Tuesday, 31 October 2017

A word to my American friends

At the moment, my books are not available in the UK. They are shortly to be republished by Endeavour Press, but until that happy day you can only buy them in North America, through Simon & Schuster.

I blog about once a week and, given that I'm not selling any books in my own country, I see this as largely a public service. The public certainly seem to appreciate it, because I know lots of you read it. What I didn't realise, until I did my sums today, is that about a third of my blog readers are from the USA. So this is just to say that if you would like to click on THIS LINK and buy one of the books, I really would be most awfully grateful. Think of it as a contribution to my blog writing efforts – though if you read the book, you might find that you really enjoy it.

Thank you.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Edgehill: the first great battle of the English Civil War

Monday marked the 375th anniversary of the battle we now call the Battle of Edgehill, but what was known all those centuries ago as the Battle of Kineton. It was the first great battle of the English Civil War, an inconclusive affair which, nonetheless, left thousands dead and wounded. Estimates of the number killed vary wildly, but a casualty figure of 2,500 casualties (dead, wounded or captured) is often quoted.

There is still a small village at Kineton, but where much of the fighting took place is now Ministry of Defence land and closed to the public. Once a year the Kineton Officers' Mess hosts a dinner in commemoration of the battle and invites representatives of the sealed Knot, a Civil War re-enactment organisation. There is a talk by somebody who knows about the battle (this year it was Mr F Baldwin) and a small display of Civil War drill. I was lucky enough to be a guest this year, and, besides enjoying an extremely good meal, I now know much more about the battle than I did a fortnight ago.

Edgehill was a battle fought by accident. The Royalist army, led by Charles I came across scouts from the Parliamentarians, under the Earl of Essex, quite unexpectedly on a Sunday morning when the Parliamentarian forces were planning to observe the Sabbath. Essex himself was at church at Kineton.

Charles probably drew up his plans for the battle on the hill, more or less where you can see what looks like a castle tower in the photo below. It's actually a pub called the Castle, which wasn't there at the time.

Although a modern commander would enjoy the advantages of such high ground, 17th-century warfare was different. There were definite advantages to being at the top of a slight slope, but battles had to be fought on more or less flat land. Pikemen were key to battlefield strategy. An indication of the length of the pikes is given in the picture below and you can imagine the difficulty of manoeuvring over rough country, even without a hill. In order for pikes be used effectively, the infantry had to move as a solid block – an isolated pikeman would be a dead pikeman. Battles were therefore fought on ground that was more or less flat, preferably without too many fields and hedges to get in the way.

Both Charles and Essex wanted a battle that day. Although they had not been planning to meet, both saw the opportunity to deal a resounding blow against the enemy and stop the Civil War almost before it had started. It's likely that many of the troops believed that the whole thing was going to be over in a matter of months and they, too, wanted the chance to resolve the issue quickly.

Fortunately for the commanders, the land between Kineton and Radway was flat and relatively open, with streams and hedges marking off the sides of the field which made it harder for the forces to be flanked. The picture below shows what Charles I would see below him nowadays, although things have changed a lot with the area now being heavily cultivated and broken up into fields.

Charles' view was probably less misty. In 1642 the day was cold with light rain, but visibility was good, as opposed to the warm overcast weather in 2017.

Both armies drew up with cavalry on their flanks. The white farmhouse in the centre of the picture below marks the left of the Royalist line.

The right flank probably extended to beyond the brown field in the centre of this photograph.

This gives some idea of the size of the battlefield. The two armies totalled almost 30,000 men, although many of the Parliamentarians did not actually reach the field in time to fight – including, notably, one Oliver Cromwell.

The Royalists achieved early victories with successful cavalry charges on both wings, but as is often the case with cavalry, horses and riders became overexcited and galloped all the way to Kineton – lost in the mists in the photographs. Some of the Parliamentary horse rallied and returned to the field where they were able to give crucial support to the infantry while the Royalist infantry remained without cavalry support.

The result can be seen as a draw. The cavalry battle was won by the Royalists but the Parliamentarians probably got the better of the infantry fighting. However, the level of carnage left both sides withdrawing to lick their wounds and the next day the armies faced each other but neither moved forward to fight. After that the Parliamentarians yielded the field, making it technically a Royalist victory. Charles, however, failed to take advantage of his temporary control of the roads to London and remained in the area – seizing Banbury, of all places. (It's hardly a major strategic town – barely more than a village really.) The failure of the Royalists to take the opportunity to march directly on London may have undermined their chances of winning the war. By the time Charles did turn his attention to London, Parliament was ready for him and his inability to take the capital, with its arms manufacturers and its significant financial resources, crippled the rest of his campaign.

