Monday, June 14, 2010

Ah Come On – it’s only banter between friends!

What a lot of hot air is being blown around about the ‘ABE – Anyone but England’ T-shirts; the refusal of many Scots and Welsh to support the only British team in the World Cup and the overwhelming excuse that it is all ‘ a bit of fun – really.

Where’s your sense of humour for heaven’s sake – ABE T-Shirts? well they’re a bit of a laugh really; and anyway it’s all in fun where did you English put your sense of humour?

Now I have just read one of the funniest articles concerning debt reduction by Jeremy Clarkson

With his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, Jeremy suggests that the UK should cut off one of its limbs (Scotland) to save the body. To be fair to him, Jeremy does point out that the advantages to Scotland itself would be many, but the tone of the article is (to this cynic) amusingly mocking and decidedly humorous; and surely not be taken seriously – and after all it’s only a bit of fun – really!

Alas, it seems our cousins north of the border are sadly lacking in a sense of humour when it comes to taking the Michael out of those worthies – the comments themselves indicate that some things just aint funny!

Indeed a Mr Bob Seivwright even goes so far as to call our Jeremy a racist!

Sorry you would be surprised how much of the Scots don’t want to be detached, 20% of what figure you quoted. I am sure you are a little bit short of ideas to write about, so we will let your little bit of racism go for now.- Bob Seivwright June 13, 2010 5:59 AM BST”

Now Bob, let me get this right, you think that Jeremy is racist for suggesting that Scotland is actively pursuing independence – so why do you want to remain in a union with us? Surely the most racist of all people must be Alex Salmond then!

And you just might be interested in the work of Dr David Goldstein of University College London who proved that there is very little genetic difference between the people of the British Isles :

"One tends to think of England as Anglo-Saxon," Dr. Goldstein said. "But we show quite clearly there was not complete replacement of existing populations by either Anglo-Saxons or Danes. It looks like the Celts did hold out."

(Taken from the New York Times article of May 27th 2003 entitled “ Y Chromosomes Sketch New Outline of British History” By Nicholas Wade and reproduced here  - itself an irony)

The only true differences between the English and their so called Celtic cousins are cultural ones, not racial. So if neither the Scots nor the English are genetically racially different we cannot be accused of being racist towards each other.

So while you may berate Jeremy for his lack of talent or his xenophobia, you may not call him a racist – for you are not of another race my friend, merely a different culture – and after 300 years of political and geographical union even that is not so different.

Scots drink whisky and wear kilts when dancing the fling (and I won’t go into the differences between the original plaid and the present day kilt which was the brain child of an engl .... oh well, we won’t go there!)

The English drink cider and wear straw hats with ribbons when dancing the Flamborough Sword Dance. – This of course is merely generalisation for example and I well aware of the unique clog dances of the northern English counties and the differences between the ‘uniform’ of Morris dancing!

If we concentrate of what differentiates us from others we create an artificial division between us usually done with a sense of self righteousness that ‘we are not as others are’. Which is foolish beyond measure because basically we are all exactly as others are.

This seems to have escaped those that took poor Jeremy seriously (really you lot where IS your sense of humour –it’s all in fun – really!)

For instance poor Norman MacDonald is positively frothing at the mouth -

“.....the English have always been so superior in everything they do, why not be totally honest and admit to looking down your noses at anyone from outside a certain geographical region ... this small(South Western) corner has treated themselves AS England and the rest of the country, as well as the Scots and Irish, as second-class (or worse) citizens.

Guess what...we don't care.

By simply not being English we all feel better off. At least we feel an identity. The rest of the world doesn't really hate you (except the French) despite us all having a great laugh at trying to guess how much further up your own arses your collective national psyche can disappear...”

And then, perhaps feeling that he may have been a trifle strident about the 50 million or so who inhabit the larger bit of this island (after all he is inclusive and except no–one) he shrugs it off with

Only joking really.....I quite like the English.....Good luck with the World Cup (40 years of dreaming) and pounding the might of Bangladesh at rounders."Norman MacDonald : June 13, 2010 12:16 PM BST

Ah – now I get it; Mr MacDonald is seriously displeased with Mr Clarkson’s intemperate remarks about cutting Scotland free and finds it unamusing. Unlike his more moderate take on the situation which is – after all – only in fun! Got It – I think.

