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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : The Family : Page 1

An unexpected visitor

Of the feline variety

We had an unexpected visitor in late July. One morning, as I was heading out for my morning 6am walk, I noticed one of the neighbourhood cats lurking outside the house, asking for scratches and strokes. When I came back an hour or so later, it was in the back garden instead. I opened the back door, and it followed me inside. It prowled the kitchen, miaowing boldly, before deciding to lie down as Guardian Of The Recycling.

Random Cat

It came back again the following morning, and the morning after, and started to explore more of the house. Initially it refused to go upstairs, and if anyone went upstairs would sit at the bottom waiting for them to return; but after a week or two it was happy to roam the whole house and particularly liked lurking among the clutter in the office.

Random Cat

The Plain People Of The Internet: So is this one of those situations? The whole “this is your cat now” situation?

I doubt it is, somehow. It’s clearly a healthy, happy cat that has a home nearby. It doesn’t need food from us, and I haven’t given it any. Moreover, as one of the other regular correspondents has pointed out to me: if Random Cat is a much-loved household pet, tempting it away to another home is not exactly a very neighbourly thing to do, however friendly it seems to be and however much it stands by the kitchen cupboards miaowing at me.

Why has Random Cat been visiting, anyway? I realised its visits started in late July, at the same time as the school summer holidays. Maybe one local family’s routine changes so much in the school holidays that Random Cat can’t cope with not getting its breakfast early, and decided to scout around the rest of the neighbourhood instead. Possibly, then, now we’re into September and the schools are going back, its visits will start to dry up again.

Random Cat

Ever since moving house, we have said: we really should think about getting in touch with the local cat shelters and finding one to actually live here. That, in all likelihood, will stop it visiting, although it’s not guaranteed. My garden is already disputed territory between Random Cat and another neighbourhood cat, an all-black one which likes to sit on the roof of a nearby shed. They have face-offs balancing on top of our garden fence. A third cat thrown into the mix might not even change very much.

If we do get a cat to live here, no doubt this blog—and certainly the rest of my social media—will become rather heavily cat-centric, at least initially. For now, though, occasional Random Cat will have to do.

Ar lan y môr

And more than once, too

As it was Easter weekend, we took a couple of trips out. “To the beach!” shouted The Child Who Likes Fairies, so to the beach it was.

Firstly, on Friday, to Aberogwyr or Ogmore-By-Sea, a small seaside village at the mouth of the Afon Ogwyr (River Ogmore). it has a rocky shore of cliffs maybe only ten or fifteen feet high, with many paths and gulleys down through them to the pebbly beach. There isn’t much in the way of sand, especially as we arrived at high tide.

On the slipway

The rocks are interesting, though, with smoothly-eroded limestones overlain by a strange array of breccias. At their lowest are rocks consisting of an amalgam of limestone pebbles, as if a beach or riverbank from a few million years ago had been frozen exactly as it was. Above them are huge, rough black slabs looking for all the world like pieces of modern concrete or tarmac. If you told me that back in the Triassic, dinosaurs had worked out the basics of civil engineering, I’d now believe you.

Interesting rocks

Interesting rocks

Ogmore-by-Sea is at the eastern side of the mouth of the River Ogmore. “Can we go to that beach over there?” said The Child Who Likes Animals, pointing to the far bank of the river. Over there, is Merthyr Mawr Warren, a vast area of sand dunes stretching from the western riverbank to the town of Porthcawl, with a long, broad stretch of sandy beach, Traeth yr Afon, facing on to the sea. So, today, we went to Merthyr Mawr.

At Ogmore-By-Sea, you can park your car at the top of the cliffs and amble down onto the shingle in a matter of seconds. Merthyr Mawr is a bit more of an expedition. The car park itself is by Candleston Castle, a ruined fortified manor that is about a mile or so from the sea. It’s an interesting place in itself, though.

Candleston Castle

Walking the mile through the dunes to the beach itself is quite the exercise. Merthyr Mawr Warren has the highest dunes in Britain, the second highest in Europe. Because the paths through the dunes are frequently disturbed, they tend to be the areas with the softest sand. It becomes something of a slog, and you lose sight of all the wonder in the landscape, the unique flora and fauna that goes towards making it a very special place. Nevertheless, we managed to stop and watch huge numbers of solitary bees of some kind, going in and out of their burrows.

Walking through the dunes is also very disorientating; you start to wonder where you are, whether you are trapped and going around in circles. Nevertheless, if you pay attention to the details, you can begin to see how the dunes vary. Further from the shore, they are more stable, the sand is darker in colour, and there are entire bushes and trees holding the dunes together. Towards the sea, the largest plants are clumps of marram, and the sand has ever more fragments of shell in it. Eventually, breaching the final crest, you slide down onto the beach.

