Friday, October 25, 2013

Agincourt or Gunpowder Plot? Old Style vs. New Style Dates

Today my dear (but habitually rude) friend set his Facebook status to read:

598 years ago today we gave the French a right shoeing at Agincourt. It was one of a series of bootings that we routinely gave the French back in the day. We should remember that next time that ponce Hollande gets uppity or some French farmer starts burning our sheep.

Leaving the French and the sheep aside, he is quite correct in memorising the date of the battle of Agincourt  as 25th October 1415, but he is not, in fact, right to state that it was 598 years ago today. Actually he’s missed the anniversary by nine days, due to the change from Julian to Gregorian calendar.

Why did dates change?

The ancient Egyptians adopted a 365-day calendar sometime between 4000 and 3000 B.C. The first major improvement to that 365-day calendar was made by Julius Caesar (100–44 B.C. ) in 46 B.C. With the help of Greek astronomer Sosigenes, Caesar developed a new calendar divided into 12 months of 30 and 31 days, with the exception of 28 days in February. This new Julian calendar (named after Caesar) built-in an extra day, or leap day, every fourth year to account for the 365.25-day solar year.

The Julian calendar, however, was still off by 11 minutes and 14 seconds each year. Over 300 years, this difference added up to just over 3 days. By the mid-1500s, the Julian calendar was 10 days ahead of Earth's natural yearly cycle.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII installed a new calendar, designed to deal with this problem of solar years being slightly longer than 364 days for which reason festivities originally set by solar dates (namely the equinoxes and solstices) had drifted 10 days in the solar calendar. The Gregorian calendar shifted the entire year ten days forward in order to fix the discrepancy, so that ten days were “skipped”.

However, this being during the Reformation and the Pope being a Catholic, England didn’t play ball until 1752, leaving two different calendars in place in Europe for 170 years.

Historical-trivia geeks (such as myself) revel in the knowledge that Shakespeare and Cervantes both died on 23 April 1616 but Cervantes predeceased Shakespeare by 10 days! For dating these events Spain used the ‘New Style’ Gregorian calendar, but Britain used the ‘Old Style’ Julian calendar. Astronomers avoid this ambiguity by the use of the Julian day number.

By the time Great Britain, Ireland and the colonies changed over, the discrepancy between calendars had increased, so that Wednesday 2nd September 1752 was followed by Thursday 14th September 1752, 11 days later

This anomaly is of little importance to most people, but to writers of historical fiction it can be useful to realign dates with the seasons using what is called the ‘proleptic Gregorian calendar’. The following conversion ready-reckoner is a handy guide.

Conversion from Gregorian to Julian 
Time period (from
1 March of first year to
28 February of last year)
Сorrection, days
So by subtracting 9 correction days, the anniversary of 25th October 1415  is (or was) 16th October in 2013. 

To perform a reverse calculation, add 10 correction days to calculate that 25th October of 2013 was the 4th November of 1605. 

And what is the significance of 4th November 1605? It is the date of the initial search of the cellars of the Houses of Parliament that discovered Fawkes and the wood and coal that Percy had provided to cover the kegs of powder. A thorough search of the cellars by Sir Thomas Knyvett at midnight found the gunpowder.  Fawkes was arrested and taken before Cecil (Secretary of State) and King James in the early hours of 5th November 1605, the anniversary of which is tomorrow 26th October 2013.

So, while my friend is remembering an old victory over the French, he could today be commemorating an event that took place much closer to home.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Saxon's Bane by Geoffrey Gudgion

Yesterday, on a hot summer night, I went to the launch of Geoffrey Gudgion’s fabulous debut novel, Saxon’s Bane at Forbidden Planet on Shaftsbury Avenue in London.  

Walking in, I felt I had surely found the UK spiritual home of Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj from the Big Bang Theory! Upstairs was stocked with comic books and sci-fi merchandise goodies. Downstairs I found a regular bookstore and a warm book launch – actually the welcome (and the room) were very warm indeed - but the wine was chilled!

I should declare that I was given an advance copy of this book by the author, who I know through the Historical Novel Society. Jenny Barden, (author of Mistress of the Sea and doyenne of the HNS) and I were greeted by a charming woman, as "Ah! You'll be the HistFict massive then?" Gosh!  Best to admit it then!

