Friday, 30 July 2010

Lime Kilns? (various locations – Beadnell’s at NU237285)

Many of you will have noticed large man-made, cave-like structures dotted around the British countryside, and perhaps even be aware that they are lime kilns. Maybe a teacher or a relative pointed this out to you years ago – information which you have sagaciously passed on to the next generation, of course. But did your teacher/parent/mentor – and, in turn, your good self – really know what was meant when some adult show-off uttered unconvincingly “Well, they’re, er … lime kilns, aren’t they. For making, erm, lime.”?

Well, lime – or, rather, quicklime – is indeed produced inside a lime kiln. And it is achieved, basically, by the heating of limestone to 900-1,000°C, at which temperature the stone ‘calcinates’, or breaks down. Carbon dioxide is given off, leaving calcium oxide – or quicklime. In other words:
CaCO3 + heat = CaO + CO2
Limestone + heat = quicklime + carbon dioxide

Quicklime is really useful stuff, and can be used in mortar/plaster, paper/glass/steel production, sewerage treatment, etc., but is especially handy in agriculture (to counter acidic soils) and to hide the smell of decomposition in open graves (plague outbreaks, and the like). Curiously, before electric lighting came along it was used in theatres as an illuminant – as it glows brightly when heated to high temperatures (hence ‘limelight’). Anyway, historically, at least, there was quite a demand for the stuff.

The thing is, quicklime is rather unstable. Left to its own devices it will react naturally with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and revert to its ‘natural’ limestone state. Transportation, therefore, is/was a problem – as was easily lumping about the limestone, and, indeed, the coal needed to heat the kilns themselves. So, this is why you find so many lime kilns near the coast: easy to get the limestone/coal in, and easy to get the quicklime out. So quayside spots like those at Seahouses and Beadnell were perfect. Improvements in the transportation network during the nineteenth century led to many more inland (and often much larger) sites being developed.

So the next time your little sidekick asks the question, you know exactly what to say. And, moreover, you’ll know precisely what you’re talking about.

Beadnell Lime Kilns
(by Tom Curtis)

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Grace’s Plot. Not. (NU178350)

When the tourist visits Bamburgh, Grace Darling is never far from their mind. I cannot believe that there is anyone reading this who isn’t aware of this young woman’s deeds, so I shall not insult your intelligence by recalling them here. Anyway, as you amble past the churchyard in this picturesque little village, you will find yourself drawn instantly to a large ornamental affair, thus:

“Ooh, look! It’s Grace Darling’s grave,” you will say. Well, it ain’t, actually. Which is a shame really, ‘cos it’s a lovely piece of work. Turns out that Grace, who died of TB in 1842, aged 26, is buried, along with her parents and siblings, in a much more modest plot 20 yards to the east of the fancy erection. The splendid effort which draws all the touristy attention is simply a memorial paid for by public subscription and erected shortly after her death. It was placed where it stands at the request of local seamen, who insisted that it should be clearly visible from the sea.

So don’t do what I did when I was last there (“Ooh, look, blah, blah,” take a quick snap – see above – and move on), but have a scout around and do the job properly, you lazy day-tripper.

Friday, 23 July 2010

St.Cuthbert’s Devils (NU218360)

As you will no doubt know, St.Cuthbert spent a good deal of his time as a hermit living on Inner Farne. As he was somewhat in demand for one reason or another, he must at times have felt like the hermit-in-the-hole in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when another interruption came his way. But before he settled down to his expected life of solitude it is said that he had to first banish certain ‘demons’ or ‘devils’ from the island so that he could get some peace. This he did, sending them packing to neighbouring Wideopens Island.

Long after Cuthbert had been carried off the island in a box and laid to rest, more recent inhabitants of Inner Farne reported catching sight of these creatures:

… Clad in cowls, and riding upon goats, black in complexion, short in stature, their countenances most hideous, their heads long – the appearance of the whole group horrible. Like soldiers they brandished in their hands lances, which they darted after in the fashion of war. At first the sight of the cross was sufficient to repel their attacks, but the only protection in the end was the circumvaliation of straws, signed with the cross, and fixed in the sands, around which the devils galloped for a while, and then retired, leaving the brethren to enjoy victory and repose.