Merthyr Mawr Warren

Traeth yr Afon is a very different prospect to the other side of the river. Open, windy, relatively deserted. Horses and riders gallop along through the firm sand at the shoreline. There is no coffee van, no lifeguard’s tower, no car park. Just the wind blowing fine sand along the surface, and the constant roar of the breaking waves.

Traeth yr Afon

Beach horses

Windblown sand

Which beach is better? That’s a matter of personal choice—and of your mood on any given day. Walking through the amazing dunes, allegedly so sandy and un-British they were used as a filming location for Lawrence of Arabia, is certainly hard work, compared with a beach that’s practically in a village. Walking along a deserted, windswept sandy shore, though, is generally just much more my taste. On the other hand, broad flat windswept dunes don’t also have fossil beds to go hunting in (for that, in the Vale of Glamorgan, you really want the beaches a few miles further east). There are always choices; it’s not a competition. We had two very different days out this weekend, but both were to amazing places.

Onwards and upwards

Or, a trip up a mountain

As I said last week, things are slowly opening up here once more. Last week we could travel locally; from today, in Wales we can travel for leisure anywhere in the country so long as we don’t enter or leave it. I was somewhat tempted to spend the whole day driving to Porthmadog and then back again, just because I could, even though it would be an entirely pointless and childish thing to do.

It dawned bright and sunny, and The Child Who Likes Fairies immediately said: “can we go to the beach?” Naturally, I expected the beach would be packed, as would all of the standard inland tourist honeypots: Cwmcarn Forest, the Sugar Loaf, Pen y Fan, the Blorenge. “The Welsh Government are asking people to avoid flooding beauty spots,” said the news on the radio. I looked at a map, and picked a mountain overlooking Cwmbrân instead.

Mynydd Twyn-Glas is the mountain between Cwmbrân in the Eastern Valley and Crumlin in the Western Valley. It’s really just a slight rise in a broad-shouldered plateau, named Mynydd Maen on its south and Mynydd Llwyd on its north; and the whole, being common land, is also known as Mynydd Maen Common. The southern flank drops off sharply into steep-sided ravines thickly and densely covered with plantation conifers, the southernmost being the aforementioned Cwmcarn Forest. Being traditionally common land it’s now open access land. Despite this, I was surprised just how quiet it was: birds, bees, a handful of off-road bikers and another handful of dog walkers. We wandered across the open moorland, just above the edge of the forest, occasionally shouting into the trees and hearing the echo back from the other side of the ravine.

The ravines dropping away from Mynydd Twyn-Glas

A line of pylons strides across the moor, linking the upper valleys with the power stations of Newport. The wind whistled through them with an eerie note, singing the minor-key chord of a distant angelic choir.

Pylons

We saw a distant, intriguing stone slab, looking for all the world like a gravestone in the middle of the moor. Naturally, we headed straight for it.

Not a gravestone

B H
Boundary of Minerals
Settled by Act of Parliament
1839

Apparently there a few of these stones scattered at intervals through the area: the Act in question is 2 & 3 Vict. c. 38, “Sir Benjamin Hall’s, Capel Leigh’s and others’ estates: exchange of mines and land”. Sir Benjamin Hall MP is the “B H” of the stone: MP for Marylebone for over 20 years, he played a significant role in improving British public infrastructure, and is also possibly the man who Big Ben was named after. However, despite his important role in the history of London, his background was always in South Wales, his maternal grandfather (and source of his wealth) being the Merthyr ironmaster Richard Crawshay. The other side of the stone, incidentally, has “C H L” for Capel H Leigh.

Closer to the summit of the mountain, we found another stone. This, however, is much simpler.

LUP

On top is a simple cross, and on the other side, other letters.

PP

This is a boundary between parishes, rather than mineral owners, hence I suspect rather less money was spent on it. Llanfrechfa Upper Parish, on the one side; Pontypool Parish, on the other.

Finally, we reached the summit. Being a plateau, there wasn’t a dramatic view, just gently shelving moorland. In the distance, the Severn shined silver, down by the wetlands and the mouth of the Usk. England faded away into mist. The big difference—the sign we had reached the summit—was the strength of the unobstructed wind blowing across the mountain.

The Children

“I’m freezing!” said The Child Who Likes Fairies.

“Maybe next time we go up a mountain,” I said, “you’ll wear more layers of clothes like I said you should.”

“I’m never going up a mountain ever again,” she replied. “Ever.”

“What if next time we want to go in the mountains,” I offered, “we find a train that goes near some mountains and look at them out of the window?”

“As long as it takes us back down the mountain again once we’re at the top,” she said. And that, I think, is probably a fair bargain.

