Northern Ireland and Scotland

My new book is called: Travels through History – Northern Ireland and Scotland 

Belfast and the Causeway Coast has been rated best region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet.

Lonely Planet praised its “timeless beauty and high-grade distractions – golf, whiskey and some of the world’s most famous rocks. The region may be famous for Game of Thrones but its many scenic filming locations are just the start.”

In September 2017, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world by readers of the respected Rough Guides.

This book is short and provides a brief history of Northern Ireland and Scotland, ideal for dipping into during your busy life.

 

 

Symi

This is an excerpt from the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands , newly available on Amazon.

In Homer’s Iliad Symi is mentioned as the domain of King Nireus, who fought in the Trojan War on the side of the Greeks and Thucydides writes that during the Peloponnesian War there was a Battle of Syme near the island in January, 411 BC, in which an unspecified number of Spartan ships defeated a squadron of Athenian vessels. Little else is known of the island until the 14th century, but archaeological evidence indicates it was continuously inhabited, and ruins of citadels suggest it was an important location.

Like many Greek Islands, Symi was first part of the Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire. However, unlike many Greek Islands, Symi was conquered by the Knights of St. John in 1373. This conquest fuelled by the Knights’ interest in shipping and commerce, launched what was to be a period of several centuries of prosperity for Symi, as its location made it an important waypoint for trade until the advent of steam-powered shipping in the 19th century.

The island was conquered in 1522 by the Ottomans (along with Rhodes) but it was allowed to retain many of its privileges, so the prosperity continued virtually uninterrupted. Symi was noted for its sponges which provided much of its wealth. It attained the height of its prosperity in the mid-19th century, which is why so many of the mansions covering the slopes of Symi Town date from that period.

Although Symiots took part in the Greek War of Independence of 1821–1829, Symi was left out of the new Greek state when its borders were drawn up and so remained under Ottoman rule. Symi, along with the rest of the Dodecanese, changed hands several times in the 20th century: in 1912 the Dodecanese declared independence from the Ottomans as the Federation of the Dodecanese Islands, though they were almost immediately occupied by Italy. The island was formally ceded to Italy in 1923, and on 12 October 1943 it was occupied by the Nazis. At the end of World War II, the surrender of German forces in the region took place on Symi and the island was subject to several years of occupation by the British. Symi finally became part of Greece in 1948.

Arriving at Symi Town is the loveliest way to begin any visit to a Greek Island. The bay has low hills on all sides and on those hills are stacked differently coloured ochre Italianate mansions, each one a slightly shade to its neighbour. The slope of the hills means these mansions appear in neat rows above one another, leaving the visitor spellbound by the man-made beauty. Added to this are lines of sail boats, small ferries, and large yachts bobbing rhythmically on the swell by the quay.

The wealth of Symi has been based on sponge diving and shipbuilding. Indeed just over a hundred years ago, these two industries meant more people lived in Symi Town than lived in nearby Rhodes Town. Symi has always been famed for its shipbuilding and legend has it that Symi provided 3 ships for the Greeks in the Trojan War. Nowadays tourism is the main earner, with enough expats staying on the island to allow some businesses to remain open all year round. Some of the houses built in the last two centuries have fallen into disrepair and the more you explore, the more ruins you will find.

If you’d like to read more, the book Travels through History : 9 Greek Islands is newly available on Amazon.

Best travel book of the year: Kapka Kassabova’s Border wins Stanford’s award

A timely account of a fraught part of Europe has won Stanford’s book of the year. Here, one of the judges heralds a master storyteller and gives an overview of the nominees

Turtle Rinsing in London

It’s a little known fact that every turtle that swims up the River Thames past Tower Bridge into the Pool of London becomes the property and responsibility of the monarch. This rule is part of the Common Law of England and dates back to the time of Queen Matilda in the 12th Century.

The Royal Turtle Surveyor has to be notified if a turtle reaches the Pool of London so that the ceremony of Turtle Rinsing can occur. This old procedure involves the Royal Turtle Surveyor, The Royal Turtle Deputy-Surveyor, the Royal Net Bearer, The Royal Water Bagpiper, and the Master of the Hose. From the Tower of London, these five officials proceed towards the turtle in a launch bearing The Royal Standard.

Once the turtle is observed by The Royal Turtle Deputy-Surveyor using a spyglass, the Royal Net Bearer apprehends the creature in a special Turtle net that’s over two hundred years old. Once clear of the water, the turtle in the net is raised to shoulder height. Using a 500-year old hose made from Staffordshire Boar hide, the Master of the Hose sprays the creature for “one round of ye reel,” which is danced by the Royal Turtle Surveyor and The Royal Turtle Deputy-Surveyor. The Royal Water Bagpiper accompanies the dance.