With Jenny Barden

So what about the book?

Saxon’s Bane is an action-packed page-turner shaped by elements of horror, fantasy, history, thriller and the ghost story. As debut novels go, Saxon’s Bane is pretty impressive.

The catalyst for the story is the simultaneous discovery of a bog body and a car crash in an unspoilt valley, which brings together a plausible set of characters in an environment of convincing solidity. Just as the landscape visibly preserves the memory of ancient ploughshares, so other fragments of the past colour the lives of the living. Legend, history, memory, folklore, magical practice - ancient and modern - and religion impinge on the present and serve to fuel the interactions between well-drawn characters, all of whom have been touched by the shadow world in different ways. Gudgion deftly uses a well-observed, surprisingly broad spectrum of belief in a quintessentially traditional British rural community, to develop tension and suspense that hold the reader’s engagement without recourse to sensationalism.

Dream interactions and flashbacks allow Gudgion to share a vivid experience of ancient lives and battles, with both character and reader alike. An emotional literacy underpins much of the writing which is further enlivened by tangential but witty observations by the characters - a smug post-coital pigeon or a failed clinch that results in the near-embrace of a rucksack - which diffuse any suggestion of sentimentality. Mythical motifs are woven elegantly into a fast paced split-time story.

Saxon’s Bane reads very well indeed – give me more, Mr Gudgion! Five stars.
Publisher’s Description
Fergus's world changes forever the day his car crashes near the remote village of Allingley. Traumatised by his near-death experience, he stays to work at the local stables as he recovers from his injuries. He will discover a gentler pace of life, fall in love and be targeted for human sacrifice.

Clare Harvey's life will never be the same either. The young archaeologist's dream find the peat-preserved body of a Saxon warrior is giving her nightmares. She can tell that the warrior was ritually murdered, and that the partial skeleton lying nearby is that of a young woman. And their tragic story is unfolding in her head every time she goes to sleep.

Fergus discovers that his crash is linked to the excavation, and that the countryside harbours some dark secrets.

As Clare's investigation reveals the full horror of a Dark Age war crime, Fergus and Clare seem destined to share the Saxon couple's bloody fate.

Saxon’s Bane is published 12 September 2013 by Solaris. 
Available for pre-order via Amazon now.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Blackberry Vodka Liqueur

Blackberry Vodka Liqueur
Driving a desk (or a dining room table) is all very well but I do try to sortie out most days at lunchtime for a break.

Right now it's quite important that I do get out because I'm preparing for a talk at the Springfield Sanctuary Herb Festival and I 'wildcraft' most of the materia medica that I use to illustrate my talks.  That said, by the very nature of 'wildcrafting', it's not like going to a shop, so you don't always get what you were looking for and more often than not, something else absolutely wonderful just presents itself and demands to be harvested and used.

This afternoon I posted on Facebook that I had happened upon a gorgeous swag of hops on the tow path of the Kennet and Avon canal near my home and my friend Ruth said she'd thought of me while blackberrying on Greenham Common today... As one confidence begs another, I was forced to confess to more than a few hops as today's bounty - I was indeed guilty of bringing home some lovely blackberries again today... The foraging habit is quite addictive and admitting to it is part of the solution!

 While Ruth is presently jamming away, my blackberries sit in a bowl awaiting cream for pudding. However I was reminded that last year I made a blackberry vodka liqueur. I didn't blog it at the time but I did take pictures so here goes... It's a doddle really - weighing it really isn't necessary but some folk like to have an idea of scale.

Basically you are looking at about a cup of sugar to a pound of blackberries, layered into a jar and covered with vodka in the jar. You need enough to keep the fruit beneath the surface which in my case was less than a full 75cl bottle.. so about 50 cl. Or about 500g blackberries to 250g sugar and as much of the vodka as it takes.

Don't mess with caster sugar or any fancy vodka. The blackberries transform granulated sugar and cheap supermarket vodka!