A Mr Marcus Fila – an English man – responding in kind to Jeremy’s witticism suggested that we instigate a very tight immigration system for those wishing to travel south of the border.

This did not please James Williamson – in fact he got a little huffy!

Also, what about all the Scots and Scottish descendants who are running every aspect of your country because you do not have enough natural talent to do so yourself. England would fade into oblivion without themJames Williamson: June 13, 2010 10:57 AM BST

Mr Williamson – for heaven’s sake, why get so personal over a little bit of fun and banter between friends! Mind you if that’s what you think about your friends I’d hate to get on the wrong side of you.

Some people north of the existing border obviously missed the obvious - James, my dear  (this is another James) – Jeremy was suggesting that England saves itself some money by setting Scotland free! Saving the body by cutting off a limb, so to speak;

James however seems to have missed that point -

“Mr Clarkson, I have always though that your mouth was as big as you are, I am now happy to have been proved right. You ask your egotistical self, why if we in Scotland are such a burden, why don’t you let us go.? Why the need to hold onto us?. With your ego a sencible [sic] reply is not expected.” James Lambie June 13, 2010 2:14 AM BST

Dearie me James; now that is not nice. Jeremy indeed wanted to let you go, he was very adamant about that fact; but well let’s not allow facts to get in the way of a good ol’ personal attack – all in fun you understand!!

You know, the real amusing part of the story is that Jeremy actually suggests the border be placed north of York – of course if you didn’t know that he is actually a Yorkshire man himself – you might miss that bit of whimsy!

Now there was one or two who actually used wit to attack the author – indeed, look you, a Mr Evan Jenkins wrote:

“Jeremy is a serious commentator with an [sic] firm grip on politics and everything else. He is terribly funny because he often says what English men secretly believe deep down in their wee hearts- before they moved out of home anyway- and everyone not in a bankrupt, decayed, damp and small island laughs doubly that the English still feel they're special somehow.

Jeremy is why England is now so... tiresomely mediocre. The world would pity but somehow no-one cares much. Still: 2 World Wars and 1 World cup, what?” - June 13, 2010 1:52 AM BST

... however, I suspect Mr Jenkins is a Welshman – so it doesn’t count.

And finally Mark O’Hara goes to the heart of the problem

“Does anyone in England actually think that remarks like "funny skirts and ginger hair" are witty? Does anyone anywhere think Adrian Clarkson is funny?” Mark OHare

Well Michaela - (if Jeremy has now morphed into an ‘Adrian’ I can get into the act too) - that is indeed the question.

I could ask if anyone in Scotland actually thinks that an ‘Anyone But England’ T-Shirt is witty? Apparently many do.

I could indeed ask the people of England if they considered these small selection of witticisms emanating from Scotland in response to a not-to-be-taken-seriously article are funny, humorous or whatever?

Some might call them humorous; but some may equally claim they indicate nothing less than cultural superiority bordering on hatred – what you choose to believe of course depends on your preferred point of view. And in the comments there are indeed some very unedifying remarks by English people too.

And that of course is the anatomy of Division exemplified in Norman’s rant ‘By simply not being English we all feel better off ‘– instead of similarities we will dwell on what separates us – and in doing so we create a division between two parts of the same people.

Such divisions feed the hatred of those who glory in divisiveness rather than similarity. In focusing on division we create a culture where those we are different from are believed to be inferior to ourselves.

And that, my friends, is NOT funny.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dost thou goest a Mothering?

It’s March 14th – it’s Sunday March 14th – the fourth Sunday in Lent. It’s the day that the Lenten dietary restrictions are relaxed in memory of the miraculous five loaves and two fishes – It’s Simnel cakes and violets - It’s Mothering Sunday; and I am peeved!!

