Writing Portfolio


Cocktail hour, part four

When getting ready to pour myself a Scotch-and-ginger recently, I grabbed hold of a tumbler which has cocktail measurements on the side. We have a set of four of these – one each for gin, rum, vodka and whiskey (I’ll let the Irish-American variant of the spelling pass); they’re square-shaped and each side has the measurements for a different cocktail marked on it. Out of curiosity, I had a look at the ones for the whiskey glass and found that one of the cocktails listed, the cablegram, wasn’t far off what I was planning to drink anyway. So, naturally, I opted to go the extra mile and turn my spirit-plus-mixer into a cocktail.

I’d not come across a cablegram before, it not being featured in our Vintage Cocktails book. It consists of whisky – over three fluid ounces of whisky if we’re going by the measuring-line on the glass, which we might as well do in the absence of any other instructions – mixed with a teaspoon of sugar and the juice of half a lemon, plus ice, topped with ginger ale. If three fluid ounces of whisky seems like quite a bit, I should point out that that is because it is; for reference purposes, a standard pub measurement of whisky (or any other spirit for that matter) in this country is 25 millilitres, which converts into less than one fluid ounce.

To all intents and purposes, it’s a whisky sour with ginger ale. On second thoughts, make that a pretty stiff whisky sour with ginger ale, for over three fluid ounces is a lot more whisky than I would usually put in a glass! But most enjoyable.


Interesting things in Wiltshire pubs (part 2)

Time to continue our tour of Wiltshire pubs that contain interesting things. From Avebury, let us journey further west (just under 15 miles by road) to Lacock. This village (or is it a town? It was given a market charter in the Middle Ages, which would technically make it a town even though there’s no longer a market) has remained unchanged for many years, with most of the buildings dating back to at least the eighteenth century. Lacock’s remarkably unspoiled appearance has made it a favourite with the makers of TV costume dramas, and it has appeared in plenty of those – Cranford, two versions of Pride and Prejudice, Moll Flanders and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (to name but a few) were filmed here, while the stately home, Lacock Abbey (“the birthplace of photography”, for that was where William Henry Fox-Talbot took the first photograph, in 1835), was Wolf Hall in Wolf Hall as well as being used as part of Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter films.

Lacock, which is almost entirely owned by the National Trust, has several pubs, including another Red Lion, but the one we’re interested in here is the George. As a pub name, the George also has more than one origin – either from St George or King George. The former has been recognised as the patron saint of England since the fourteenth century, although veneration of him in England goes back further. As for kings, there have been six of those but crucially that was the name of every King of Great Britain between 1714 and 1830 (starting with George I and ending with George IV), which is why the eighteenth century is sometimes known in this country as the Georgian period.

Inside the George in Lacock, we have our second unusual or interesting thing. In one of the rooms, there’s an old fire-place and in front of that is displayed an old spit or roasting-jack, as used for turning big joints of meat in front of open fires in the days before ovens. What is unusual about this one is that it was dog-operated, for it is linked by way of a pulley system to a large wheel in which a small dog was placed – the dog would run in the wheel, and that would in turn power the spit.

While such an arrangement seems odd at first, when you think about it it seems hardly surprising that people would have thought to get an animal to power the roasting-jack, for (as far as humans were concerned) being a ‘spit-boy’ was a low-paid, monotonous and – thanks to being up close to a roaring fire for long periods of time – uncomfortable job (see Tony Robinson’s TV series The Worst Jobs in History for more on this). Getting a dog to do it instead seems to have been a widespread practice by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – widespread enough for there to have been a particular breed of dog, long of body and short of leg, that was called the turnspit. Also known as the kitchen dog or the cooking dog, the breed does not seem to have been particularly well-documented, and it was more or less extinct by the mid-to-late nineteenth century, by which time automated roasting-jacks, powered by steam or by the hot air rising from the fire, were fairly widespread.


Interesting things in Wiltshire pubs (part 1)

Back to Wiltshire, that county in Southern England well-known for its ancient stone circles, Salisbury Cathedral, several Army bases and the fact that the M4 and the A303 go through it. In recent years it has played host to the reintroduction of the Great Bustard, a species of bird which became extinct in Britain in the 1830s (it’s Wiltshire’s county bird; more on that in the unlikely event of my actually seeing one). What is perhaps less well-known is that a couple of pubs in the county have some rather odd things in them…

First up is the Red Lion in Avebury

That’s a fairly common pub name, the most common in the country in fact. It’s one of those pub names that has more than one origin. A a red lion was the personal badge of John of Gaunt (the “time-honour’d Lancaster” who does the “this scepter’d isle” speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II, in real life a younger son of Edward III and the father of Henry IV). It was also the Royal arms of Scotland, which were merged with the Royal arms of England when King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. But then again, the Red Lion in Avebury could derive from the coat-of-arms of an eighteenth-century lord of the manor, Lieutenant-General Williamson, which can be seen on display in the local church.