The English Civil War was horrendous. Four per cent of the entire population of England died during the war – probably nearer to 10% of the young men essential to an economy that was still largely agricultural. The casualty rate in Ireland was substantially higher: the exact level is still the subject of controversy. Yet nowadays, the English tend to romanticise it and the dinner night did provide a wonderful spectacle of men in very impressive uniforms. (There were women, too, but we’ll pretend they were all men for the purposes of historical accuracy.)

Are these Cavaliers or Roundheads? I've really no idea, as each regiment was uniformed differently (if the soldiers had uniforms at all) and they could tell which side they were on only by the sashes they tied round themselves ahead of the fight and most of this lot aren't wearing any sashes. The Royalists wore read and the Parliamentarians orange, which on a rainy day with dye technology fairly primitive meant that the differences weren't as clear as one might hope. The situation was further confused at Edgehill when some Parliamentarian cavalry defected en masse to the Royalists in mid battle, but forgot to change their sashes. Many of them were killed by their new allies.

Civil wars are always messy. The English Civil War was very messy indeed.

A word from our sponsor

My books are all available in the USA and Canada (click HERE for the link). Endeavour Press will be republishing them in the UK soon. If you contact Endeavour (info@endeavourpress.com) they will know that you are waiting for the books. That can't slow things down, can it?

Thank you.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Living with history

A few weeks ago I blogged about Marble Hill House and English Heritage’s plans for the property. I'm coming back to this because I think that the way that we fit historical buildings and landscapes into our modern world is important. This post provides a bit of an update and some more detail on the issues that "heritage" can raise.

[For a later post, including a lot of discussion of the research that English Heritage base their arguments on, see http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/marble-hill-18th-century-garden-21st-century-park/]

The essence of English Heritage’s plan is to carry out improvement works in the park and to develop significant parts of the park back toward more what they might have looked like in the 18th century. They have done detailed archaeological work and the plans are not fanciful, but based on the best possible evidence that they can gather. For those (and there are many of them) who believe that heritage is about restoring our historic past, the proposals are an exciting opportunity to restore grounds which were significant in the development of the English garden. For many local residents, this is a bunch of historians messing with a much loved park in order to rebuild something that may or may not have been there two and a half centuries ago.

Marble Hill Park

I leaned rather toward the second point of view and drafted a post attacking English Heritage and their plans for widespread tree felling. The words “Jane Austen theme park” may have appeared. Fortunately, I sent the draft to English Heritage for comment and John Watkins, their Head of Landscape and Gardens came to talk me through the plans and explain where I had got them wrong.

I learned a lot about the history of the park and quite a bit about the trees, but mainly I learned how the planning system is hardly the best way forward in moving projects like this to a satisfactory conclusion.

Woodman spare that tree

Marble Hill House is set within a small area of woodland (described as “wild wood”). The vegetation is mainly self-seeded. There is a lot of holly, ranging from small bushes to large trees. There is a thick canopy and little light reaches the ground, which is largely covered with ivy. A few animals – mainly squirrels and foxes – live there, but the density of the trees and the amount of ivy means that it is not an especially helpful habitat in terms of biodiversity. There are strong arguments that from the point of view of maintaining the grounds and improving the health of the trees generally, some clearing and coppicing would-be a positive step.

The house from the north

So far, so uncontroversial. Unfortunately, Richmond Council, in the interests of ensuring that no trees were unnecessarily removed, asked for a survey that counted every individual tree or shrub in the wood and a note of each one that was to go. The result was headlines like this one on Twitter.

A petition has been set up and, at the time of writing over 2,800 people have already signed it.

It’s a petition I would once have been happy to subscribe to, but two hours of looking at the site with Mr Watkins has made me see it in a somewhat different light.

Firstly, the majority of the 300+ "trees" are small, damaged, or near the end of their life. Anybody interested in the health of the woodland must appreciate that the current density of trees and uncontrolled undergrowth is not a healthy eco-system. The woodland floor gets little sunlight and is covered in ivy. It does not support wildlife. Some of beautiful trees in the area are difficult to see because of the scrub surrounding them and all of the trees suffer because they do not they do not get the light or nutrients they need to grow. Removal of many of these "trees" would not worry anybody who has been in and looked at them up close.