I am English, my children are English, so why this fixation on the American upstart Mothers’ Day – rather than our ancient tradition of Mothering Sunday?

The memory of homage paid to mothers goes back into the mists of time in this country. Some say that its origins can be found in the Roman Spring festival honouring their Mother Goddess Cybele. It certainly occurs right in the beginning of spring, and there are a number of similar celebrations in honour of a number of similar spring goddesses throughout the world – (in fact Easter is a direct descendent of the Saxon Fertility Goddess Eostra),

But whatever the ancient origins were, with the spread of Christianity many of the pagan festivals were adopted and amended for the new culture and beliefs.

And so we see a new tradition developing, of pious Christians wending their way back to visit their mother church on this day in order to attend the Laetare Sunday Mass honouring the Virgin Mary. After the reformation a similar service was continued; bolstered by the epistle listed for the fourth Sunday in Lent, “Jerusalem which is above is free, which is Mother to us all” - Galatians 4.26.

The activities that grew out of this religious requirement also grew out of the conditions of the day. Many young people were hired out as farm workers or domestic servants, and their time was strictly limited. Deeming this day a holy-day with a duty to return to their home or ‘mother’ church also meant that they had the opportunity to visit their earthly mothers as well.

And like all children, they knew the value of bringing with them a small present for Mum!

Because so many young girls were in service it became traditional to bake the Simnel cake (simila being the Latin word meaning fine, wheaten flour from which it is made) with its rich topping of baked marzipan and eleven balls depicting the loyal apostles of Christ.

However, there may be an older version. My grandmother, raised in rural Yorkshire, always put twelve around the edges and one in the centre. This she told me was for the twelve months in a year- plus the one in the centre to remind us of who created us all. She was a Yorkshire Methodist and not given to flights of fancy.

However, my great-aunt – a recognised expert on English farm traditions – and (say it softly) suspected of being a witch, dismissed such claims of religious fervor. They were, she confidently stated, twelve around the edges to echo the months in the year – plus one in the centre for the mother goddess who ruled the turning of the wheel – and all together they made thirteen which added up to the yearly lunar cycle.

I was an idealistic child and liked my aunt. I believed accordingly.

Actually it matters not where it came from, what matters now is that we do not forget that our tradition of Mothering Sunday is much different from the American imposed one of making the shopkeepers richer in May.

Girls trotting home with Simnel cakes lodged in their baskets were joined by farm lads with bunches of violets clutched in their large hands. Small gifts, from the heart for mothers they had left behind. They would later return to their place of work with their mother’s blessing.

Robert Herrick was very familiar with the tradition of Mothering Sunday and of the Simnel cake.

I’ll to thee a Simnel bring
‘gainst thou goes a Mothering;
so that, when she blesseth thee
Half that blessing thou’lt give to me.
– Herrick : Hesperides 1647

And surely I cannot be the only one who remembers when flower sellers gathered the violets and bunched them up for children to give to mothers at only 6d a bunch?

So I’m peeved, because I have just phoned my son, and advised him of the long tradition of Mothering Sunday; – he tells me I’ll get my card in May.

But after about a thirty minute diatribe on the real traditions of Mothering Sunday he has promised to go out and look for a bunch of violets; however I am not hopeful!

And as the possibilities of getting the daughter to bake a Simnel cake are virtually non-existent I’m off to sulk.

However, I have put in my orders for next year; and they have promised ‘to goest a Mothering’ like the best of them.

Which is one small step in returning to our English heritage in our house again!!

Have YOU phoned your Mother yet?????

Monday, March 8, 2010

They’re racing at Kipplingcotes!

Do you fancy a bit of a gamble on the horses? Visiting Yorkshire in March? Well the first meeting for 2010 is not until the 14th May at York – but if you really want to go to where the action is – get out to Kipplingcotes on the 18th March where it’s all happening... again!

Forget Ascot – that’s only been going since 1711; Epsom Downs is a mere child, born in 1780 – but Kipplingcotes? Well that is a different matter; Kipplingcotes is THE King in the sport of Kings!

