In my opinion, Faro’s Daughter is probably Georgette Heyer’s most emotionally intense book. The relationship between the hero, the cold, rude, fabulously rich Max Ravenscar and the beautiful Deborah Grantham who presides over a gaming establishment in St James’s Square in the heart of fashionable London in the 1790s, has a sexual tension which is quite unlike any of her other books.
I’m always intrigued, when visiting a Stately Home, or indeed, any home from yesteryear to see how the domestic arrangements worked. And it’s surprising how many things there are in common – from cottage to stately home. The first thing you notice is how important the class system was.
One of the things I most enjoy about finding myself in a strange town is looking at the street furniture; that is benches, railings and their finials, door knockers, weather vanes and the like. And some countries are better at producing interesting examples of the genre than others. This struck me most forcefully when I visited Volterra in Etruria.
Two birds on a twig with a hook at the end, on the wall of the Piazza del Priori next to a tunnel in the city walls
The metal hook itself did not look particularly old, it could be 20th century, and I think the hook at the end was there to hold something, a lantern, or perhaps a basket with hanging flowers. Whichever it was, it was visually pleasing and I began to look around for more examples.
Drinking water is always freely available in Italy
Water taps and drinking fountains are ubiquitous in Italy; drinking water (well, it’s a hot country) is everywhere and the Italians have very high water quality standards. One of our company stopped for a drink, and I was struck by how pleasing the shape of the water tap was; it stood on an iron hexagonal base with a four sided column which gradually sloped in to the neat four sided roof. It had a shiny copper tap.
A gryphon lantern high up on a building
This splendid gryphon lantern is set high up and the walls behind it look formidable. I walked round and round it trying to find a good angle to photograph it from.
Volterra is perched on top of a high plateau and the views are splendid. It was founded by the Etruscans, taken over by the Romans in the 3rd century BC, but it managed to remain an important town. It became a Lombard town in the Middle Ages and was eventually taken over – violently – by Lorenzo de Medici in 1472. It has a lot of history.
There is plenty to see: temple ruins, a cathedral, a museum with numerous funerary urns from Etruscan tombs and a Roman theatre. It has much to offer anyone who is interested in history and architecture .
The Plaza de España, Seville
I’m now jumping forward to 1929, to be exact. I don’t know if early 20th century Moorish tiles expanded into a long balustrade – echoing the city which was taken over by the Arabs in the 8th century AD – count as ‘street furniture’. I decided it did – after all, if it had been made of wrought iron, say, it would count. I thought it made a magnificently impressive piece of street furniture. In fact, I fell in love with Seville.
What I found interesting was that the decorative Moorish tiles, used extensively in mosques in North Africa, came to Spain with the Arab Conquest, and, when, several centuries later, the Spanish pushed out the Moors, the Spanish Hapsburg Empire eventually included the Spanish Netherlands. It was the Spanish who brought the art of Moorish tile decoration to the Netherlands where it became known as Delftware.
I had been wondering what Delftware was doing in Seville – but I had it the wrong way round. The question should have been, how did Moorish decoration get to the Netherlands!
The Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris dates from 1612. It is, surely, one of the most impressive.
I loved the symmetry of the tall red brick houses with their blue roof tiles; and the fountains with their lions’ head spouts. It’s a lovely place to relax in, and, in one corner, there’s an ice cream café with the most delicious home-made ice cream.
I don’t know if the wash basin in the café ladies’ loo counts as street furniture – probably not – but it’s certainly unusual and I decided that, as it was for the public, it counted (at least for this post!).
The water comes out of the satyr’s mouth and, to pull the plug to empty the wash basin, you must pull the stick in the bottom left-hand corner. It took me quite a while to work all this out!
Parisian street furniture: the elegant 17th century lamp and the post of a wrought iron gate and railings in the Place des Vosges.
The view is down one of the sides of the Place des Vosges. You can see two lanterns and the well-known phrase from the French Revolution; Les aristos à la lanterne signifying that all aristocrats should be strung up from the street lanterns, made me shiver.
Remove the lantern itself and the resulting iron scroll would be just right to throw a rope and noose over. In fact, if you look carefully you can see that there are three lamps with lanterns hanging from them. You could get rid of three hated aristos.
The iron post is interesting, too. Could that be a head wearing a pom-pom hat at the top of the post?