There are trees in the area which should be preserved. It's possible to argue about the merits of individual trees. For example, we looked at a yew that is scheduled for removal because of damage to the trunk which, it is argued, means it is not a healthy tree. However, looking at it with Mr Watkins he agreed that there is certainly room for disagreement on the point. There are several trees where it's not really possible to make a final decision on removal or retention at this stage, but the planning process means that all the trees that might be removed have to be listed. It would clearly be better if the planning consent was in two stages – one for the smaller shrubs that are definitely coming out and then a careful consideration separately of the larger trees that may or may not be removed later. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the way that planning applications work.

This oak show significant storm damage but is structurally sound and will be retained

More seriously, the details of the trees that are to be removed have been released ahead of the details of the trees that are to be planted. My concern that the current blocks of woodland will be replaced with a much more open view containing a few neatly laid out trees such as may have been planted in the 18th century turns out to have been mistaken. Yes, some trees will be removed and there will be a small number of trees planted in neat rows very unlike what is that at present. However, the northern margins of these blocks will be built up with additional planting to maintain the same sort of appearance from the north, whilst opening the area up to visitors. At present, the whole area is fenced off as the vegetation is thick and the ground-cover not conducive to walking.

Butcher's broom in the woodland. So called because it was traditionally used by butchers to clean their blocks

Some people will still be unhappy with the planned changes, but many people will be reassured if they only knew what they were. In any case, whether you like the proposed changes or not, it would surely be helpful if they were clearly explained ahead of any planning decision. The idea that the planning consents could be given in stages is surely worth looking at.

Butcher's broom again. This is a female plant (with berries)

Restoring the original gardens

Some of the problem with the discussions of what is planned for Marble Hill is that there are two distinct aspects to the work. Part of it is essentially about woodland management but this is being done in the context of attempts to restore the original 18th-century garden plan. As I explained in my previous post about Marble Hill, the gardens are important in tracing the development of landscape gardening in England. Henrietta Howard’s plans seem to combine the strict formality of gardens from the 17th century and before with the more informal approach to landscape that was, arguably, to find its finest expression in the works of Capability Brown.

English Heritage will argue that the restoration of parts of the 18th-century gardens in the apparently incongruous environment of a modern municipal park is actually very close to the original concept which saw different kinds of land-use sitting alongside each other. Whether the hidden pathways and wooded areas of an 18th-century garden actually make aesthetic or practical sense next to a 21st-century rugby pitch is a serious question and one which I think deserves to be seriously addressed. It does go to the whole question of how we protect England’s historical heritage within the context of the modern world. I'm not sure that the planning process is the best place to be having this discussion.

Self-seeded elm in the woodland. English Heritage at looking at possibly reintroducing elms to the park
I was very sceptical about the whole idea, but I must admit that John Watkins makes a convincing argument. When you explore these blocks of wild woodland in detail, sometimes stepping over the fence into areas that are not generally open to the public, a surprising amount of the 18th-century plan is still visible. Unfortunately, you really do have to be there together with an expert. The sheer quantity of vegetation means that photographs, whether taken at ground level or from the air, basically show lots of leaves. It's only when you stand with a guide you can see the gaps in the trees where open rides would have led through the woodland area all that time ago. One of the blocks has a more open area hidden at the centre. There is lots of ground-cover but no larger trees. The 18th-century plan shows that there was a secret flower garden at this point and English Heritage intend to restore it. A surprising amount of Lady Henrietta Howard's landscaping is still preserved, although it is visible only to a landscape archaeologist.

Living with heritage

It seems that everybody locally has a view on whether or not their favourite tree should be chopped down. (In at least one case, sadly, it must be, because the roots are beginning to attack the foundations of the house.) They all care about whether the whole of the park should still be open to dog walkers – a substantial element of the park using community. They care about the playing fields and the children's playground and the future of the local cafe. All these issues are being aired, but there doesn't seem to be any forum for a serious discussion of the heritage issues.

English Heritage are trying hard to engage with the public, as evidenced by the amount of time that they have been prepared to give to me, but this appears a dialogue of the deaf. English Heritage are only now learning just how deeply people feel about a park which many of them have been using on an almost daily basis since they were children. (The number of people who stood up at a public meeting and presaged their remarks with the statement that they had been walking their dogs there for over 40 years was eye opening.) Local people, on the other hand, know little, if anything, about the historical importance of the grounds and see only vandals who want to attack treasured woodland. How this mutual incomprehension is ever going to resolve itself into a plan generally acceptable to everybody is not clear. I would love to think that this blog might be a starting point. If anybody does want a conversation, you could begin by posting in the ‘Comments’ below. 