And where on earth is Kipplingcotes I hear you ask? Well it is classified as a ‘small hamlet’ close to Market Weighton (also spelled Wicstun by the purists) and is located in what I still refer to as the ‘East Riding of Yorkshire’.

It is also the home of the oldest horse race in England. Horses and riders competed against each other for the first time in 1519 – but for the life of me I cannot find out why! What caused the first intrepid horsemen to put themselves and their horses to the test in what can be the most contrary county for weather conditions in March

The reason seems lost in time; but today it is still a proud tradition, one that has been carried on throughout the passage of time - without fail. In fact there is a clause, dating back to the race’s endowment in 1669, that states if the race misses a year it can never be run again.

This has placed some pressure on the organisers in time past, such as 1947, when the weather was so bad that even the farmers of East Yorkshire were reluctant to put their horses to the test; - things were looking bad; when one local farmer took it upon himself to walk a solitary cart horse around the course, ensuring that the conditions of the endowment were met. They breed ‘em tough in Yorkshire!!

Like all races the Kipplingcote Derby has its own set of rules –so for anyone considering entering here are some details you may wish to know.

First; riders must weigh in at a minimum of ten stones (or whatever it is now – one hopes the race official follow tradition rather than new fangled changes) –but this excludes the saddle. Anyone who doesn’t use the flat English saddle is probably carrying too much weight.

And this can be important because horses can be of any age – as indeed can be riders. One of the most successful ‘jockeys’ is Ken Holmes of Cliffe near Selby, who is 78 this year. He last won the race in 2002 and holds the record with 10 wins.

However, I understand that while the winner gets £50, the second place receives the sum of the entry fees, which can often outweigh the first prize – so there truly is no shame in coming second in the Kipplingcotes Derby!!

The course itself is extremely challenging. Not for these hardy souls the boring flat green swards of Beverley and their ilk; no this course provide a true test of horse and rider.

Starting at the now defunct railway station it meanders along farm tracks and back lanes; and while there has been no jockey fatalities, sadly some horses have succumbed to the pressure and collapsed. Perhaps age may be a factor in that.

The winning post is near the Londesborough World farm, where most people gather to see the eager competitors heading for home.

There is an excellent record of the 2009 race here; it seems that even after almost 500 years the race is still going strong.

So if you want somewhere to go on March 18th this year; if you are fascinated by the bond between horse and rider – don’t bother with Ascot or Epsom, head straight for Kipplingcotes and the 491st running of the Kipplingcotes Derby.

But you had better take a flask of hot tea and ‘something’ with you, it gets a little chilly in March, and the facilities are a little basic. But it’s a great day out for all that.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Life, Death and Politics in Newark

This is an English Heritage blog, but there is no need to be insular so I have it on the best authority, (My maternal great aunt) that the courteous greeting to any Welsh man or woman today is “'n ddedwydd St Dafydd s Ddiwrnod

I may not have the accent right but my heart’s in the right place!

So let’s go to visit Newark-on-Trent in the county of Nottinghamshire. I love Newark; it has a fabulous history which still feels so real and immediate, and is all around you as you wander through the streets.

And if you wander past the NatWest building you might glimpse a plaque mounted high upon the wall, which you probably won’t be able to read.

It marks the site of Hercules Clay’s residence in the seventeenth century, and a remarkable tale of ghostly warnings incredibly coming to pass.

Newark in the Civil War was defiantly for the King (and as I took my allegiance in this spat from The Children of the New Forest I raise my feathered hat to them!)

After Charles I raised his standard in Nottingham, the royalist town of Newark was first attacked in 1643 by the malignant forces of Parliament.  Dwelling in a rather grandiose house in Stodman Street, was one unlikely named Hercules Clay, a rich merchant and an Alderman of the town, - Hercules was a king’s man.

On the night of 11th March 1643 he had his first dream. He dreamed that his fine house was in flames and his family was in grave danger. He apparently awoke in fright, but probably considered this was just a bad dream and possibly due to a rather indigestible supper.

