Land’s End, and home again

We’ve been back in New Zealand for more than three weeks now, and it feels like a long time since I was writing about Zennor.

Continuing round the Cornish coast, we reached Land’s End, the most westerly part of mainland Cornwall. ‘From Land’s End to John o’ Groats’ is often used as a measure of travelling between Britain’s southwestern and northeastern extremities (John o’ Groats is in the far northeast of Scotland). Today, Land’s End is a tourist trap where you even have to pay to have your photo taken in front of the distance marker shown above (the staff will add your home town to the sign to create a personalised photo).

Some four kilometres on from Land’s End is Porthcurno, a small village with a big place in history.
This memorial marks Porthcurno’s role as a global communications hub, the termination point for international submarine telegraph cables. These cables connected Britain to the rest of the Empire and the wider world, including New Zealand. A cable between Cable Bay in Nelson and La Perouse in Sydney, laid in 1876, linked New Zealand to Australia, and from there to Britain (via Java and Suez).

In time, telegraph cables were joined by Guglielmo Marconi’s new wireless or radio telegraphy. A wireless transmitting station was established at Poldhu in Cornwall (we didn’t quite get that far on our walking holiday), and in 1928 the company that operated the cable station at Porthcurno merged with Marconi’s company. In 1898, Marconi established the world’s first wireless factory in Chelmsford in Essex. A new, purpose-built Marconi radio factory opened in Chelmsford in 1912, and it was from here that the first official radio broadcast in the UK, featuring Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba, was transmitted in 1920. Chelmsford happens to be where Fiona’s brother and sister-in-law live, and was our final stop after leaving Cornwall, before we started our return journey to New Zealand
Almost a century after the first radio broadcast, and a century and a half or so after telegraphy significantly increased the speed of international communication, the world is connected by the internet. Thanks to the World Wide Web, family and friends in New Zealand, Australia and the United States have been able to follow our adventures in Scotland and elsewhere through this blog. It’s been great to keep in touch with you through the blog, and thanks for your comments and encouragement. Some of you may have been disappointed not to get more of Fiona’s lovely words and images, and less of me wittering on about history. But though my voice dominates this blog, I hope it has given readers a good sense of the places Fiona and I were exploring together. And to all the readers in Portugal and elsewhere who have been finding your way to the post ‘Lisbon A-Z (part 1)’ (very few continue on to part 2, I note), I hope you haven’t been too disappointed not to find a practical guide to Portugal’s fabulous capital!

Arriving back in New Zealand for the first time as a New Zealand citizen, I was disappointed to find that the immigration check at the airport has been automated, so there was no smiling official waiting to say ‘welcome home’. It is great to be home, though — back with family and friends, in a land where Vegemite isn’t only available in selected shops, and where people walk on the right (that is, the left) side of the footpath.

Now that we’re home, this blog will become mainly a record of our time away, rather than something we update regularly — although we may still use it from time to time when we’re on holiday. I’m planning to start a new blog for my musings on history, politics and other subjects, so stay tuned for that if you’re interested.

A week or so after our return, we went to Christchurch to attend the wedding of some friends (the same friends with whom we had such a good time holidaying in Lisbon, as it happens). It was a lovely wedding, and nice too to see central Christchurch gradually recovering from the 2010-11 earthquakes. It was also an opportunity to travel just outside Christchurch to the town of Lincoln. Did it, like Lincoln, England, exceed expectations? Perhaps not, but it was a very pleasant place in which to spend a few hours on a cold but sunny winter’s day. And so we leave you with another photo of the Lincolns in Lincoln. Goodbye for now, and thanks for reading!