Valuing heritage

Any discussion of English Heritage's plans for Marble Hill – and, indeed, for many other sites – can't ignore the financial constraints that English Heritage works under. In this country we claim to be very proud of our heritage and it brings in a lot of money from tourists as well as giving much pleasure to the many people who visit heritage sites every year. Yet English Heritage has moved from being a government-funded organisation supported by taxation to being a charity which will soon be expected to raise the money that it needs to maintain England's heritage by charitable contributions.

Realistically, people are not going to put enough money into collection boxes for them to keep places like Marble Hill properly maintained. (If you do want to support English Heritage financially, you can join HERE.) The result is that many sites are now expected to generate income to cover their costs. Hence the plans for an on-site cafe, which have raised many complaints locally. Despite concerns that trees will be felled and the nature of the site will be changed, the cafe will not have any significant effect on woodland or on the park’s landscape. This is not to say that it's necessarily a good thing, but it does seem to be a necessary thing unless we are to accept that the park should not be properly maintained.

If the cafe doesn't raise the sort of money that English Heritage are hoping for then the plans could leave us with an elaborate exercise in landscaping that will soon become overgrown, dirty, and (given the number of hidden spaces in the woodland) potentially squalid and dangerous. Alternatively, English Heritage will have to make up the shortfall from its other income, leaving other properties short of resources. 

Of course, if this really is our English Heritage, one solution would be for the government to fund improvements to the landscaping from taxation, but while politicians can find money for their pet vanity projects, heritage funding is a victim of austerity and likely to remain so. English Heritage’s plans are therefore defined almost as much by the financial realities as by any ideal view of how the park should be presented. 


Whilst I'm not sure that I share English Heritage’s vision for Marble Hill, I do acknowledge that they are doing their best to meet what they see as their remit. English Heritage put significant resources into what is essentially a municipal park that they never asked to take responsibility for but which they were landed with as a result of the political changes discussed in my previous post. The park is, as I hope my photographs show, an amazingly beautiful place, free for anybody to enter and enjoy. Just because I may not agree with their future plans, doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the efforts that they are making.

I'm particularly grateful to Kate Pitt and John Watkins of English Heritage for giving me so much of their time and answering some very ignorant questions, and to the on-site archaeological team for explaining to amateurs like myself how they know so much about what the gardens would have originally looked like.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Red Room Tango

“I met her in a tango bar …” It’s the stuff of stories, plays and films, these tango bars where dancers pivot between the tables and dangerous liaisons form in the clouds of cigarette smoke. Sadly (or maybe not) the tango bar is almost entirely a product of fiction. Yes, there may be a bar at a tango club, but when the dancers are dancing they tend to take over the place, and, after the first couple of collisions, dancing round the tables is less fun than it sounds. But the idea still has a romantic appeal. What if you retreated from the rain and found yourself in a bar where people were just getting up and dancing. Can you imagine it?

Imagine no longer, for such a bar exists – and conveniently to hand near London’s Liverpool Street station. Theatre Delicatessen is at 2 Finsbury Avenue, EC2M 2PA. It’s a regular cafe bar, serving coffee, sandwiches and both alcoholic and soft drinks. Prices are what you would expect in this part of the world, but the toasted sandwiches are good and the staff are friendly. So far, so normal. But at 7.30 on a Tuesday night, the lights go down, tango music starts playing and gradually people get up and start to dance. By nine o’clock the dancers outnumber the drinkers, but it remains a regular bar with people sitting and watching. There are studio rooms off the cafĂ© space, so every so often, as one sort of class or another ends, people flood into the room and stop and stare. There is even someone wheeling a bicycle across the dance floor. It’s a milonga (tango dance party) but in a space that is definitely not reserved for dancers.

Somewhere around ten o’clock, Alfredo Martin Espindola starts singing sad country tango songs to his guitar and the dancers pause and then translate his singing into movement and the people come and go and the bar staff serve, quietly but efficiently, and Spaniards explain the lyrics and, outside, it starts to rain. It’s a tango bar. It’s definitely worth a visit.

For me, the atmosphere was quite a change from the rather intense milongas that I’m used to. There was rather more talking and rather less dancing. The place is open until 11.00, so there’s no rush. Have a chat. Have a drink. Take a turn or two around the floor.