Anyway – the pub. The Red Lion in Avebury does have something that makes it unique, for it claims to be the only pub in the world that’s located within an ancient stone circle. Since I cannot think of any other ancient stone circle which has part of a village inside it, they’re probably right. So if you want to go for a pint in a pub that is truly unique, this one’s worth a visit.

Inside, there’s more. A mural on the wall shows a map of southern England, with the Line of St Michael marked out. This is probably the most famous ley line in the country, running diagonally from Cornwall to Suffolk, passing through such places as St Michael’s Mount, Glastonbury, Avebury and Bury St Edmunds, among others. Its saintly dedication derives from the fact that there are several churches or places dedicated to said archangel on its length – for example, the hilltop church at Brentor in Devon and the ruined tower atop Glastonbury Tor, as well as the afore-mentioned Cornish island. Some people get very excited by this; occasionally at Avebury, you may even run into someone who’s brought his divining-rods with him. Although I regard the notion of ley lines with a degree of cynicism, a journey along this one would certainly make for an interesting travelogue. Reading up on this, I note that I’m not the only cynic, for Geoffrey Ashe (in Mythology of the British Isles) refers to them as “modern myth” although he does note that “Avebury is at the point where it [the St Michael Line] cuts a parallel of latitude distant from the equator by exactly one-seventh of the earth’s circumference”; make of that what you will, if anything.

Of more tangible interest in the pub, though, is the well. Yes, the village well in Avebury – 86 feet deep, dating back to around 1600 and “believed to be the last resting place of at least one unfortunate villager” – is located inside the pub. How many pubs can claim to have a well inside them? And even if they do, how many of those wells have had a glass top put over them so they can serve as a table?

The presence of the well would seem to indicate that there wasn’t always a pub on this site – and there’s evidence for that, in the form of a map of Avebury drawn up by the antiquarian William Stukeley in 1724. His main purpose was to mark the locations of the stones themselves, and the locations of spots where stones had once stood, but he marked out other key points as well – his map shows a pub (“The Inn”) that is located on the other side of the road to the present-day Red Lion, although crucially (as far as this particular study is concerned) he didn’t mark the location of the village well.

To be continued...


Broadway Tower

To Worcestershire, where I was keen to indulge my love of climbing towers with Broadway Tower, an eighteenth-century folly located on the top of Broadway Hill, the second-highest point in the Cotswolds (it’s 1,024 feet above sea level, whereas Cleeve Hill in Gloucestershire is 1,083 feet).

Built to resemble a castle at a time when follies were all the rage among the landed classes, Broadway Tower is 65 feet tall and was the brainchild of the famous landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown although it designed by James Wyatt. It was completed in 1798. The money for the project was provided by Lady Coventry; the second wife of the sixth Earl of Coventry, she was curious as to whether a beacon atop Broadway Hill – a hill on which beacons were lit on special occasions – could be seen from her home in Worcester (22 miles away). The story goes that a fire was lit on the hill and, after noting that she could see it from Worcester, Lady Coventry celebrated by bankrolling the building of the folly (as you do).

In the nineteenth century, Broadway Tower played its part in early moves to preserve historic buildings. In the early part of that century it was owned by Sir Thomas Phillips, a book collector whose ambition was to own a copy of every book in the world; he didn’t achieve that but he was able to amass a collection of over 60,000 manuscripts and printed books, some of which he kept at the tower along with his printing press. Later that same century, it was used as a retreat for people involved with the Arts & Crafts movement like the writer and textile-designer William Morris; even though Broadway Tower wasn’t particularly old, he was so impressed by the place that he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877.

It’s sometimes described as being built in the ‘Saxon’ style, but I find that a bit dubious as stone castles only really started to be built in this country after the Norman Conquest. Up close, it’s a three-sided (and three-storey) structure, and the views from ground level are pretty good. I was there on a particularly windy day, but that didn’t really matter too much; more importantly, there was no rain and the sun was poking through the clouds – a lovely November day, in other words. On the way up (there are two narrow spiral staircases, one designated as ‘up’ and the other as ‘down’), the first and second floors have little exhibits dedicated to William Morris and also to the Royal Observer Corps (nearby there is a memorial to the crew of a Whitley bomber that crashed close to the tower in 1943, and there’s also a Cold War nuclear bunker close by).

From the top, the views are amazing – it’s said that at least a dozen counties can be seen from it (sources vary, though, but that’s probably more to do with local authority boundary changes over the years). As well as the cities of Birmingham and Coventry, you can see as far west as the mountains of Wales and as far east as the Chilterns. My only regret was that I hadn’t bought my binoculars.