He settled down and went back to sleep when once again this vivid dream of fire and flames brought him wide awake. One can only imagine with what anxiety he settled down again, only to be woken once more from a frightful dream of fire, flame and destruction.

Hercules was a god-fearing man, and he took this as a divine warning and gathering his family together, they raced out of the house. As the family cleared the building a bomb, aimed by the Parliament forces and directed at the so-called Governor’s House right opposite, dropped short.

Crashing through the roof and exploding in a roar of flames the incredible dream of Hercules Clay came true. There in front of his eyes his home was destroyed by the fire and flame he had so prophetically dreamed about.

Hercules could tell a miracle when he saw one, and so he left two bequests to the town. The first was £100 to support a sermon to be preached in St Mary Magdalene Church, and a second £100, the interest from which was to provide penny loaves for the poor of Newark, so long as they had listened to the sermon!

The tradition still continues today – well the sermon does; the penny loaves no longer are provided as the money ran out (a sign of the times perhaps) and indeed, it was said that the unruly behaviour of the not-so-needy people of the town may have had something to do with it as well.

Having said that; it was whispered in my ear that the loaves are still distributed but only to the choristers present at the service to remember Alderman Hercules Clay and his remarkable escape. I offer that information for what it is worth, as I cannot corroborate it.

That was a story of Life - this is not.

In 1997 Fiona Jones of the Labour Party was elected to parliament for Newark; she became one of the so-called ‘Blair Babes’. The defeated LibDem candidate questioned her election expenses and accused her of fraudulently failing to declare the full amount. She was subsequently convicted of election fraud in 1999 and was the first MP to be disqualified from the House of Commons since 1883.

It was noted that Fiona began to drink heavily both at Westminster and, according to her husband, at home during this time of acute stress.

The conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal and she triumphantly took her seat again in the House to the cheers of her colleagues, but alas the damage had been done. She lost her seat in 2001 and undertook a futile civil case against the police for malicious prosecution.

Tragically, she died on 28 January 2007 after a history of alcohol abuse – how much of that history was due to the events of her political career will probably never be truly known.

So Newark has one remarkable story of cheating death by Hercules Clay, an outcome of the political events of his time; and the tragic story of a wasted life – probably an outcome of the political events surrounding Fiona Jones.

Just two stories about Life, death and politics in Newark

Monday, February 15, 2010

Thinking of Mafeking

No – don’t write in – I do know my history and I am aware that the Siege of Mafeking ran from 14th October 1899 to 16th May 1900.

But the connecting date is, of course, World Thinking Day on the 22nd February each year.

I became a Queen's Guide, and very proud of that fact I was, and still am, too. It took real determination to complete the requirements, and as I was doing my ‘A’ levels at the same time, I put it down as one of my achievements.

I did a quick google before sitting down to compose my abstract ramblings on the subject – and at first I was worried if I had it wrong. Perhaps it wasn’t old Baden-Powell (not rhyming with “fow-el” by the way – but with “Po –well) – Surely it couldn’t it have been some American geezer?

But digging a little deeper, I was re-assured, The Scouting Movement, and the Guide Movement that came out of it, was indeed, the brain child of Robert Baden-Powell (and watch that pronunciation please) and it had its beginning at the siege of Mafeking or Mafikeng as it is now known – some people have just got to mess up the spelling!

Robert Baden-Powell (nicknamed B-P) was born on the 22nd February 1857 in London; Paddington to be exact; and had a long and distinguished career in the British Army well before he arrived in Mafeking to make a name for himself.

In 1876 he joined the 13th Hussars in India, and his subsequent military career makes Bond, James Bond, look like a patsy! Seconded to the Intelligence service, the tales of him disguising himself as a butterfly collector to sketch a military fort were still being told around the Corp with bated breath when I was a wide eyed youth.

In the 1880’s his regiment had been posted to the Natal province of South Africa where he became interested in the art of scouting (military style that is) and it is said that he honed his skills with the aid and support of the Zulu tribesmen. So successful did he become that he was mentioned in dispatches.