As far as dancing goes, the place works well. Tables are pushed back, so you have room to dance. The floor was usually busy, but not over-crowded. (The photo was taken at the end of the evening as it got quieter.) The sound system is good and there wasn’t too much background noise from the bar. In fact, if anything, the place was on the quiet side, without the buzz you often get at a milonga. It was definitely a chilled Tuesday evening rather than a lively weekend feel. Inevitably, but with some justification, women complained of a shortage of men.

The floor is some sort of lino-type tiling, easy enough to move on, but you have to take care where the tiles are not perfectly level, so you can trip on the joins. The dancers all knew what they were doing and the line of dance moved easily round the floor.

Red Room Tango is never going to be the highlight of the week, but for an after-work venue on a Tuesday, it hits the spot really well. And if you fancy watching some dancers while you enjoy an early-evening beer, it’s somewhere you should definitely consider. It’s a tango bar (but without the cigarette smoke). What’s not to like?

Friday, 6 October 2017

A book review that has nothing to do with history

I don't think I've ever reviewed a horror novel before. It's a completely random change from the historicals that feature here fairly regularly, but it's by a lovely author from New Zealand who spent her summer digging up Roman remains on Hadrian's Wall so there is a sort of historical connection. And it lets me say 'archetype', which is my word of the month.

Here we go.

Painted by Kirsten McKenzie

If you are going to see just one horror movie, I recommend Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods. It’s a horror movie that deconstructs horror movies and then sends the whole genre up while remaining a horror movie and with, arguably, the most horrific ending of all horror movies ever. It’s both terrifying and hilarious.

I mention this now because Whedon’s explanation of what makes a horror film fits so wonderfully to Kirsten McKenzie’s venture into the genre: Painted.

According to Whedon, the archetypal horror story takes a group of people to an isolated location. On the way they will meet the Harbinger, who will try to warn them away. McKenzie’s Harbinger is a local farmer, who warns her heroine to flee the isolated old house.

“If … you knew what was good for you, you’d not stay here. Place isn't right. Never has been.”

There will be five people in the house: the scholar, the jock, the idiot, the whore and the virgin. McKenzie’s five characters fit these archetypes without too much of a stretch. One by one, they will die. In Whedon’s view, the virgin is always the last to be threatened and her death is optional.

McKenzie’s characters die one by one as their souls become trapped in the portraits painted by a ghost of one of the previous owners of the house. Additional creepiness is introduced by assorted other ghosts, spectral dogs howling in the darkness outside, and the crying of dead children trapped on an island in an iced-over pond. Did I forget to mention that the house has been cut off by a blizzard? It’s fair to say that every horror-story trope features. This is not a criticism at all: Joss Whedon throws all the standard horrors into The Cabin in the Woods and that’s what makes it so good. Horror needs to be full-on if it is to work and, though McKenzie holds back on the gore, Painted doesn’t let anything pass that it can get away with.

If I have any complaints about the number of extra twists packed in, it is that sometimes they become a little over-complicated. Some, dare I say it, don't entirely make sense or are just a little too tortuous for me to be able to follow late at night (and what better time to read a book like this?). Still, it is a ghost story, so a strictly logical plot isn’t an absolute requirement.

There is a more complex story in the relationship of the characters than at first appears. I'm not going to give it away, because the shock is a good one. If you're like me, it won't come as a complete surprise but you will have a growing sense of unease about one of the people trapped in the house and when everything finally becomes all too clear you will feel a definite frisson.

The five are there to value artworks and antiques ahead of disposal following the death of the house's owner. McKenzie works in the antiques business and the minutiae of the characters’ cataloguing efforts is convincing and surprisingly gripping, especially as they are regularly interfered with by supernatural forces.

[Possible spoiler in this paragraph.] McKenzie does break away from Whedon’s model when it comes to the ending. The advantage of this is that it provides something new and edgy and, in its way, far more horrific than the conclusion that Joss Whedon (and most readers) would have expected. Respect to her for daring to be different, but I'm not sure that it works. Whedon's point is that horror stories have been handed down through millennia, always following the same basic plot and are hence simultaneously terrifying and reassuring. Making them terrifying and then a bit more terrifying is, arguably, a step too far.

McKenzie has blogged about how she now writes very quickly and this produces a pacey style entirely suited to a gripping story. It's an easy read and will hold anybody who likes this sort of thing. And if you don't like this sort of thing, why on earth are you reading it? The cover surely told you what to expect.