Quite what the brethren were ‘on’ it is impossible to say. A little too much of the local mead, perhaps?

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

St.Cuthbert’s Cave (NU060352)

A famous local landmark, St.Cuthbert’s Cave is a large, natural sandstone feature 3½ miles west of Belford. It is not really a cave at all, but more of a rocky overhang – the sort of place where a couple of dozen ramblers could shelter from the rain without getting a splash on their cagoules.

(© Copyright pam fray and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence )
Indeed, for the walking enthusiasts of the region it is something of a must-have; like the summit of Cheviot or the Simonside Ridge. Reachable by any number of ways from almost any direction, it does, however, require a little more than pulling up in a car park and wandering across the tarmac. Belford, with its close proximity to the A1, provides as good a launch pad as any, with a pleasant eight-mile round trip on foot easily negotiated along the dotted lines of your trusty OS map.

Its claim to fame, of course, is that it is reputed to have been a resting place for the monks of Lindisfarne as they fled with the mortal remains of the revered saint from the Viking invaders in the late 870s. They wandered for several years until finding a home at Chester-le-Street – the saintly bits finding their way, eventually, to Durham, of course. Now the cave lies on the course of the aptly-named ‘St.Cuthbert’s Way’, a 62-mile footpath linking Melrose to Lindisfarne, so is never short of company. Not that it ever has, judging by the age of the graffiti etched into the rocks thereabouts.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Buckton Dovecote (NU081386)

I have a soft spot for dovecotes. But you don’t see a lot of them these days, especially up north. But there’s an ever-so-nice one sitting a few yards to the west of the A1 in North Northumberland, about 4 miles north of Belford. It’s a little ‘industrial’, as dovecotes go, but it has that solid, compact, folly-like demeanour which I find so cutely attractive. Cuddly, almost.

Buckton Dovecote is cheating, though. For it has recently undergone a substantial facelift thanks to English Heritage and Natural England – and doesn’t it look absolutely splendid:

Dovecotes were probably introduced to the UK by the Normans – though the Romans may have beaten them to it briefly in the early centuries AD. The ‘beehive’ example at Buckton dates back to at least the early 17th century and, like all structures of its kind, was intended to house doves (or, more likely, pigeons) so that their eggs may be conveniently harvested, their manure collected and, of course, the birds themselves slaughtered for the dining table. Internally, beehive dovecotes contained dozens (sometimes hundreds) of nesting boxes for the birds, who could enter and exit through the roof, with a human-sized door allowing access for the collection of eggs and, er, droppings.

There is currently no public access to Buckton’s fine little effort, but it can be seen from both the A1 and the minor road which leaves the main thoroughfare at Buckton.

[info and image from the splendid Archaeology in Northumberland, Vol.18, by Northumberland County Council]

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Scotch Vagrants (NU053404)

Another classic quote, this time from Cobbett’s Political Register of 1832:-

When at Newcastle I learned that Scotch vagrants were regularly sent from that place back into Scotland by pass-carts; that the conveyance of them was contracted for; and that the contractor received two pounds two shillings for each journey; that this contractor put them down at a place called Kyloe, a place five miles distant from Belford, on the road to Berwick; that the vagrants were delivered into the custody of a police-officer, who saw them deposited in the parish in Scotland named in the pass; and that the contractor had sometimes taken the same individuals as often as ten or twelve times!

Friday, 9 July 2010

Cross-dressing Daughter Saves the Day

[from A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, 1835]

Sir John Cochrane, being engaged in Argyle’s rebellion against James II [1685], was taken prisoner after a desperate resistance, and condemned to be hanged. His daughter [18yr-old Grizel Cochrane] having noticed that the death warrant was expected from London, attired herself in men’s clothes, and twice attacked and robbed the mails (betwixt Berwick and Belford) which conveyed the death warrants; thus by delaying the execution, giving time to Sir John Cochrane’s father, the Earl of Dundonald, to make interest with Father Petre (a Jesuit), King James’ confessor, who, for the sum of five thousand pounds, agreed to intercede with his royal master on behalf of Sir John Cochrane, and to procure his pardon, which was effected.