In the late 1890’s he brought out a small manual called ‘Aids to Scouting’ (still the military type) which was a summary of the lectures he had given to help train recruits in the art of Military Scouting.

He concentrated on encouraging the military scouts to think independently, and to use their initiative as well as survive in the wilderness.

Everything came together on the 14th October 1899 when the siege of Mafeking began. For a detailed account of the situation and the battles go to britishbattles where there is an extensive if somewhat disapproving description of it all.

Briefly, the outnumbered garrison withstood a siege by the Boers for 217 days; and their success was entirely due to the officer in charge of defence; Baden-Powell.

Using the ingenuity that he prized so much he created faked minefields; military personnel mimed avoiding non-existent barbed wire entanglements when moving in plain view between trenches.

But the one thing that still has such an impact on the world today was using a team of young boys to carry messages around the garrison and between posts. B-P was impressed with their courage and the attitude they showed in performing these tasks.

Cue howls of outrage!!

Of course, it wouldn’t happen today – I am sure someone would quote the Geneva Convention or some such to prove that we shouldn’t put young lads in such danger and threaten to have the murderous old idiot in front of a tribunal somewhere for war crimes.

But in reality,  when B-P returned to England he found himself a national hero; and unlike today the press lauded his exploits. Here he found that his little book ‘Aids to Scouting’ had become something of a best seller and was being used by teachers and youth organisations to develop self-reliance in the young lads of England. The young lads themselves were organising their own groups of boys to put into practice the skills B-P had meant for the military scouts.

Remembering the courage and aptitude of the boys in Mafeking B-P realised that he was indeed on to something. In 1907 he took 22 boys of mixed social background on that famous camp on Brownsea Island to test out some of his ideas. It was such an outstanding success that ‘Scouting for Boys’ was published in six instalments through the popular press in 1908 and the rest, as they say is history.

(In fact Scouting for Boys is still in fourth place in the all time best sellers list, behind the Bible, the Koran and that Little Red Book from you-know-who).

The Guide Movement came later when the girls make it quite plain that they were not going to be left out, and subsequently B-P was made World Chief Scout and his sister World Chief Guide. And another English footprint was put down and is still in evidence in the world today.

Then 22nd February (the founder's birthday) was instituted as ‘Thinking Day’ and a day – I was told – when we would consider (or think about) the brotherhood of Scouts and Guides throughout the world, united in the celebration of B-P's vision for youth. We stressed unity of purpose and peaceful cooperation through the ideals of Scouting and Guiding.

But what have they made of it today?

The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts chooses a theme for each World Thinking Day and proposes related activities. But nowadays their themes look more like the Young Socialist society and include:
• 2005: Think about food - well OK every teenager thinks about food, but I don’t think that is what they meant.

• 2006: Think about, talk about and do something about adolescent health issues; often shortened to Think about adolescent health - no comment and put that fag out!
• 2007: Discover your potential by taking the lead, growing friendships, and speaking out; often shortened to Discover your potential - probably more in keeping with B-P’s ideas
• 2008: Think about water - er yes; and what do you mean I have to wash in it!!
• 2009: Stop the spread of AIDS, malaria and other diseases; often shortened to Stop the spread of diseases - singlehandedly I suppose – but this is the best:-
• 2010 Together we can end extreme poverty and hunger

As a good Queen’s Guide from way back; what on earth are you doing? Together we can end extreme poverty and hunger? Who on earth are you kidding? Governments can’t do it; the UN can’t do – what makes you think Scouts and Guides can do it?

This is nothing more than a good left wing lunatic agenda – B-P will be rolling in his grave.

Especially as today those initiatives that he laid down to encourage self-reliance; activities that were ruthlessly and joyously embraced by lunatic teenagers the world over are now being actively discouraged and put down as being down right dangerous.

And the Saint that he deemed most worthy of his Scouts - St George; who is (or at least was; it could have changed) the patron saint of scouting, is now listed among the racist elements of 'Little Englanders' - the irony of which would not be lost on some English patriots!!

