Vita Sackville West), is one of the oldest and loveliest medieval manor houses to survive in England. It has stood here for over 650 years, immune to fire, tempest, war and riot.’ And he’s right. It nestles in the Kentish Weald almost as if it’s grown organically. Even today, it’s not easy to find. Legend has it that, during the Civil War, Cromwellian soldiers arrived in the area intent on looting it, but got lost in the twisty country lanes, gave up, and ransacked somewhere else instead.

 Ightham Mote: the east side

The photo above shows Ightham Mote (pronounced Item Moat) as the visitor coming down a steep wooded hill first sees it.

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Visiting the Musical Museum near Kew Bridge last week was huge fun and it’s something I thoroughly recommend. So what’s it about? It comprises a large collection of 19th – early 20th century self-playing musical instruments and (and this is the fun bit) most of them still work. I went on a group tour, guided by the wonderful Roy Huddlestone – now eighty-six and looking twenty years younger – who not only knows the various instruments and their stories inside out but also demonstrates them, to thrilling effect. Until you’ve heard the Popper ‘Clarabella’ Orchestrion, which, in its 1910 heyday thrilled customers in a German Bier Garten, complete with flashing lights and lit up ornamental waterfall, not to mention a bronze statue of the Pied Piper, belting out popular tunes fortissimo with full orchestral piano, xylophone, Glockenspiel, drums, cymbals and triangle, you ain’t lived.

Orchestrion from the front

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Boppard is an attractive German town on the Rhine with an interesting Roman history. In the 1st – 3rd centuries A.D., it was a small riverine trading settlement called Bodobrica. These were settled times, and the Roman Germania Superior frontier, the limes, fortified by stone watchtowers and a wall of sharpened oak stakes, was a long way to the east.

A stretch of wall with one of the semi-circular towers

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This week I’m looking at two pairs of mid-19th century ladies’ open crotch drawers which you can see hanging on my washing line in the photo below. As an historical novelist, I need to know what my heroines are wearing, even, or perhaps especially, the undergarments. They affect her posture, her comfort and indicate her status.

Two pairs of mid-19th century open-crotch drawers

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This week I am flying the flag for the 20th anniversary for the Historical Novel Society and its quarterly Historical Novels Review. It was founded in 1997 by historical novel enthusiast, Richard Lee. Membership requests flooded in from dozens of historical novelists who were desperate to have their books reviewed (something well-nigh impossible unless you were either ‘literary’ or already a best seller), and dozens of enthusiastic readers who wanted to review them.

HNS Review May 2017

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This, believe it or not, is my sewing machine, it dates from between 1898-1904. I’m not sure of the exact date because I’ve never come across another one like it. I bought it for £5 when I was a student and I’ve used it ever since.

Sewing machine with handle in place and ready for use

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It is impossible to overestimate the effect of the Russian Revolution on the course of world history.

Red Army hat, inspired by the old Slavonic helmet

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths, the British Library’s new exhibition, covers from Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation in 1896 to the death of Lenin in 1924. In less than thirty years, the Russian Empire underwent strikes and uprisings; the catastrophe of World War I; the October Revolution of 1917 when the Bolsheviks formed a government; the tsar’s abdication and subsequent murder; Civil War on a massive scale as Russians fought each other – some for independence, some for the Bolsheviks, some for the tsar – when over 10 million people died and 2 million emigrated; another 5 million died from starvation as grain was forcibly requisitioned; the creation of the Soviet Union in 1920, and Lenin’s death and subsequent apotheosis.

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