Life on Mars

Well, maybe

Astronomy fans probably already all know about the Nasa rover Perseverance, which landed successfully on Mars yesterday evening. The Child Who Likes Animals Space was greatly disappointed that the landing wasn’t going to happen until well past bedtime. “You wouldn’t find it very interesting anyway,” I told him. “All you’ll see is a bunch of people in a control room cheering. You won’t get the good pictures until later.” Indeed, although there was one slightly low-contrast black and white photo through within a few minutes to prove the lander had touched down the right way up, at the time of writing the good exciting stuff is due to be revealed shortly.

As the sun went down, though, the sky outside was crystal-clear and Mars was clearly visible a few degrees above the Moon. “Shall we get the telescope out and look at Mars ourselves instead?” I suggested, and of course The Children jumped at the idea.

I’m getting a bit bored of starting posts on here with “Since we moved house…”, but this is the natural point where I have to say “Since we moved house…”. Specifically, since we moved house, The Child Who Likes Space’s telescope has sat in its box in a cupboard; after all, it is February in Wales and we have hardly had a clear night since we moved in. So last night was the first time in this house that I took the telescope out of its box, set it up in the garden on the camping table, and looked to see what we could see.

To be honest, I wasn’t very hopeful. The new garden has a bright-white LED streetlamp shining straight into it. Moreover, as soon as I went outside, on came an automatic outside light. Could I find an off-switch for it anywhere? No, I could not. I was rather d, given these problems, to see that the sky was a wonderful bright blanket of visible stars, much clearer than anything we could ever see in Bristol.

Mars was easy to find, but still is barely more than a dot with the magnification we have available. After looking at Mars, we saw Orion was bright to the south, so zoomed in on Betelgeuse and then the Orion Nebula, or Messier 42 to its friends. In Bristol, the Orion Nebula only ever appeared in the eyepiece as a pale fuzziness which barely stood out from the background sky. Here, it was startlingly clear by comparison, a cold blue cloud against the background sky. Compared to our previous attempts to observe it, it was an entirely different experience.

By now clouds were starting to roll in from the north, so we packed everything up and went inside. As one last thing to try, I pointed the telescope at the moon and tried holding my phone to the eyepiece. Previously when trying this, I produced possibly the worst astrophotography ever. Last night’s attempt, therefore, can take the second-worst spot.

The moon

Maybe at some point I’ll actually get a proper adapter to strap my phone into and produce something slightly better.

At some point, when we can travel more widely, we’ll have to try putting the telescope in the car and heading up to one of the dark sky sites in the Brecon Beacons, to see just what we can see when we are out of town altogether with no streetlamps and no lights in neighbouring windows. For now, we’ll just have to wait for the next clear night, and see exactly how dark it is when we’re just in our own garden. Fingers crossed.

The haunted house

If you believe in that sort of thing

It being a couple of weeks now since the house move, I feel surprisingly settled-in already, and a big proportion of stuff has now been unpacked and sorted out. At some stage I will write a fuller account of what happened on move day itself, and all the stresses that had to be overcome, but today is not that day.

This post, though, is partly about how different it is living here. Not about the neighbourhood or the landscape, different though they are, but how different it is to move from an old, fragile, Victorian brick-built terrace to a modern house on a modern housing estate. Not just about how physically different the spaces are, but how I have moved away from an old building with an old building’s atmosphere to somewhere that, spiritually speaking, is much more fresh and bare.

That paragraph is really just a long-winded way of saying: the new house, I’m pretty sure, is not haunted. The old house, I can’t say that about.

Regular readers will have seen my post the other day about Surviving Death, the recent TV series about, well, evidence there is an afterlife. In that, I naturally concentrated on the bits of the documentary it was easy to be sceptical about: frankly, it’s more fun to write and I assume more fun to read. That isn’t to say, though, that I’m prepared to rule out the possibility that something can survive after death, or that ghosts exist, or anything else along those lines. All I’m sure about is that, if anything of that kind does exist, it will be completely different in every way from anything you, me or anybody else has ever been able to imagine. So I’m approaching this from a sceptical angle, but an open-minded sceptical angle. All I will say is that when I went from spending most of my time out of the house, to most of my time sitting in my bedroom working, I became less and less willing to say that the house, for definite, was not haunted.

Surviving Death didn’t really touch very much on ghosts. Maybe they’re considered a bit passé in a world where a medium promises to rustle up the spirit of a lost loved one almost on-demand. The sort of haunting I’m talking about is also one very light on evidence, with nothing other than strange feelings, curious hunches, and the like.

Last March, back when the death rate started to climb and everyone was told to stay at home, I made sure I had a suitable working space. Previously when I worked from home I’d done it at the kitchen table, which was almost tolerable but not really. For one thing, the dining chairs were fine to sit on for a couple of hours but were rather painful after a whole day. The kitchen was hot in summer, cold in winter, and the wi-fi dropped out whenever the microwave was on.* The bedroom, on the other hand, was large, directly above the wi-fi base station, and kept me nicely out of the way. I bought a cheap little desk—more of a table really—that just fitted into the bedroom’s window bay, found a slightly more comfortable chair than a dining chair, and settled down to a life of working in the window bay, tapping away at my laptop and watching the neighbours walking up and down the street, not to mention the local magpies, squirrels and occasionally foxes.