 Then just layer it in, sugar and fruit, right up to the top.
 Pour over the vodka...
Cap the jar and stick it in a dark cupboard for a few weeks. Until Christmas ideally. Then strain it through muslin and bottle.
Fresh and frozen

You can use the sweet boozy fruit in desserts like pavlovas! The weird thing is that the vodka content prevents it from freezing properly. So in the picture above the new fresh fruit picked today is in the left hand tub and some of the fruit that made the dark liqueur last year is in the frozen right hand tub. Some colour extracted, obviously, but the fruit in the frozen tub still has the texture of fresh fruit!


Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Springfield Sanctuary Herb Festival 2013

Speaking at the 2012 Festival.
Photo credit Debs Cook

This year will be the third year that I have been a speaker at the Springfield Sanctuary Herb Festival in the Cotswolds. The 'Celebrating Herbs' festival runs from Friday 6th to Sunday 8th September 2013. The other speakers are all amazing - practising medical herbalists and experts in wildcrafting - there are practical workshops and guided herb walks. Camping is available in the field. The programme is here as a printable pdf.

Camping at the Festival.
Photo credit Chris Head

I generally take an historical and folkloric approach to my talks. Last year I spoke on Herbal Fumigants:"Burning, suffumigation and smudge: using smoke to clear the air" based on the idea that many people believe that the practices of burning herbs and smoking were brought to us from the New World with tobacco. So I took a look (with demonstrations) at the Old World uses of non-tobacco smoke, from the incenses and entheogens of the classical period to Bald's Leechbook which tells us "geréc þone man mid þám wyrtum" (smoke that man with the herbs); through the early modern period and into the 20th century.

Demonstrating a mugwort 'smudge' stick.
Photo credit Debs Cook

At the request of a number of people in the audience, as well as some overseas members of Sarah Head's herb apprenticeship programme who were unable to attend, I did promise to make an extended version of my notes available as an e-book, and it is as I start to prepare this year's offering that I'm prompted to get that out before I actually deliver the next one! I do hope some of my herby friends can be persuaded to review it - let me know and I will gift you a copy.

With my 'pirate's chest' of goodies.
Photo credit Debs Cook
This year the title of my talk is "The historical legacy of blessings, curses, and charms in modern western herbalism." I shall be bringing along my wooden box of goodies with loads of things to demonstrate again, (last year's audience called it my pirate's chest!) I think that interacting with the herbs is so valuable to supplement booklearning - it's one of the main reasons why people choose to attend festivals and join groups.

Sarah Head runs Springfield Sanctuary herbal apprenticeships and I am proud to number myself amongst her alumni. Her blog 'Tales of a Kitchen Herbwife' is here.

Springfield Sanctuary is part of Wynyards Farm, a small arable farm in the Cotswolds belonging to Sarah Head's parents, Pryce and Marjorie Watkins.

Debs Cook's Herbaholic website 'Herbal Haven' is here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

So you've been accused of witchcraft...?

Herewith for your delectation, a flow chart that sets out your options should you be accused of witchcraft, taken from the Summer 2012 edition is Lapham's Quarterly magazine.

Just on a point of interest though, Malleus Malificarum (Hammer of the Witches) is a treatise on the prosecution of witches, written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, a German Catholic clergyman. Here
in England we hanged our witches, we didn't burn them... the Scots did though... You can't say I never post anything useful!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Volunteers needed for Loose Ends soup kitchen, Newbury

Further to my Food Bank post here, I'd just like to add that the charity I referred to in the Morton Hall at the Baptist Church in Newbury is currently seeking volunteers for their Drop In Centre called Loose Ends. They provide a hot meal, groceries to take away, toiletries, showers and clean clothes for homeless or inadequately housed people in the Newbury area.
Newbury Baptist Church, Cheap Street 
"At the moment the doors are open for 4 sessions a week. A home cooked soup is provided on Mondays between 12:30pm and 1:30pm, a freshly cooked breakfast on Wednesdays and Fridays between 9:30am and 11:00am and on Sundays a cooked lunch between 2:00pm and 3:30pm. Volunteers are needed to arrive 45 minutes before the start of their session. 
Another new trend is the number of young people coming through the doors. They are either living rough, or what is known as 'invisible homeless' ie constantly on the move from one 'friends' door to another's. So many of these people are the product of broken homes and failed 'care' systems, and a surprising number are ex-service personnel. Most of them have histories that move one to tears and have suffered terribly either physically or mentally or both. The majority have an alcohol or drug problem, or both, and most of them are known to the police. 
If you are interested in getting involved, but don't feel this role is for you, then there are other equally important ways to support LOOSE ENDS i.e. collecting supplies of food/clothes/ toiletries, doing the regular shopping or fund-raising."
I don't attend this church and I'm not currently a volunteer, but having mentioned this work several weeks ago, it seemed important to help publicise their search for volunteers.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Newbury Flood Alleviation

