History

‘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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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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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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Last week, I had the good fortune to visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, founded in 1570, and in Whitechapel Road since 1738. Now, nearly 450 years later, it was to close, and our tour was the very last one. Mr Alan Hughes, the owner, whose family had been there since 1904, and who was born there, was our guide.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry with the ochre shutters

It was the Whitechapel Bell Foundry that cast the 13½ ton hour bell, Big Ben, for the Palace of Westminster in 1858. It also replaced a number of famous church bells lost in the London Blitz, including the ‘great bell at Bow’, as the Nursery Rhyme has it, and the ‘Oranges and Lemons’ bells at St Clement Danes. Whitechapel bells are found in countries as far apart as Australia, South Africa and America.

The foundry’s small back yard. Note the lead water tank, dated 1670, from the original Artichoke Inn, now a planter under the window

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The thought struck me recently that I live in a house with a number of objects which are nowadays more or less redundant, like paraffin lamps, warming pans – and door stops.

I grew up in a large country house where almost every room had its own cast iron door stop. There was a large handsome painted one of Mr Punch by the front door, for example; and the one pictured below in the morning room. Elsewhere, there was a horse door stop, one of a sheep, and another of an early locomotive, possibly The Rocket, (I come from a railway family), as well as plainer ones.

Two Figures at a Well door stop

Why, did we need so many? I can see that the front door might need to be held open on occasions, if luggage, say, was coming in or going out. But otherwise?

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This is the culprit – one of the items in the Undressed: a Brief History of Underwear exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The signage tells us that it is a cuirass bodice dress in silk satin and lace, dating from 1876 and adds that it was considered shocking at the time because….  I thought it might be fun to look more closely at why it was so shocking.

Cuirace dress close up

Cuirass bodice dress, 1876

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Sometimes, what attracts me to a place is simple aesthetic pleasure; I just like the look of it. Take Kakopetria, a traditional stone village in the foothills of the Troodos mountains in southern Cyprus.

Kokopatria old church

The old church with its steeply-pitched roof

There’s nothing grand about it; it’s been there for ever and it’s remained much as it always was. I don’t doubt that the Cypriot Tourist Board has done some restoration but their work hasn’t been intrusive. They may have whitewashed it – several years ago; but real people live here, hang up their washing on the wooden balconies, and chat in doorways.

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Some years ago I saw a rom.com where the American heroine visits London for the first time. She lands at Heathrow and takes a cab to wherever she’s staying – somewhere fashionable with a SW postcode. She peers excitedly through the cab window as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge whizz by. I thought: where the hell is the cabbie going? Then the penny dropped: his circuitous route in the wrong direction had nothing to do with the real London; it was a fictitious ‘London’.

Alcazar courtyard 2

The Alcazar: the Spanish Royal family’s summer palace in Seville

I’d always felt much the same about the cigarette factory in Seville in Bizet’s opera Carmen. It must be fictitious. Bizet took his plot from a novella by Prosper Merimee and I doubted whether either of them had actually been to Spain. Merimée probably thought Seville sounded romantic and what was really important wasn’t the unlikely cigarette factory but the romantic toreador at the centre of the story.

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This is one of the first things that greets you at the Park of Monsters, a.k.a. the Park of Wonders or the Sacred Grove at Bomarzo, in Lazio, Italy. It is so huge that when you stand up inside the gaping mouth you have to reach up to touch its teeth!

2 Mask of Madness

The Mask of Madness

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