I quickly became used, though, to something else. Somebody would come and stand over me. I don’t mean I heard anything, but that I could see somebody out of the corner of my eye, who wasn’t there when I looked at them directly. They weren’t always there, but they would come and watch over me, maybe two or three times per day, when I was busy and when nobody else was around. I never saw them directly, but I knew they were there just as I knew when a living flesh-and-blood person had walked up behind me. They always approached from the same side, from my left, the direction of the doorway, never my right.

Was I just seeing my own hair moving out of the corner of my eye? Or noticing the curtains moving? But if so why only ever on the one side of me? My eyesight is rather asymmetrical, it’s true: my left eye’s sight is much worse than the right. I will, of course, never know the answer. But it’s easy to think that a 130-year old house will have had people die inside it, particularly in the large bedroom; or will have emotions and spirits become attached to it in a way that a three-year-old house will not have.

You can never trust what children, small children, say. But I remember that when they were much younger than they are now, or were a year ago even, The Child Who Likes Fairies said a man would come to play with her. An old man, she said, would come into her bedroom and talk to her. What he said was never specified, but apparently he seemed friendly. As you will have guessed, nobody of the sort had ever been in her room. Nowadays, she has no recollection at all of any of this.

Was the old house haunted? It’s not a question I can honestly give a yes to: there are too many unknowns and too little evidence. But equally, I feel I can’t say for certain that the old house wasn’t haunted. It’s not a question we can ever get an answer to, and I very much doubt a medium could help, or diving in kitted up with night-vision cameras and temperature sensors. For that matter I never had any feeling there was anybody watching when I was in bed, even though I have in the past, when living in other places, had the classic “old hag” night terror. Only when I was working, concentrating on my screen, would the figure come into the room to wonder what I was doing.

Now we have moved on and are unlikely ever to know what is happening to that place, and how it is changing from when we lived there. If it was haunted, I hope the ghost who lives there is happy with whoever is there now. I hope he finds them as intriguing as I apparently was. Since moving, I’ve been sitting at the same desk, working away on the same computer, staring out of a different window, and never feel there is anybody watching me, or that anybody I can’t see has walked into the room. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, there is some distinct qualitative difference in what I feel I am perceiving. Whether that is something paranormal, or something else about the nature of the building, I would never be able to even begin to work out. Subjectively, though, whether there was a ghost or not, is there really any difference that matters?

* This is a very normal problem, so if you find your wi-fi often has problems at around the same time each day, check to see if it corresponds with cooking activities.

A Miscellany

Or, photo post of the week by another name

I was asked the other day to provide a photo of The Children for a family project. Nothing difficult, nothing complicated, just a photo of the two of them, together, both looking at the camera, such as you might want to put on your wall. So I spent a while one evening going through all the photos I’ve taken since the start of 2020, and did I find a single photo that matches that description? Just one with both of them in it, looking at the camera, not pulling a daft face? Not one. Zero. Nil.

Oh well, I suppose that means that over the weekend I’ll have to try to actually get them to appear alongside each other in a reasonably-sensible-looking conventional portrait photo at some point. It did make me think, though, that actually over the past year I did take a few photos that were not too bad but are buried away in my archive. So here is a very random miscellany, from the last year or so.

Wayland's Smithy

Woods near Abergavenny

Exploring a riverbank

By Glastonbury Tor

Field of sheep, Stonehenge

Changing tunes

Thoughts from the history of music

I mentioned the other day about having a backlog of ideas to write about without forgetting what they are. Some of them have been bubbling around for a few years now, when I’ve read a book or watched something on the telly. For example, a few years ago I was given a copy of the book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley. For the past thirty years or so, Stanley has been one third of the band Saint Etienne, who I’ve loved almost as long, and who right from their start in the late 80s have made pop music that cuts across categories, combining fantastically catchy pop hooks with lyrics that are pitched at just the right level between meaningful and slightly inane; but at the same time squeezing in London hip hop, club beats and art school sound collages. Their first album combines pop bangers like “Nothing Can Stop Us” with voice clips of Richard Whiteley and Willie Rushton; the second has excerpts from the 1960s British films Peeping Tom and Billy Liar, and a man ordering chicken soup.* Their songs “Like A Motorway” and “Hate Your Drug” are arguably the best attempt anyone has ever made to revive the 1960s “death disc” genre,** but at the same time they care as deeply about London psychogeography as Geoffrey Fletcher, Iain Sinclair or Patrick Keiller. In short, they cover such a broad area in their music, that it is not surprising Stanley wrote a broad, broad book.

