Saturday, May 20, 2017

A short history of P

Nicola here. This is a blog about P. Not the letter of the alphabet but the other P. Today I am lowering the tone of the blog by talking about some of the use to which urine has been put throughout history. There are very few substances as versatile and useful.

The English language has developed many words to cover the action and the place where one might have a pee. The word urine comes from Latin urina and Greek ouron and its first recorded usage was around 1325 although the verb to urinate was not formed until the late 16th century. I much prefer the Old English word “lant” which was in use from about 1000. Unfortunately, in pee as in many other things, Norman French overpowered native English and lant fell out of use although a few odd references remained: Bess of Harwick is recorded as owning a silver lant pot and comb. It may be that she used urine as part of a dyeing agent to maintain the red of her hair.

In Scotland the word “wesche”, later wash, was another word for urine. 15th century Scottish poet
Robert Henryson recommends the following cure for insomnia: “Reid nettill sied in strang wesche to steip, for to bath your ba cod.” – Steep red nettles in strong urine and bathe your naked scrotum in the mixture. Worth a try?

The phrase “to take a leak” sounds relatively modern but was in fact in use in Shakespeare and makes an appearance in the 1796 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose. Interestingly, the word “addled” meaning confused or slow-witted also originally derives from urine. Who would have thought that phrases such as “addle-pate” in Georgette Heyer’s books originate in the Old English “adela” meaning a pool of urine? The implication here is that the person who is addle-pated is not quite all there or only “half-baked” or “half-washed” and it refers to the use of urine in woollen industry (see below!)

Here are a few historical uses for urine:

Harris Tweed: I have a lovely vintage Harris Tweed jacket that I inherited from my husband’s grandfather. It’s warm, windproof and looks great. However occasionally when I wear it I get a faint but unmistakable scent floating up from the material that speaks of its origins. Until the end of the 20th century, the pee-tub was an integral part of the process for making Harris Tweed. The tub was a big wooden barrel with an iron lid, and chamber pots were emptied into it daily. The urine helped to fix dye colours to the wool. It was also used later in the process to remove any lingering oiliness from the woven fabric and to shrink it to the correct size. The woven tweed was soaked in a barrel of urine and stamped upon, an activity known as “waulking” and from which the surname Walker derives. Elsewhere in the UK this part of the weaving process is know as fulling or tucking and is again the source of a couple of surnames.

 Alum: Urine was also an essential part of the English alum industry up until the late nineteenth
century. Alum is a mordant used to fix dye to fabric. Ships carried coal from Newcastle or Sunderland, off-loaded it at Whitby, filled up with alum, took the alum south and exchanged it for barrels of urine that had been collected from London street corners, which were taken back up north.

Originally the alum industry used urine collected locally in Yorkshire but as demand outstripped supply it had to be shipped in on “lye-boats.” Most highly prized was the urine from teetotallers, followed by that of beer drinkers. Only as a last resort would the urine of upper class wine-drinkers be used. It is rumoured that this transport system was the origin of the phrase: “taking the p***.”

Bringing the House Down : One of the great grievances of the early 17th century was that the “petremen,” men who were tasked with collecting saltpetre to use in the making of gunpowder, had the right to come into people’s houses and dig anywhere they thought they might find supplies. Saltpetre derived primarily from the action of animal urine on soil so people who kept animals in their cottages frequently had their earthen floors dug up. King Charles I was petitioned by homeowners complaining about having their stables and barnyards ransacked and their houses destroyed when the walls fell down because the petremen had dug up the foundations. 
To counteract the public dissatisfaction with this, Charles agreed to a different approach to the production of saltpetre, using neat human urine and mixing it with soil. In 1625 he granted a patent to Sir John Brooke and issued a royal decree stating all men should “keep and preserve in some convenient vessels or receptacles fit for the purpose, all the urine of man during the whole year.” Animal urine was to be collected too. This proved unworkable since there simply were not sufficient receptacles available for the entire British population and their animals to pee into for a whole year and the Crown was forced to go back to the original form of collection. It was Oliver Cromwell who finally ruled in 1656 that petremen could not dig in people’s houses without permission.

Pass the Smelling Salts: Smelling salts or sal volatile were much in use in the 19th century for
arousing consciousness. The newly formed police force in Victorian Britain even carried smelling salts to revive fainting victims. Smelling salts were made originally from ammonium carbonate, derived from urine, and they worked when the smell irritated the membrane of the nose and lungs, triggering inhalation. However, ammonia is extremely powerful. Too much sal volatile could kill you!

A few other random facts: The first striking match was developed as a result of the scientist Robert Boyle isolating phosphorus from boiling down his own urine and then heating the residue to very high temperatures. Phosphorus, which he named “icy notiluca,” was extremely dangerous for matches and it was only in the 19th century that safety matches were commercially produced instead.

Forgers would give coins a suitably authentic looking patina by burying them in earth sprinkled with urine. This would turn silver coins grey or black and bronze coins brown or green depending on the sort of urine used and its quality!