Blocked drain in Berkeley Road
 I can't believe the election literature the parties are putting out for the this tiny little ward by-election for Newbury Town Council tomorrow. It is a glorified parish council FFS!

We've seen rather gross "dog whistle politics" in a  town council election leaflet. Immigration? How wrong is that? Purleese!

They're trying to tell us that it's the river that will flood us but we know that it's the blocked drains 'wot dun it' last time in 2007 and they haven't been cleared since. I have a FOI request in, but hey.

It is entirely testament to the point that we are making about the parties failing the people. I certainly don't mean to have a go at the Tories at the expense of the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems are the ones who've been presiding over the Town Council's fiasco - they've had control!

There are 23 seats on the Town Council. It was 12 Lib Dems to 11 Tories, until two Lib Dems couldn't be arsed anymore and caused this election, the Lib Dems had control. Now they're all fighting over it.

The irony is that if you vote for me and Dave Yates, you have a unique opportunity here tomorrow to make a real difference. If we are elected neither of these parties will hold sway unopposed. We can hold them to account on every vote.

Please don't give your vote to any of these numpties! Vote for me and Dave!

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Newbury Charter Market

Victoria and Sophie on the Apolitical campaign trail in Newbury
Charter market today with Eilish Cooling.

I wrote the following letter to the Newbury Weekly News on 8th April, the Editor didn’t publish it for reasons best known herself… but I thought I’d share it here.

Charter Market why wait?

Dear Editor,

The Charter Market is shrinking. Some traders will pack up soon for good and they do not want their children following them into third generation businesses. The supermarkets and on-line shopping have rendered the traditional market obsolete.

However, talking to the traders on Saturday, I was delighted to find that there is a great sense of buzz and hope which is being frustrated by excessive customer parking charges and a lack of acceptance by the Town Council that the dynamic of the town has shifted north away from the Market Square.

I talked to Michelle and Jessie. Michelle makes and sells handcrafted jewellery. She had been allocated a pitch facing the Hatchet. It was her second visit to Newbury and was very downhearted to have taken just £8 that morning.

Jessie has had her cupcake stall for about a year and a half. When her pitch was moved from Nat West to Bartholomew Street her takings doubled, and she was able to buy a shop in Swindon, but her Newbury stall is the powerhouse of her business.

Both enterprising young women are offering unique handmade products which sell themselves - if only the customer can see them! There is footfall at the top end of Bartholomew Street but Northbrook Street was positively awash with shoppers in the sunshine. There is already planning permission for 6 pitches in Northbrook Street – why are they not let?

I went back to tell Michelle of Jessie’s story and Michelle’s going to stick with it in the hopes that we can make Newbury Town Council wake up and make those pitches available – sooner rather than later.


Charlie Farrow
Apolitical Candidate for Victoria Ward
Berkeley Road

(We like cupcakes!)

Friday, May 03, 2013

Newbury Town Council By-election Election Literature 2

The Market

The Council seem hellbent on getting rid of the market. They seem to want to turn the town into the next Basingstoke. Who has been consulted on this? The people we speak to don't want the town changed, they want us to stay as a nice little market town.

The traders and shopkeepers tell us they are frustrated by excessive customer parking charges and that the Council has shifted the dynamic of the town north away from the Market Square.Traders who have been allowed pitches in Bartholomew Street have doubled their takings. But most are forced to occupy the retail desert that the Market Square has become. There is planning permission already for six pitches in Northbrook Street.