Yeah Yeah Yeah is a history of British and American pop music from roughly 1945 to 2005 or so; the start and finish dates are a little vague, but it was intended to be the history of British and American pop music over the years that the 7” vinyl single was the dominant distribution format. Naturally, though, it is a history of pop music that doesn’t at all mention Saint Etienne; they are gracefully elided from the chapters they would naturally fit into. I wasn’t really surprised; it would seem a bit gauche to pretend to write about yourself in the same detached and journalistic style as the rest of the book. It left me thinking, though, how would Bob Stanley have written about his own band if he hadn’t been in his own band himself? It’s another of those impossible counterfactuals, one even more unlikely that most, but nevertheless I find it an interesting thought.

I personally became interested in pop music at the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s, something of a strange period that’s often considered a somewhat empty one, a period in which music was doing little more than treading water waiting for the 90s to start. Music from before that period is something I largely know about purely by the regular processes of cultural assimilation (aside from that covered in the folk-focused Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young). The Parents had a very curious, eclectic and limited record collection, which I naturally went through as a teenager, but it gave me a very one-sided view of things. The Mother seems to have been a sucker for the slightly-novelty single when she was younger: her 7”s included “Deck of Cards” by Wink Martindale, the original Doctor Who theme, and “Dominique” by The Singing Nun. She’s also rather liked rock or pop versions of older orchestral music; in the 60s she was buying “Grieg One” by The Second City Sound***, and at the start of the 80s she often listened to the band Sky, with their electronic versions of classical standards.**** Naturally, my knowledge of popular music from before “my own time” ended up being very strange, patchy, but with a deep knowledge of some curious corners. Yeah Yeah Yeah therefore was a fascinating synthesis, a map and a guide to a vast and complex landscape where previously I’d only seen the summits of the mountains peeking through the clouds.

The last portion of the book, though, I found less satisfying. Not just because Saint Etienne weren’t in it, but because in general my own musical tastes have tended towards the slightly niche and obscure, and those particular niches just don’t get swept. In particular I used to be a big fan of Belle and Sebastian. More recently I have gone back and explored some of their own influences, such as Felt, or some of the bands which recorded on the Sarah Records label. These are niches that tend to be seen as not just obscure but wilfully obscurantist, even though that is a very long way from the truth.***** I wasn’t surprised that my own particular hobby-horses were not deeply investigated, but it felt a shame that the 90s in general seemed to be quickly skimmed over. Possibly this was because Stanley felt unable to handle the days of the CD single; I wondered more, though, if it was a general reluctance to deal with the area he felt personally involved in.

The rise of streaming services is often given as something which has fundamentally changed the popular music landscape; and it is indisputable that the music scene today has changed completely from what it was 20 years ago. Personally, though, I feel the change wasn’t driven so much by streaming, but by communication; by MySpace letting every single band in the known universe put up their shopfront and become known across the world. It immediately broadened the scope of every music fan: the trickle of information about new bands that came from the weekly music press suddenly became an unstoppable flood. I, for one, felt that in 1995 I could at least be aware of all the bands in the genres I cared about, but by 2005 that was becoming completely impossible. I can also see how, if you were to write a book about pop music, continuing it past 2005 would seem impossible too.

When I reached the end of the book and read the acknowledgements, I wasn’t surprised. Yeah Yeah Yeah was put together with the help and influence of a number of key members of the ILX forums. Personally, I haven’t used ILX for more years than I really want to think about; but when I saw many named I recognised from ILX in the back of the book, I suddenly realised why some of the book’s arguments and standpoints felt so familiar to me. Of course, given I was a fan of Stanley’s music all along, given I have always been a fan of syncretic, holistic thought and of “reconciling the seemingly disparate”, I would have agreed with much of it in any case. As books go, this one will be staying on the bookshelf.

* One piece of trivia I only discovered when fact-checking this post: the woman on the sleeve of their first album, Foxbase Alpha, is apparently also the woman who says “Can I take your order?” on “Chicken Soup”.

** Yes, it’s a real genre. You probably know the most famous “death disc” track, “Leader Of The Pack” by The Shangri-Las. Incidentally Saint Etienne’s discography is awfully complex and only partially available on streaming services; “Hate Your Drug” was a B-side to the single “Hug My Soul” and an album track on some versions, but not all, of Tiger Bay—it wasn’t on the original UK release. For reasons I have never understood, the rear sleeve of “Hug My Soul” features a black and white photo of a kitchen with random items labelled in Icelandic.

*** If you’ve never heard of The Second City Sound, it’s OK: I suspect The Mother only knew of them because she lived in said second city and they were a local band.

**** Later on still, when she no longer came across new music herself, I managed to get her into William Orbit and The Penguin Cafe Orchestra: I figured they were exactly the sort of thing that would follow on from her previous musical habits.