Anyone like myself who has ever suffered from kidney stones will know how excruciatingly painful they can be. Fortunately these days they can be removed. Martin Luther almost died as a result of his. The Catholic monk turned Protestant reformer was treated by doctors who gave him as much to drink “as an ox” in order to try to wash the stones out. This treatment was unsuccessful and he became so bloated with the liquid that there was nothing he could do but travel home to die. Fortunately jolting about in a carriage on a rough road shifted the stones - and Martin Luther almost drowned in the ensuing flood.

Samuel Pepys also suffered from kidney stones and his were operated on to remove one as large as a tennis ball. In the absence of anaesthesia it took four men and a rope to restrain him but he later declared it was worth it to be rid of the stones.

And finally! In the Middle Ages, urine was used to “quench” (the rapid cooling of red hot metal) swords. It as said to be the best way to forge a sharp blade!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ickworth House - how the servants lived.

Kitchen dresser
 Last time I visited Ickworth house we couldn't look inside as it was closed. This time after being sent on roundabout route by my sat nav we arrived in plenty of time to see the whole house, galleries, as well as eat a delicious lunch.
Bedroom for visiting gentlemen valets.
I often write about the servants' quarters, domestic offices, et cetera but had never been fortunate enough to actually visit one. The first thing that struck me was the size, like a rabbit warren beneath the main reception rooms. The second was that the flagstone floors and lack of heating would have made it unpleasant to wander about – mind you – the servants were not dressed in the skimpy clothes of modern times so perhaps did not feel the cold.
I was impressed by the size and luxury of the bedrooms and sitting rooms put aside for the upper servants use. Upper servants would include valets, personal dressers, housekeeper and butler. The bedroom for the visiting gentlemen valets was considerably larger than my own and was very well appointed. We were told there would have been two beds in there back in the day.
Kitchen sink in servants' hall.
Upper servants sitting room.
 One of the guides told us an amusing story about the butler that was there around nineteen hundred, Mr Royal, who was too fond of tasting the master's alcohol. When he was discovered drunk one day he was sacked without reference.
In the basement there were also preserving pantries, the hall boys' room, a finishing kitchen plus the wine cellars and a room put aside specially for storing trunks and suitcases. This had a dumb waiter so these items could be packed in the bedrooms and then be transported to the basement and out to the waiting carriages.

Upper servants sitting room.



There was a spacious sitting room which also included a dining table and chairs also for the use of these upper servants. They would eat their main course in the servants' hall with the lesser mortals but then retreat to their private space where they would have their dessert and tea served.
Kitchen range -circa 1900

Servants' Hall

The bells that servants had to answer.
As you can see from the sadly out of focus picture there was room for fifty or more in here. After they had eaten and everything had been cleared away by the scullery maids they would play cards, bagatelle, or in the case of the women get on with their own sewing.

There was a row of bells that would have been connected to the main reception rooms and bed chambers. Each one was numbered so whoever ran to answer it could tell immediately who was summoning assistance.
I think it would probably have taken at least ten minutes for anyone to make their way from the basement to the upper floors as the house is so huge.
We also looked around the first floor and the ground floor but I will save that for next time.
If anyone is ever in the vicinity of Bury St Edmunds, in itself a city worth visiting, I can highly recommend Ickworth House. The grounds are beautiful, the house and family portraits interesting and the restaurant excellent. A bit limited in choice, but all home-made.
When I was a teacher many years ago we used to judge the course we attended by the quality of the food we were served. Not much has changed there, then.

Fenella J Miller
www.fenellajmiller.co.uk
"myBook.to/WW2saga"
£2.99/$3.99 Amazon.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Dr Foster went to Gloucester - Melinda Hammond talks Mud, Meanderings & Inspiration


Anyone remember this?


Doctor Foster went to Gloucester
In a shower of rain;
He stepped in a puddle,
Right up to his middle,
And never went there again.






I used to recite this well known rhyme to my children and thought nothing of it, except that it was plain silly, puddles were never that deep.  Now, however I am not so sure…..


Walking my dog around the Yorkshire hills this winter I have noticed a change in some of the bridleways, which has given me more food for thought about how people travelled in the past.  This is a picture of what is locally known as Stony Lane.  It used to be like this for most of its length, and as you can see from the close-up, there are lots of small stones packed together to make a good surface.






 Local historians tell me this bridleway forms part of an ancient trackway stretching across the country and possibly providing a route between religious houses from Europe to Ireland.  It formed part of the old packhorse trails that used to crisscross the country and when the mills were built in the valleys during the Industrial Revolution, many of the workers lived on the hills and the quickest way to work was straight down, cutting across the old tracks.  There is still evidence of this around, if you look closely. This opening in the stone wall now has a modern wooden stile, but you can see the way the stone is worn away from the hundreds of boots or clogs that made the daily journey to and from the mills.


Just for interest I have added a picture of the stile on the south side of the lane (a stone one, built in a more modern wall). The fenceposts in the picture below show the line of the track that leads the quarter of a mile or so to the valley bottom. Nice to walk on a sunny morning, but imagine having to toil back up in the winter, after a hard day's work.