The Writers' Museum

Up in Edinburgh recently, I had a walk around the Old Town and, after enjoying the view from Castle Rock and checking out St Giles’ Cathedral, I chanced upon the Writers’ Museum, located in a courtyard just off the Royal Mile.

Well, seeing as I occasionally volunteer at Dr Johnson’s House down in London (and had just chanced upon a pub close to the castle which has a plaque outside saying that Samuel Johnson had dined there with James Boswell in 1770), I had to go in and have a look around. The building itself is called Lady Stair’s House and dates back to 1622 (as can be deduced from that year being carved onto the lintel over the front door) although it’s named after a woman – the widow of the Earl of Stair – who bought it in 1719. Having restored it in the late nineteenth century, Lord Rosebery (briefly Prime Minister in the 1890s; Winston Churchill later quipped that he “outlived his future by ten years and his past by more than twenty”) donated it to the city of Edinburgh for use as a museum in 1907.


The museum is a delightful building whose three floors (accessed by two staircases, one a spiral and the other, main one having uneven stairs – an old anti-burglar trick) are devoted to three of Scotland’s most famous writers (two of whom were born in Edinburgh): Robert Burns (1759-96), Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894).

Burns, now regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, collected old folk songs from across Scotland (something that was being done by various writers across Europe at the time) as well as writing his own material, which includes ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘Address to a Haggis’ (as recited after the haggis is piped in at a Burns Night dinner) and that poem in which he says that the “best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” do something in the Scots dialect that I can’t pronounce although I do know that it translates as ‘often go wrong’. The artefacts of his in the museum include a cast of his skull (made when his widow, who outlived him by 38 years, was laid to rest alongside him) and a sword-stick – a slim sword concealed in a walking-stick, which he had because he worked as an exciseman as well as being a writer.

I’d already seen the Scott Monument on Princes Street, a large Gothic tower that I was not surprised to learn is the largest monument to a writer anywhere in the world (it is not far from Waverley Station, Edinburgh’s mainline railway station which I suspect is the only train station in the world that’s named after a novel). The museum has Scott-related items of a more personal nature, such as his childhood rocking-horse (with one foot-hold higher than the other, for he suffered from polio as a child) and a lock of his hair. I’ve often thought that Scott – who met Burns when he was 15 – is one of those writers I should read more of – I’ve only read two of his books; Ivanhoe many years ago, after watching a TV adaptation of it, while a couple of years back I made heavy work of Waverley. Scott, I was intrigued to learn, was made a baronet not for his writing but for finding the Scottish crown jewels (which hadn’t been used since the seventeenth century and were thought to have been lost), and he was also the man who co-ordinated George IV’s visit to Edinbugh in 1822, a spectacular affair that did much to establish tartan as a potent symbol of Scottish identity (it had previously been banned in the wake of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745) and only took three weeks to plan.

The part dedicated to Stevenson is in the basement. This contains a wooden cupboard, once owned by Stevenson’s father, that was made by no less a person than William Brodie, better known as Deacon Brodie, a notorious eighteenth-century public figure in Edinburgh; a respectable cabinet-maker, locksmith and city councillor by day (he had the title ‘deacon’ not out of anything to do with religion but because he was head of a trade guild), he was also a thief and a burglar (many of his victims being people who he had made locks for!) by night. The pub named after him on the Royal Mile, not far from where he was hanged in 1788, plays on this dichotomy by showing both sides of his personality on either side of the sign. Amost a century later,  Deacon Brodie would serve as the main inspiration for Stevenson’s novella Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There’s also some interesting information about Treasure Island (he came up with the map first, and worked the story around that). Although his literary reputation did for a time suffer at the hand of those snobs of the Bloomsbury Set, Stevenson’s legacy has been enormous – just think of how many stories derive from those two that I’ve mentioned! As for me, I’ve always meant to read some of his travel writing but, as with more Scott, it’s just something I don’t seem to have got around to.

There were some pictures of other Scottish writers on the walls; I was pleased to find a photograph of John Buchan, although the most impressive picture was the tapestry depiction of Burns, Scott and Stevenson.

Finally, there’s currently an exhibition at the Writers’ Museum devoted to a modern Scottish writer – Ian Rankin, for 2017 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Rebus books, the Edinburgh detective having made his first appearance in 1987’s Knots and Crosses. Rankin wrote that after having the idea of updating Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde into then-modern Edinburgh, which is why the reader is for a time led to suspect that the troubled detective is also the villain of the piece (and he could easily have been, for at the time Rankin had no plans to bring him back for more). I like the Rebus novels, to the extent that I made a point of seeking out the Oxford Bar when I was in Edinburgh last year, so I loved that there was an exhibition devoted to them at the museum.

All in all, well worth a visit.