Sofia, capital of Bulgaria. The Changing of the Guard outside the Presidency.
The street furniture here is the sentry boxes – they are modern but with a nod to tradition with their arched tops. I rather like the right hand one which is wired up for something but in a somewhat amateurish manner.
Incredible though it may seem, Bulgaria has a king: King Simeon II – you can see the Royal coat of arms above the door in the photograph. He was born in 1937 and crowned King as a child after the death of his father, King Boris III. He went into exile with his family in 1946 after Bulgaria overthrew the monarchy.
In 1996, after the Communist Party lost power, he was invited back and warmly welcomed; he was even Prime Minister from 2001-2005, but the country remains a republic.
Royal street furniture: a lock from the gates of Buckingham Palace, London
The railings and gates along the front of Buckingham Place are covered with quirky bits of decoration. The lock in the photo dates from the late 19th century. The base of the lock plate has a scallop shell; above we can see a putto or cherub, wrapped in a voluminous cloak which swirls around him as he looks down at the shell. He wears a helmet (with small wings?) but not much else. What is he doing? Why is he dressed in that way? The scallop shell is a signal of direction – for example, if you are going on Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the scallop shell indicates the route to follow. But that still doesn’t really explain what it’s doing on Buckingham Palace railings.
I’ve come to admire good street furniture and, nowadays, I always look out for it.
I love visiting local museums and the Ulster Museum in Belfast is a great example of the genre. I mean no disparagement by calling it ‘local’; because, what it does, brilliantly, is give visitors an excellent overview of Northern Ireland’s history, together with many fascinating objects which illuminate that.
And it starts with a terrific exhibit – that of the long extinct Irish elk.
An Irish elk excavated from a bog – just look at those magnificent huge antlers
When I went on a ‘Roman Germany’ holiday a few years ago, the last thing I was expecting to see was superb Roman glass that had actually been made there. I knew that, during the Roman Empire, Rome had occupied parts of Germany to the east of the Rhine for several hundred years but I’d imagined a rough Frontier existence with evidence of Roman forts, siege warfare, and Roman armour – not sophisticated, top-quality glass!
Xanten – a reconstructed Roman fort in Germany; purely military – no fancy glass here, surely.
I was wrong. Cologne, for example, had started life as Oppidum Ubiorum, one of the Roman fortresses set up by the Emperor Augustus in about 10 B.C. It became part of ‘Germania Inferior’ – that is Lower Germany, the area nearest to the Rhine Estuary. Oppidum Ubiorum and the surrounding territory of Germania Inferior was not so much ruled by Rome directly, it was more an area within Rome’s influence – the Roman Empire’s boundaries tended to be fluid rather than rigid. In due course, Augustus extended the Imperial frontier to include Germania Superior (Upper Germany) and, eventually, 40 forts stretched along the Rhine; he planned to use them as stepping stones to extend the Roman Empire eastwards as far as the River Elbe.
One of the remaining Roman towers along the city walls of Colonia Claudia Agrippinensis.
Fast forward 60 years or so, and Oppidum Ubiorum was given a new name: Colonia Claudia Agrippinensis, after the Emperor Claudius’s wife who was born there – hence the name Cologne, or Köln, which it bears today. I was beginning to see that the Roman presence in Germany was much more intentional that I had thought.
Reconstructed Roman scaffolding at the Roman fort at Xanten. Nothing fancy, but it was efficient
This is how the Roman system worked: the military garrisons occupying the Rhine land comprised about 80,000 men. Reliable links were essential if they were to expand eastward and secure the Frontier against the Germanic tribes to the east; some of whom were friendly but others were definitely not. Roads, bridges, forts etc. all had to be built, secured, garrisoned, fed and maintained; the Romans also needed to forge and nurture alliances with friendly tribes on both sides of the Rhine. In other words, the Romans set out to create an autonomous economic zone in Germania Inferior – the land which they now occupied, and had named – in which everyone, soldiers as well as civilians could thrive – and could be taxed.
Partial reconstruction of the obligatory military temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva at Xanten
The Emperor, and those who governed Germania Inferior, were also anxious to promote the Roman way of life: the military garrisons needed pottery, for example, leather goods, wool and linen for clothes and furnishings, carpenters, wheelwrights, builders, stonemasons and so on. Every garrison town had a temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva; a Mithraeum, and other communal buildings, like baths. Somebody had to oversee all that building.