It is no wonder extreme sport and stupidity are so attractive to youths of both genders.

It really doesn’t bear Thinking About!!

Friday, February 12, 2010

14th Feb is Eel season and ..Er.. something else!

My grandfather was an ardent eel fisherman : he was not a romantic man.

Consequently, the 14th February loomed large in our home as the start of the Eel catching season, rather than the romantic outpourings of St Valentines Day.

My grandmother was far more likely to be presented with a dead eel needing skinning than flowers and a card. She didn’t seem to mind though as she was also rather fond of jellied eels.

As I was growing into my teens however, she did take me to one side and impart some of the customs of her childhood to ensure my chances of scoring a boyfriend was enhanced. As a rather freckled faced, horse mad girl with my head in a book rather than the clouds; my attraction to the opposite sex was somewhat limited.

And so I dutifully slept with a fresh bay leaf under my pillow to ensure that I dreamed of my future lover. The only dream that I can actually recall was somewhat reminiscent of the Second World War – (but you know there might be something in it, as I eventually joined the military and married a soldier!!)

It always seemed somewhat contradictory that St Valentine, who was reputed to be famous for his chastity, took up the cause of the unwed. My cynical grandfather pointed out that the 14th Feb had been the eve of the Roman festival of Lupercalia, where boys drew the names of girls out of an urn and then the couples paired off. A sort of pre-industrial age dating agency.

We find this tradition being continued in some of the Valentine games where boys would write the names of girls on slips of paper, and then draw lots for their sweetheart for the year. They would often present a glove, as a symbol of their affection to them. And I recall seeing an elaborately embroidered glove presented to Queen Elizabeth 1st by one of her courtiers which recalled this custom.

As I grew older, my grandmother taught me how to bake what she called Plum Shuttles and which others referred to as Valentine Cakes, which hopeful girls presented to the boys of their choice as an indication of their willingness to receive their attention.

My Gran used to shape them into weaving shuttles, (hence the name Plum Shuttles) but I have forgotten what they actually looked like, and so I shape them into the more traditional heart shapes.

So for all desperate freckled faced girls – here is the traditional recipe for Plum Shuttles which are traditionally baked on the 14th February along with the eels.

My original recipe is in Imperial measurements, but my more metrically competent daughter has translated them into the Europe friendly ones. She also declared that they actually do work as she served them to her then boyfriend, who is now her husband.

(We are busily teaching the recipe to the 11 year old grand daughter – one can’t be too careful) anyway here it is :

1½ lb (600 g) plain flour

4 oz (100 g) castor sugar (add ordinary sugar if you haven’t got castor – it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference)

2 oz (50 g) chopped dried orange or lemon peel – or shove in same amount of mixed peel – see above for castor sugar

¼ pint (250 ml) of milk – don’t substitute

4 oz (100 g) best butter – yes that’s what it says, if you’ve only got second class butter bung it in anyway.

4 oz (100 g) currants

1 oz (25 g) yeast – Gran only used fresh yeast from the local bakers blended with a little of the sugar and some warm water; but if you must use dried can you do the maths – I can’t !!

Now, having gathered together all your ingredients it is time to make the cakes. Here’s the step by step process –according to My Grandmother (who was rather scathing about Mrs Beaton – it sounded personal!)

Step 1 – Rub the butter into the flour until it is well blended but not sticky. Mix in your sugar, whatever peel you have and the currants.

Step 2 – Now add the yeast and the milk, and then add sufficient water to make a soft dough. It depends on the flour but about ½ pints or 250 ml should be ample.

Step 3 – Leave it about 45 mins and help yourself to one of those chocolates or, as in my grandmother case, go skin your eel.

Step 4 – Turn out onto a floured board, and knead until smooth and lightly springs back when pushed. (The original recipe says to “create an homogeneous whole” and if you know what that means you can do that as well!