Once the reel is complete, the rinsed turtle is returned to the water. In the past, the turtle was observed swimming vigorously for the open sea; however in recent years they have mainly hung around HMS Belfast waiting for tourists to drop food to them.

Historians believe that the Turtle Rinsing was created because of Matilda’s desire to keep her supporters happy by giving them jobs in the Royal Household that were purely ceremonial in nature. Other such jobs include The Royal Wasp Counter in the Hunting Forests, The Royal Cloud Shape Describer, and the Royal Maker of Cubes from Honey.

Skipping around the windmill

The concept of the Village Idiot is a long-held tradition that was refined to its highest degree in rural Somerset in the 1300s. At that time the position of Village Idiot was an official job title and had a salary, though it was paid in acorns. Both men and women could apply for the role in the annual Dancing Around the Windmill contest, which took place in November – the windiest time of the year. The selection process involved drinking copious amounts of cider and then dancing in between the blades of the windmill.

Nowadays, there is no job of Village Idiot but the contest continues in purely ceremonial form, though the rules are almost the same. The only change from 700 years ago is that the dancers don’t have to wear oak clogs. Starting at 8 o’clock in the morning the contestants are presented to the watching crowds in their fool’s costumes. Each contestant is given a gallon vat of apple cider, which they must drink by nine o’clock or be disqualified from the dance. They are not allowed to eat any food during this time.

At ten past eight, the potential idiots start dancing through the sails carrying their vats with them. The contest is judged by three umpires who perform various tasks. The contestants are supposed to avoid the sails by either slowing down or speeding up their dance, but they must never stop or they will be penalized a point by an umpire. Dancers must not move more than 10 feet from the windmill or they will be deducted a point.  Contestants who are hit by a sail are either deducted a point if they remain conscious or disqualified if they have to be sent to the hospital by the umpire. If the umpires deduct three points from a contestant then their contest is over. The contest continues until there is only one person left who hasn’t been disqualified.

Walking the Weasel

According to the Lindisfarne Chronicles, “Walking the Ways All” was an annual tradition in all Anglo-Saxon towns. The third Thursday in July was set aside for the townsfolk to walk along the common pathways and re-establish their right to frequent these paths. According to the English Common Law, if this annual reclamation wasn’t performed these pathways would become the property of the local landowner, who could then collect tithes from the townsfolk for using the paths.

In 1471 a drunken clerk, Oliver de Turnhouse, misheard the Cleckheaton town crier’s proclamation and so the new tradition began. The town mayor for that year, William de Gradlove, had to walk around the paths dragging a small mammal with sharp teeth behind him. Animal rights not being of top priority, it’s believed that a different weasel was used every year.

One particularly cruel mayor, Edgar Stride, decided to ride around the paths on a horse as he didn’t want to be bitten in the ankle by the weasel. However, his fear caused his death. The weasel’s leash wasn’t quite long enough for it to walk on the ground. Not wishing to be strangled, the weasel fought and writhed against the leash until it managed to sink its teeth into the horse’s haunch. This powerful nip caused the horse to bolt – Stride was knocked from the horse’s back when it ran under a low branch. Stride hit the ground hard and died from his injuries. His quick-thinking deputy, Mortimer Sanderson, jumped over Stride’s body and managed to pick up the weasel’s leash before it could effect an escape. He walked around the rest of the paths without further mishap. This act of quick-wittedness is now enshrined in the ceremony. Since that day, when the mayors approach the area known as Mortimer’s Leap, they have to sprint for approximately one hundred yards, ensuring that the weasel is keeping up.

Only when the role of ‘The Walking Weasel’ became an officially recognized position in 1661, to commemorate the restoration of the monarchy, did the same weasel perform the ceremony more than once. Indeed, it’s understood that the walk began to appeal to the weasel, as it came across the warrens of the local rabbits, which it could visit at other times of the year. The record for the number of walks undertaken by one weasel is 18 between 1872 and 1889 by Walter the weasel, whose son Barney succeeded him for a further 14 years. The ceremony has been performed nearly 540 times in a continuous line that hasn’t been broken by World Wars, Civil War, or the election of Margaret Thatcher.

The retreats where famous authors found inspiration – in pictures

Former president Barack Obama is to journey to the South Pacific island of Tetiaroa, once owned by Marlon Brando, to write his memoir. Here’s a look at where other famous authors found the inspiration to write