***** Incidentally over the years I’ve seen many people say they thought Belle and Sebastian would have been a perfect Sarah Records band, if Sarah had still been around when the band formed. I don’t think is true at all; moreover, I feel anyone who says that can only have a wild misunderstanding of Sarah’s aims and purpose. That, though, is a topic too large to fit into this footnote.

Sons and daughters of the soil

On local history (in general)

A train of thought has been slowly easing into the station over the past few days, after I read a very interesting blog post by historian Caitlin Green about the Ridings of Lindsey and the route between Lincoln and Grimsby—at any rate, the route between Lincoln and Grimsby mapped in 1675 by the Scottish cartographer John Ogilby. Ogilby was the creator of Britannia, Britain’s first road atlas, in the form of 100 cross-country routes drawn as strip-maps at a scale of 1 inch to the mile. Nottingham to Grimsby via Lincoln is map 78.

I recall watching a documentary when I was a child about the history of mapping, which discussed Ogilby, and for some unknown-to-me-reason it was illustrated with rostrum shots of Ogilby’s Grimsby-to-Lincoln route. I was baffled and amazed. Firstly, that of all places, they had decided to show a map of the very village I was living in at the time; and secondly, that our village was on Ogilby’s map. Our village was on a route from Grimsby to Lincoln, but it certainly wasn’t on the main one.

Nowadays there are basically two reasonable routes between Grimsby and Lincoln. You have the main road, the A46, with various straightened-out parts and bypasses and suchlike. Parallel to half of it, though, is the B1203: in general it still goes through villages rather than around them, and it goes up and down a lot more. The A46 cuts across the Wolds from Grimsby to Caistor, then runs south along their foot to Market Rasen, minimising the time it spends on the hilly ground. The B-road’s route is closer to a crow-flies route from Market Rasen to Grimsby, but as a result much more of its route is in the hills. This is the route that appears on Ogilby’s map, following much the same route as the B1203 today. However, it wasn’t until I read Dr Green’s post the other day, that it really occurred to me that, of course, Ogilby’s route didn’t quite follow the same route as the modern roads. The question of exactly which routes were meant by Ogilby when compared to modern topography is a very interesting one.

My thoughts on this led to a bit of a Twitter discussion with Dr Green,as to how Waltham has developed over the years and how the pre-enclosure road from Waltham to Scartho might have survived as a footpath down to the 1950s. That’s not really what I wanted to talk about today, though, although I might possibly write something about it in the future. The train of thought that’s been wandering around in my head this week is more about the importance of fine-grained local history, and how easily it is lost.

The Mother spent a lot of time over the last twenty years researching our family tree—or, rather, her family tree, as she gave up on my dad’s when she discovered a number of things in the early 20th Century which didn’t quite tally with her views on how People Used To Behave.* From her grandmother, she inherited a Victorian Bible with lists of various marriages and dates of birth inscribed on the flyleaf, and various stories about how her family were descended from Spanish pirates who had settled in Cornwall in the 16th century. These had presumably all come from her grandmother’s parents, who had been the first generation to move out of their tiny Cornish fishing village and had moved to London to marry and have children. I don’t remember meeting my great-grandmother, but apparently she was always also very proud of her “genuine Cockney” roots, having been born in Soho. My mother got right onto all of this, feeding the information into Ancestry, linking it up with other people who could trace their roots back to the same Cornish fishing village, and so on. However, all she ever seemed to be interested in were names on a chart. She entered different ancestors’ names into the data like a birdwatcher who is only interested in ticking each species off in a book, or a trainspotter who does nothing more than gather numbers. That’s…not really what history means to me. To me, history is more about what these people actually did. How they lived their lives, and what the world was like around them.

When we moved to Waltham, before I started school, we moved to a new-build house on a clean new estate with barely any sense of history. My parents, too, seemed to have no sense of history or of the landscape around us. I remember asking The Mother one day what we might find if we did an archaeological dig in the garden, and she replied with: “nothing at all, it was just a field.” It took a few years before I realised that one farmhouse left behind on the estate was much older than all the other buildings; or before I realised that one cul-de-sac was in the middle of a mature avenue of trees. As far as my family were concerned, or anyone I knew, the village was tabula rasa, a clean slate with no history save for the old windmill and the part-Saxon church. All of the roads might for all I knew have been there for eternity, whether built two or two hundred years before. History, to me, was the sharp-angled village library, built in 1981.

At secondary school we learned about enclosure and were shown before and after maps of each of the local villages. Most of the roads, we were told, were built at enclosure, which is why they have sharp bends or zig-zags where they cross the parish boundary. So how did people travel before that? There were few if any roads marked on the pre-enclosure maps. What route was John Ogilby marking on his map, if all the roads were built later? If I thought at all to ask any of these questions, nobody quite knew how to answer them.