We will:

  • Activate the 6 Northbrook Street pitches immediately to act as ‘breadcrumbs’ bringing footfall back to the market place.
  • Produce a proper marketing plan to attract a greater diversity of marketers and generate awareness among shoppers and visitors to ensure the long term prosperity of the Market and the small businesses in the town centre.

  • Victoria Park

    The Coalition monopoly has presided complacently over significant loss of amenity in Victoria Park. The playing field and bowling green are out of action. We have cracked paths and cracks in houses. We have no toilets, no fence around the play park and a £24,000 bill for a report into the damage that we can’t see because it’s commercially sensitive!

    We didn't need a hydrogeological report to tell us what's wrong with the park. We know it's the Parkway development that's caused it. For the amount of money they have squandered on reports and prevarication we could have fixed the damage and put up the railings around the toddler play area that parents wanted reinstating.

    Charlie was one of the organisers of the 1500 strong petition to put the fence back around the toddler play area in Victoria Park. The petition was presented in October 2011 but rejected because it’s not current thinking in leisure planning. It would be reconsidered only if there were lots of incidents, due to a lack of a fence! So they’ll act only after preventable disaster has struck! Registered childminders tell us they are prohibited from using unfenced spaces for insurance reasons.There was a fence before the council removed it and installed new equipment, so we weren't asking for anything new, just to keep what we had!
    • We will get started on remedying the damage to the Park without waiting to apportion blame or further prevarication.

    We think it’s about time someone starts demanding answers for the people of Newbury:
    • Investigating why the Town Council has been paying £50,000 annually to West Berks Council for market cleansing which is now being done at virtually no cost through self-cleansing.
    • Looking at why the market hasn’t been managed and marketed more efficiently.
    As Apoliticals we have no party political baggage to prevent us from demanding full and honest disclosure to the people regarding the fiasco in Victoria Park, the politically motivated offloading of services from West Berks onto Newbury Town Council to keep the headline Council Tax rate down, and the poor management of services.

    Information on reverse of leaflet

    Newbury Town Council By-election Election Literature 1

    Charlie Farrow
    I am married to Dave Yates, have lived in Newbury for twenty five years and raised four children here. The two elder ones have good degrees and jobs, the third is still at Newbury College and the youngest at St Barts.

    I’ve been a Marketing Manager in a school and a university and for some of the biggest brands. I’ve been a Governor of Park House and for several years I’ve been an active volunteer member of the Sustainable Newbury Group on Newbury Town Council.

    I was asked by a group of young mums to help them campaign to get the fence put back round the toddler play area in Victoria Park. But we were refused - all 1500 of us!

    I was among the first cohort of Chartered Marketers in the UK and if I can’t get the market thriving again, then nobody can.

    I have a love of the history of Newbury and I’m concerned that its heritage is being squandered with the ever greater needs of 'vanity projects.

    Apolitical means ‘politically neutral, unbiased, non-aligned’.

    'Apolitical' describes a convention of impartiality amongst people active in politics, like the Speaker of the Commons, the Cross-Benchers in the Lords or most parish councillors, who are not subject to the party 'whip' or told what to think by a political party.

    Being Apolitical doesn't mean apathy or lack of interest in democracy or local affairs.

    We believe we should be guided by our electors' wishes, considered evidence, our real world experience and expertise, and our consciences. 

    In that order.

    We don’t believe any of the main parties has OUR best interests at heart.

    Dave Yates

    I joined the army age 16 and my role as a Military Surveyor brought me to the School of Military Survey at Hermitage in the early 1980's. I have been in Newbury ever since, first in York Road, and then Berkeley Road where I have lived for over twenty five years. A surveyor by profession and a builder by choice, I am a detail man with an eye for numbers.

    I worked for many years in the piling industry, and have been involved on many
    projects which utilised de-watering systems, similar to that used by Costains, in the construction of the Parkway Development. I, like many others, believe that the damage done to Victoria Park and the buildings around, is entirely the fault of Costains.

    If Charlie and I are elected to the Town Council, I will not consider myself to be bound by the gagging order placed on the Lib-Dems and Conservatives by their masters at West Berkshire Council. I will make known the details of the report commissioned by the Town Council, which has been paid for by you.

    Reverse of leaflet here.