As the ditty goes:

“I will not tak thy life,” she said,

“But gie me thy London news;

No blood of thine shall fyle my blade

Gin me ye dinna refuse.”

She’s prie'd the warrant and away she flew

With the speed and strength o’ the wild curlew.

Sounds like the sort of thing my wife would do.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

"The Grimmest of Comedies, the Most Hilarious of Tragedies" * (NU136418)

In 1966, a curious film entitled Cul-de-Sac passed through our cinemas. Best described as a black comedy-cum-psychological thriller, it was a typical effort by controversial director, Roman Polanski. Set in its entirety on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, it is perhaps the closest the region has ever got to film noir.

Essentially, it tells the tale of two on-the-run criminals who stumble upon the residence (Lindisfarne Castle) of the effeminate George (Donald Pleasance) and his beautiful and wilful young wife, Teresa. As they await rescue by their boss, the two crooks force themselves upon the odd couple, one of the men dying from the wounds received during their bungled robbery. The remaining trio embark upon a strained and increasingly strange relationship, even feigning normality during a social visit to the castle by friends of the couple.

Pleasance (left, I think) camps it up in Cul-de-Sac.
I won’t tell you how it all ends. It’s not that I don’t want to spoil it for you, but rather that I simply can’t remember. Well, it was a long time ago when I forced myself to sit through it.

Stranger still than the film itself is the fact that in 2007 Hollywood superstar, Jack Nicholson, claimed that it was his favourite movie of all time. I’ve made you curious now, haven’t I? I suppose you want to see it.

* Quote from Polanski scholar, Ivan Butler.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Mead: the Mother of Booze (NU126418)

The ancestor of all fermented drinks, antedating the cultivation of the soil.
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, historian.

One of Lindisfarne’s most noticeable commercial concerns is St.Aidan’s Winery, producers of the famous Lindisfarne Mead. But what exactly is this strange concoction? Well, basically, it is a mixture of honey and water, fermented with yeast so that the sugars in the honey turn to alcohol. And as for its history, well, it is very likely the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world.

Lindisfarne may well be England’s ‘Cradle of Christianity’, but it can make no such claim when it comes to the old tipple. For mead has been around – in all the major centres of civilisation – for many thousands of years. Earliest references stretch back to around 7,000BC to (very) ancient China; and Africa, too, can claim a lengthy heritage. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that the invention of mead marked the passage of man’s development “from nature to culture”. In Europe, the drink probably arrived with the Beaker people around 2,000BC; and Aristotle and his pals were known to have indulged in the heyday of Ancient Greece. The Germanic tribes of northern Europe (the Vikings included) helped make mead very much as popular as ale in the Dark Ages, and this is when it entered our own culture big-time. The word ‘honeymoon’ is derived from the Norse custom of having newly-weds drink the stuff for a whole moon in order to increase their fertility. So I guess it was considered an aphrodisiac.

So quite why the religious houses of Dark Age England took to brewing and drinking mead I shudder to think. Anyway, the monks of Lindisfarne were especially keen, it seems, though they would have probably claimed it was nothing more than a little side-line of their beekeeping hobby. As you can imagine, during its long and colourful history, mead has developed countless variants. Different strengths, the inclusion of fruits, spices and herbs (and sometimes hops), differing maturing periods – and even, recently, the development of carbonated and sparkling versions, as well as dry, semi-sweet and sweet mixes – all helping to enrich the world of the mead aficionado.

Mead has enjoyed its good times and bad. Its popularity waned as the Middle Ages progressed, taxation and strict regulation taking their toll. And when cheap sugar imports began to arrive from the West Indies in the seventeenth century, beekeeping and honey production took quite a knock – and so, then, did mead production. But hang on it did, especially in areas in which grapes could not be grown for the production of wine – and for that we have the monasteries to thank.

So say what you will about these religious types, but on this score, at least, they seem to have got their priorities right.