Roman glass bowls from the Roman fort at Saalberg; officers could expect the best.
Then there were the veterans, soldiers who had served their 40 years’ service and been granted money and land. They wanted to settle, in comfort, near their old legions – and, of course, Rome could call upon them, if she suddenly needed any military back-up. Roman urban prosperity would mean that the amenities the Romans were used to: comfortable homes with central heating, water on tap, a proper sewerage system, public baths, places to eat out or have a drink, not to mention shops, were not just desirable but necessities if Cologne were to thrive. Merchants, too, came to settle in Cologne: the roads were there; the river provided transport; and, in AD 310, the Emperor Constantine the Great built a bridge over the Rhine.
Roman glass ewer, I love the trailing swirls of colour: white, blue and gold.
Cologne gradually became a city which expected luxury. Cologne’s fine white clay encouraged top quality pottery; and around 100 A.D. the almost pure quartzite found nearby began to be mined for the production of glass.
These wonderful glass fish are in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in Cologne. I just love their quirkiness, not to mention the skill with which they were made.
As I said at the beginning of my post, Roman glass-making came as a complete surprize to me. Most of the glass objects in the museum were found in Roman or Frankish graves; and it was obvious that the delicate glass objects must have been both costly and highly valued.
The Cologne glassmakers specialized in ‘cage cups’where a decorated glass cup nestled inside an intricate cage of glass.
The cup pictured above is being held upright by a modern metal holder. Heaven knows how it stood up originally.
These were the first glass objects I saw in the Museum. I couldn’t make out how they stood up without rolling over – perhaps the bases are flattened slightly. Nor do I know what they are for. But they are plainly things of beauty and they came in different colours, (most people like to collect things in sets).
Glass slippers – shades of Cinderella?
For me, the glass objects that are obviously just decorative – like the glass slippers above, or the glass birds, or the fishes, are the most poignant. We know that they were grave goods that their owners obviously treasured and wanted to take them with them to the Afterlife, and I’m sure that all those beautifully created little glass masterpieces have stories to tell.
What I love about travelling is that you never know what you are going to find; the important thing is to keep an open mind.
To begin at the beginning: the definition of ‘merry-go-round. When I was a child we called them roundabouts: those colourful rotating machines with pairs of brightly-coloured horses you sat on which went round and round and up and down whilst you held on to the pole which went from the roof, through the horse’s withers, and was screwed into the floor.
This Parisian roundabout gives its customers the choice of riding in a 19th century submarine or on a traditional white horse, or in a 19th century space rocket or sitting in a revolving teacup!
Earlier this week, I visited what is surely the most astonishing landscape garden in England: Painshill, near Cobham in Surrey. It was built by the Honourable Charles Hamilton (1704 –1774) in the eighteenth century. Hamilton was intoxicated – there is no other word for it – by the Classical ruins and Gothic architecture which he’d seen on the Grand Tour. Once back home, he set about buying land in Surrey and started building dramatically ruined follies and then creating a spectacular landscape around them to show them off to their best advantage. His fantastical creation was, and is, unlike anything else in Europe.
Ruined Abbey: all it needs now is ivy, moonlight and an owl!
Today, I’m visiting Thornhill Gardens in Islington. Other boroughs surrounding Islington have large open spaces: to the north, Hampstead has Kenwood and the Heath; to the south, the City of London offers you the spires of numerous Wren city churches and the dome of St Paul’s cathedral. Two hundred years ago, Islington itself scarcely existed, except as a village with a small spa attached and it was viewed by City dwellers as a pleasant place to take a walk. It sits on a hill, well above the City of London smogs.
This post is about ag slang, a secret language which dates back to the Between the Wars years, that is, the 1920s – 1930s, when it became a popular secret language between school children. My mother who was the third of four sisters had learnt it at school, and she taught it to me and my brothers; and I, in my turn, taught it to my two children. My aunts also taught it to their children (I rang round my cousins to check before I started this post.) ‘I’m so sorry to bother you on a Saturday,’ I said, ‘but dago yagou spageak agag slagang?’ (Do you speak ag slang?) There was a startled pause and then ‘Yages – wagell, agI uagused tago!’ (Yes – well, I used to.)