    Friday, March 29, 2013

    Suspended Coffee & Food Banks

    This is a story that appeared in my news feed on Facebook and appears to be going viral. I thought it was rather heart warming but wondered whether it was for real.

    "We enter a little coffeehouse with a friend of mine and give our order. While we're approaching our table two people come in and they go to the counter.
    'Five coffees, please. Two of them for us and three suspended'
    They pay for their order, take the two and leave. I ask my friend, 'What are those 'suspended' coffees?'
    'Wait for it and you will see'
    Some more people enter. Two girls ask for one coffee each, pay and go. The next order was for seven coffees and it was made by three lawyers - three for them and four 'suspended'. While I still wonder what's the deal with those 'suspended' coffees I enjoy the sunny weather and the beautiful view towards the square in front of the café.
    Suddenly a man dressed in shabby clothes who looks like a beggar comes in through the door and kindly asks
    'Do you have a suspended coffee ?'
    It's simple - people pay in advance for a coffee meant for someone who can not afford a warm beverage. The tradition with the suspended coffees started in Naples, but it has spread all over the world and in some places you can order not only a suspended coffee, but also a sandwich or a whole meal."
    It seems that it is an Italian tradition that has been around for some time. This blogger witnessed it in Naples in 2011 and identified it as a form of dignified charity, giving this explanation:
    “Right after the war, many gentlemen had lost everything they had, and couldn’t even afford coffee. Now, being that black hot liquid pleasure not considered a treat, but rather a basic human right in the life of any Neapolitan, those gentlemen who could still afford to have one, took a habit of paying for two: one they drank, the other was credited, to be had by the first less fortunate peer who would casually walk in the bar. The bartender would then say: “would you like a coffee, sir?”
    Which meant: there is a coffee paid for you, if you can’t afford one. The donor and the recipient would remain anonymous to each other, to protect generosity, pride, and the pleasure of coffee beyond hardships. 

    Although I think food rather than coffee is the priority; a hot drink can be a wonderful boost.

    At a time when so many people are struggling, it seems to me to be helpful, to publicise ways that those of us who are fortunate enough not to have to rely on benefits can help others - without compromising their dignity.

    My local newspaper the Newbury Weekly News reported the official opening of a food bank this week. The occasion was graced by a former archbishop to 'open' it, but the Baptist Church in Cheap St has been doing a wonderful job for some time. I am made slightly anxious about the mention in the news report of people being 'referrred' to the Food Bank now that it's under the management of the Trussell Trust. The Baptist Church used to give it to anyone who turned up twice a week for a hot meal. I hope people can 'self refer' and won't have to be in the system in order to get help. The new distribution points are the Salvation Army in Northcroft Lane, Newbury, The Baptist Church in Thatcham and the Methodist Church in Hungerford.

    I'm glad the Food Bank is getting publicity and good people will donate, but the irony is that food brand owners have mountains of unwanted stocks, that are surplus for so many reasons (short codes, packaging redesign, a promotion that has expired but not the shelf life etc) but they don't want to release this perfectly good stock into their regular distribution channels at discounted rates because it erodes brand values. So the brand owner has basically got 4 options.. They can:
    • destroy the stock; 
    • export; 
    • sell to a discount channel -
    • redistribute the food in a charitable way that doesn't dissipate brand values.
    It breaks my heart that fourth one, the model set by Second Harvest and Fare Share, is not universal and the most obvious route for a brand owner that cares about their corporate reputation.

    It's something I researched and had quite a bit published on a few years back, and it still astonishes me that it is primarily individuals that contribute the actual food, not companies and that it is churches organising the distribution points.

    The link given in the paper for cash donations to the Food Bank doesn't appear to be linkable to directly (what genius designed that?) but if you go here and search for the keyword WB10419 you should arrive at a page where you can donate with Gift Aid.

    Donations in cash or cheque payable to CTNA and tinned food donations can be left at the West Berkshire Food Bank, 4-8 The Broadway, Northbrook Street, tel 01635 760540, email and I imagine you can still take tinned food and donations to the Baptist Church in Cheap St as before.

    There's a Suspended Coffee Facebook page which is campaigning to get people to urge their nearest coffee  shop to get on board.