I recall someone from my parents’ generation who had grown up in the village telling us that a slight rise in the Grimsby road, close to the old village school, was called Pepper’s Hill. As a name, it didn’t appear on any maps, and I have no idea where it came from, or where she had got it from. Moreover, why did nobody else know about this, and why had nobody told me?

Traditionally, history was always seen as a grand progression of Great Men, of names and dates and battles and similar Important Events. That’s still believed in some regressive, reactionary circles, but it’s not true. There are many histories, and everyone’s story is a history in itself. I love the history of place, the fine-grained history and archaeology of a small piece of topography, the sort of history that asks where the roads really did run in a particular village a few hundred years ago. It’s one of the reasons I waffle on here so much about local cemeteries and suchlike, and why I think it’s worthwhile to look at just how individual places and neighbourhoods have changed. It’s even more important to look at a regular neighbourhood than it is to study the history of a castle or a palace; but so much is lost, or overlooked, or just forgotten. My great-great-grandparents left Cornwall, and left behind them so much knowledge of their tiny village and of their local towns that is all gone completely now, so much dust in the wind. I can go back to where they came from and walk the same streets; I can go to the village museum and see walls of photos of Victorian fisherman who are probably all distant relations of myself; but I have no connection with that landscape or with any of the people. My family has jumped too many times, and broken its connections at each one.

If you go all the way back, back to when the English first arrived here, just think: there is so much that has been forgotten and lost. There are so many rivers in England called Avon, and we do not know the pre-English name for any of them, because Avon is just the Welsh word for “river”. There are so many kings of Britain, from the period after the Romans left and before the English arrived, whose names and numbers and forts are forgotten and missing from the record completely, because they had the misfortune to lose a war. The history we do have now is the history of survivors, but sometimes we should remember there is a history of the forgotten too.

This post is a bit of a mish-mash, a bit of a strange ramble around my mind, but I suppose what I’m really trying to do is set out some sort of a manifesto, for why I like to study history, for why I went and got myself a degree in archaeology, and for what I think is important in those fields. Above all, this is a plea to know the land around you, know its shape and how it came about, know what was here before you and what you have inherited. I hope that wherever I live in the future I will always try to learn about the landscape around me; and hopefully now I’m an adult I will have the resources to be able to do that. This land is our land, but we merely hold it in trust for our descendents; and the same goes for our history too.

* My great-grandparents got together circa 1910 or so but never actually married—because my great-grandfather was already married to someone else. Allegedly, a few decades later someone used this fact to taunt my grandmother, and she immediately punched them to the floor. There were also other bits which would be hard to even draw on a standard family tree, such as the distant relative of my dad who got married to his stepmother’s sister.

Under clear skies

Or, some unexpected astronomy

“Is it cloudy or clear?” said The Child Who Likes Animals yesterday evening after finishing his tea.

“I don’t know,” I said, knowing the weather forecast was showing a solid grey sky for the whole of the evening. “Let’s have a look,” knowing there was little risk of us being able to look at the stars.

I opened the back door, and was rather surprised to see clear skies and good visibility. “LET’S GET THE TELESCOPE OUT!” screamed The Child Who Likes Animals Space. I had been planning to head straight to the sofa and the book I’m in the middle of reading,* but agreed that, if we could come up with a sensible plan for what we were actually going to look at, I would set it all up for him.

We fired up Stellarium and I tried to find things that would be interesting to see and straightforward to find. Outside, I had already seen the cross of Cygnus was fairly high in the sky, with Cassiopeia above it, so I make a risky suggestion. “Why don’t we try to see the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula?” I said, knowing that with our inner-city skies nebulas and other deep-sky objects do not put on a very good show. It does, though, have a very child-friendly name.

I set the telescope up on the table outside, and tried to get my eye in. It was immediately obvious that viewing conditions were on average far, far better than they had been on New Years Eve. The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula has the benefit that it’s close to an easy-to-find star, Alderamin (α Cephei). I quickly navigated ten degrees south to the location of the nebula, was confident I was there from the pattern of the stars. And was there anything? Well … maybe. Charitably, I could convince myself that the sky did indeed look slightly brighter than elsewhere in the sky; that I could see hints of structure that were not just inside my own eyeballs and brain. The Children, though, would have none of it.

Luckily, I’d noticed there was something interesting just by the nebula, and confirmed with the computer that I was looking at Herschel’s Garnet (μ Cephei). It’s a red supergiant star, a thousand times broader than our sun, and a distinctive pale peach colour to the eye—the astronomer William Herschel described it as “deep garnet”, hence the name. As its colour is so clear to see, The Children were reasonably impressed.