So back to Doctor Foster. Part of Stony Lane now is just mud. Packed hard, it is fine in dry weather, but very slippery and uneven when wet. Where the stones have gone I have no idea, but if they are buried, they are a long way down. This next picture shows it on a relatively dry day, and you can see the darker patches where the mud is still wet. 

It is thick and gloopy and can come up at least over your ankles if you stand on the dark patch to the left of the picture. However, if you put your foot in the patch on the right, it would keep on going, as a friend recently discovered, up to the knee!  The last time I pushed my stick into that patch I stopped at 18" (45cms) but I hadn't reached stone, and  with the continuing rains it might go deeper still. The picture below shows it in more detail.



I am sure someone knows the reason why there are these deep pockets of muddy gloop – possibly a different type of soil, maybe the constant pounding of feet, I don't know. What I do know is that in the past when hard-packed stones were the only form of road surface, this type of problem must have occurred all the time. Local landowners were responsible for maintaining their section of the highway, some better than others, and in periods of bad weather the road surface could be washed away just as it has in the next picture. A couple of seasons without repair and a highway could easily become almost impassible by a carriage. Unfortunately these photos cannot do justice to just how uneven and rutted this is.



As another little aside, I am told that there used to be a small ale house beside the lane here, where the track widens.  The farmer who now owns the field has found stones from an old building there, so at least the weary travellers could find some refreshment during their journey.




Until the end of the 18th century travelling by coach must have been a slow and uncomfortable business, bouncing along on badly made roads and possibly even breaking a wheel in a deep rut.  And as for Doctor Foster, I can well imagine that if the muddy tracks around here are anything to go by, it is quite possible that he stood in a puddle up to his thighs, at least.


I have used carriage accidents and bad roads in many of my books in the past, and in the latest story I have just written a scene in a lane very much like Stony Lane for an encounter between my main characters. Complete with mud!


Happy reading


Melinda Hammond / Sarah Mallory







Friday, May 05, 2017

Inspiration for Spring

Last week I went to Kew Gardens with a friend. We’d just had a week of cold weather, so it was a real pleasure to arrive on a warm spring day when everything was fresh and green, even if it was still a touch grey.

 


Magnificent cedar

Kew Gardens in spring is the place for inspiration. I found myself thinking about the hero of a book I'd thought about but never actually written: His name is Hilarion de Vere Sangrail (I can go OTT with names, given half a chance) and he’s dark, brooding, sexy and dangerous – I’m sure you know the type. Hilarion is like the cedar above: splendid, lord of all he surveys, etc. – but alone.

 


View from the bridge over the lake

My heroine, Hannah Gray, has had a rough time with men in the past and has more or less given up on them. When the story opens, she has decided to devote herself to Good Works. She cannot help feeling that there is nothing much in her life – like the view over the lake. It’s tranquil – but dull.

 


The bluebell wood

As I walked round Kew, I imagined what the various views might contribute to Hilarion and Hannah’s story. In the woods it’s bluebell time and their scent fills the air. It is impossible not to feel that the scene in front of you heralds the promise of renewal. Here, I imagined, Hilarion’s normal vein of sarcasm could fail him, and Hannah cannot help but respond to the beauty all around her. Tentatively, they both begin to drop their guard.

 


The drinking fountain

It’s hot. The satyr’s face above the spout seems to leer at Hannah and she avoids looking at the cupid below. But she is thirsty; and then Hilarion cups his hands to give her a drink … I’m not quite sure what happens here; Hannah cups her hands round his, perhaps. Something shifts… 

 

Formal bedding with the Victorian water tower in the background

Hannah is more than half-relieved to get back to the formal bedding where everything is carefully confined, but part of her is unnervingly aware that something important happened by the water fountain and that drinking from Hilarion’s cupped hands was an act of curious intimacy. Shockingly, she wants more.

 


The temple of Bellona

Hilarion is looking thoughtfully at the water tower. He needs an ‘eek!’ moment, so I send him off to the temple of Bellona (the Roman goddess of war) where he tries to beat these new, unaccustomed softer feelings into submission. The sky is clouding over. Possible cue for an adventuress - always helpful for raising the tension. 

 


The Broad Walk: tulips and copper beech

The Broad Walk, I thought, might be a suitable place for Hilarion and Hannah to come together. The tulips are looking beautiful and the copper beech is allowed to grow naturally. They complement each other – just as Hilarion and Hannah do.

 


The Long Vista

The Long Vista ends my story. It’s a broad avenue with a variety of trees and plants. In the distance, a couple are walking side by side. They look relaxed and happy in each other’s company. Perhaps, in a moment, they will slip into an arbour for a private moment ...

I’m lucky to be within reach of Kew Gardens; but all over the country there are beautiful parks, gardens and wild places just waiting to drop their pearls of inspiration into a writer’s mind. I’m sure you have your favourites.

Elizabeth Hawksley