Step 5 – cut off small pieces and mould into the shape of a weaver’s shuttle – and if you know what they look like go for it; otherwise cut out the more traditional heart shape. The dough is springy (being yeast dough) and you might do better with a sharp knife to cut round a cardboard shape. I do. And if all else fails roll them into balls.

Step 6 – Place them onto a baking tray and let stand for approx 15 mins before baking in a fairly hot oven until golden brown. 375 F or 190 C should be fine.

Serve warm to the love of your life with lashings of fresh butter and enjoy.

Incidently, one of my bright ideas was to sprinkle them with coarse sugar before baking, but Gran did not approve – however that was my problem you can suit yourself.

My daughter tried icing them, but I did not approve – but again, you can suit yourself.

So have a happy Valentines Day on the 14th, indulge yourself these traditional goodies, and with champagne and chocolates if that’s your thing. Or, of course, you could take them with you when you go babbing for eels – either way it’s your choice and you are being traditionally English.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Putting the Money on Trial

I suppose most of us, when we dig that last coin out of the purse or pocket, don’t really give it very much thought.

We might have an idea that it doesn’t buy as much as it used to; but I doubt if we ever really consider if it really reflects the required standards – and I can cheerfully state that we probably have absolutely no idea of what those standards are anyway and don’t care.

And yet, the importance of those standards is such that the credibility of our currency depends on the trust that they have been met.

So important is this that the oldest established English judicial procedure is still in effect today. In fact we should see the 728th sitting of the Jury in the Trial of the Pyx taking place at the Goldsmith’s Hall on the second Tuesday of this month.

In simple terms our coinage is being put on trial. The trial of the Pyx checks to see whether or not the coins produced by the Royal Mint are within the statutory limits for metal size.

The trial was first held in 1282, and while there was some testing of the purity of coins in early Saxon time, it was in Henry II reign that the formal trial as we now know it first began.

To begin with the trials were held in Westminster Hall, and later in the Exchequer. And interestingly enough there is also a Chapel of the Pyx in Westminster Abbey where the boxes containing the coinage to be tested were held; it is these boxes that are known as the Pyx.

However in 1870 the Goldsmith’s Hall was laid down as the location of the Trial of the coins; which made perfect sense. The Assay Office, which provides the marks synonymous with quality, is right next door and it is the Assay Office that actually conducts the testing.

The Royal Mint itself – once known as the Mint of the Kingdom of England and now located in Wales under the title of Royal Mint of the United Kingdom - is actually a Government owned business. It is the Mint’s responsibility to ‘mint’ or produce the coins of the United Kingdom; and the Master of the Mint is required put aside a number of coins minted over the last year, and it is these that are brought to trial in February of each year.

The jury is made up of members of the Goldsmith’s Company, who are summoned to the hall by the Queen’s Remembrancer, a senior judge in the Courts of Justice. Strangely this is a formal court of law and during its sitting the coins are counted and weighed and put aside for testing by the Assay Office.

While modern methods do not leave much leeway for wilful theft, this was not always the case. Coins could be minted with less than the required amount of metal and the wily Master of the Mint could squirrel away the surplus! Even with the annual Trial of the Pyx there have been some early Masters of the Mint who have made their fortunes one way or another!!

But gradually the trial did bring consistency in the coinage and is still used throughout many of the commonwealth countries to test the standards of their currency. So there is another footprint of the English still seen throughout the world.

But, even with the modern methods, mistakes of dreadful proportions can be made.

There is a very entertaining and informative account of a personal visit to the Trial of the Pyx in February 2009 on ‘IanVisits Blog’ – we can read the verdict (which is usually issued two months later) of that trial as well.

But what neither tells us that for the first time since Charles II, 1672 to be precise; we had up to 200,000 twenty pence coins issued without a year date. The coins were minted minus the 2009 imprint and are instantaneously valuable. In fact one was sold on ebay for over £7,000.

So while we can be certain that the value of our coins do meet the required standards, check out some of those coins in your pockets, purses or behind the sofa cushions; and have a really good look at them. You never know … you just might find a fortune… thanks to the Master of the Mint!!