As it was so clear, we also pointed the telescope at the Pleiades, the view of which wowed The Child Who Likes Fairies (“There’s literally trillions of stars!”) then, the cluster NGC 7686 and the Andromeda Galaxy. The latter was, to my eyes, a slightly clearer fuzzy blob than it has been in the past, but still just a fuzzy blob. The Child Who Likes Animals said he could see it clearly; The Child Who Likes Fairies could not.

Thinking about what we should be able to see in the sky, I did a bit of maths. Say the pupil of one eye when it’s dilated is about 8mm wide—I’m just guessing this part really. We’re using a 150mm telescope: that’s 350 times as large as a pupil, so it gathers 350 times as much light. That’s a difference in astronomical magnitude of just under 6.4. Now, when I was aiming the telescope last night, once my eyes were adapted I could just about make out stars of magnitude 3.8 to 4.2; such as the stars λ Andromedae, κ Andromedae and ι Andromedae, which I used to find NGC 7686 and which I’ll have to write about again some other time.** I suspect that that’s as good as things are ever going to get in our hazy and light-polluted urban sky. But taking the telescope’s light-gathering power into account, if I’ve got the theory correct, I should be able to see things of magnitude 10 to 10.5 or so through it. Next time we have good seeing, I should test this out: look up at a few things and find out what the official magnitude of the stars I can just barely see is.

When I’ve done that, of course, I should probably think about getting some way to record what I can see, rather than just trying to describe it to you. The Child Who Likes Animals’s telescope is a Dobsonian with an altitude-azimuth mount, which means long-exposure photos are probably out, but I’d like to look at our options and see exactly what we could try to do instead.

* The Northmen’s Fury: A History of the Viking World by Philip Parker.

** Because in looking up their names for this post, I’ve discovered they form part of the former constellation named after Friedrich the Great of Prussia, Honores Friderici.

Look into my eyes

A brief digression into heterochromia

Yesterday’s post about applying human assumptions to the rest of the universe set my mind off running down another tangent, about our tendency firstly to oversimplify the world, and secondly to insist on the validity of our oversimplified mental map of the world in the face of all the evidence that it is wrong.

One of my early memories of The Mother, from before I started school, is talking to her about eye colour: what colour my eyes are and what colour hers are. “Mine are different colours,” she said. “One is greeny-brown and the other is browny-green.” It’s a very subtle distinction to make, even when you’re four years old, but nevertheless one you can understand. “Yours are almost blue,” she said. And—as I learned when I looked—my eyes are almost blue. Most of the iris is a very pale blue-grey. The central ring around the pupil isn’t: it’s a greenish-hazel colour.

When I was older, in biology class at school, I found that in class you occasionally discuss things like inheritance and eye colour and so on. The teacher, or someone else in the class, will ask you what colour your eyes are. “Blue on the outside but green in the middle,” is not, it turns out, considered an acceptable answer by most teachers, even less so by most of the other pupils. “That’s impossible,” is the answer you get.* “Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”

Similarly, anything along the lines of “My mother says her eyes are slightly different colours” gets the same answer. “That’s impossible. Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”

None of these people, as you might imagine, ever seemed to think it might be straightforward to confirm or deny whether I was telling the truth, at least not in my case. Even though they could easily have just looked into my eyes, they didn’t bother. It was relatively recently that I discovered it’s called heterochromia—central heterochromia in my case—and it’s sufficiently common for the Wikipedia page to have a gallery of celebrities who have one form or another of it.

Similarly, one of the things we were taught in school biology class was the now extremely discredited concept that there are only a handful of “races” in the world: Caucasian, African, Oriental and so on. The teacher pointed to someone in the class and said “which of these is he?” “Caucasian,” everyone chorused. But then he pointed to one of the children in the class whose parents were from Pakistan—and almost everyone in the classroom seemed completely stumped. “…African?” someone attempted after a lot of hesitation, before I think I put my hand up and said: “Caucasian is the closest.” What I wish I had said, what somebody should have said, is: clearly this classification scheme is a load of nonsense.

There are so many things in the world where, given a simplistic explanation or a simplistic and naieve classification scheme for something, people will believe in it intensely, hold it tight to their hearts, even when it only takes the slightest amount of evidence, staring them straight in the face, to show that it clearly is wrong. There are so many “facts” in history that are accepted as the truth, even when it’s clear to see that they are a nonsense. “Columbus discovered America” is the most blatant example that springs to mind, but there are many, many more. Why do people do that? It’s easy, I suppose. People believe what they are taught, especially when they are taught it when they are easily impressionable.

As for me: well, I did certainly believe everything my teachers told me, when I was young enough. At quite a young age, though, I started to notice when I was being taught things that clearly weren’t in line with the evidence in front of my eyes. The colour of my eyes for one thing. Maybe it’s a curse, to be able to notice that and have to stand back and go “hang on a moment there…” I prefer to think it’s a benefit. I can’t imagine, whichever, that I will ever stop doing it.

* Unless of course the person in question has already read this blog post via a time machine.