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As our last holiday hurrah before returning to New Zealand, we are now on a walking tour in western Cornwall. Today was the first day of walking, travelling along the coastal path from St Ives to the little village of Zennor. Once again, we are lucky enough to find ourselves in a very beautiful part of Britain (the photos are Fiona’s, by the way).
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Zennor itself, though small, has some interesting historical associations. It is perhaps best known for the story of a mermaid who is said to have lured away a local lad, having been entranced by his singing in the church choir. This story is presumably the reason why the local church has a chair featuring an image of a mermaid.
Also inside the church is a gravestone featuring this interesting image and poem: ‘Hope, fear, false joy and trouble/ Are those four winds which daily toss this bub[b]le/ His breath’s a vapor and his life’s a span/ Tis glorious misrey to be born a man’.
For some reason, a number of sources describe this as the gravestone of a ‘hen-pecked husband’, but there’s absolutely nothing in the inscription to suggest any such thing. Perhaps people are misinterpreting the line about ‘glorious misrey [misery] to be born a man’, which is clearly meant to be about the short and troubled life of human beings rather than any sort of message about the difficulties of being male.

Out in the church yard is a memorial to one of the claimants to the title of last native speaker of the Cornish language, John Davey, who died in 1895.
Cornish is a Celtic language, related most closely to Welsh and Breton. Although it had essentially ceased to be a living language by the nineteenth century, it was revived in the twentieth century, and has been recognised as a minority language by the European Union and by the UK Government.

This evening we went to the Tinner’s Arms pub for dinner, its name referring to the miners who used to work in Cornwall’s many tin mines in earlier times.
Just over a century earlier, the writer D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda are believed to have stayed briefly at the Tinner’s Arms before finding a house in Zennor. Lawrence was hoping to set up a sort of artists’ commune there with the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield and her husband (who did join Lawrence and Frieda there for a little while). Lawrence seems not to have had a particularly happy time in Zennor: he was ambivalent about the Cornish people, and they appear not to have taken kindly to him and his German-born wife at a time when Britain was at war with Germany. In fact, the Lawrences were ultimately forced to leave Cornwall after suspicions developed that they were German spies. Lawrence subsequently wrote about his experience of living in Cornwall in a chapter of his semi-autobiographical novel Kangaroo, which is set mainly in Australia.

New Zealand in Liverpool

I recently visited Newcastle and Liverpool, two great northern English cities. There is much I could write about Liverpool in particular, and its fascinating history, but time is running out to write about such things before we return to New Zealand. Among the most interesting things about Liverpool are its many connections to the wider world through its role as a port city. So it is perhaps not entirely surprising to find signs there of Liverpool’s links, through trade and emigration, with New Zealand.

For a start, there is New Zealand House. It’s a fairly undistinguished building, and I can’t find out what its original purpose was, although in recent times it has apparently been used as the venue for a ‘trendy nightspot‘ patronised by celebrities and politicians.
Not too far from New Zealand House is the Cunard Building, one of the famous ‘Three Graces‘ (three spectacular, early twentieth-century buildings on the Liverpool waterfront). The Cunard Building was the headquarters of the Cunard Line, and to represent the company’s global operations, the outside of the building features the heads of different ‘races’ from around the world. And what should we find there but a head meant to represent Maori, complete with feather and chin moko (tattoo).
In the early twentieth century, the Cunard Line was in competition with the White Star Line, also based in Liverpool, particularly for the trans-Atlantic passenger market. The White Star Line is perhaps most famous today for being the company that owned the Titanic, and an excellent exhibition at the Liverpool Maritime Museum explores Liverpool’s connection with the Titanic story (including the competition between the Cunard and White Star lines), something I’d previously been unaware of.

As part of the exhibition, the museum has displayed an elaborate dinner service presented in 1885 to the founder and chairman of the White Star Line, Thomas Ismay, by the company’s shareholders. The dinner service was designed ‘to illustrate the progress of the art of navigation from earliest times, to the present day’. It includes what seems to be a figure of Captain Cook – and also a tiny Maori waka (canoe) and hoe (paddle). New Zealand finds its way into the most unexpected places!


War poets

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the meeting in Edinburgh of the war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Through the remainder of the year, a programme of activities to mark the centenary will be running under the banner ‘Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh 1917-2017’.

We will have returned to New Zealand by the time most of these commemorative events take place, but the other day I made a little expedition to the location that is most strongly associated with Owen’s and Sassoon’s time in Edinburgh: Craiglockhart, in Edinburgh’s southwest.

In 1880, Craiglockhart Hydropathic opened, providing the then-fashionable water therapy based on hot and cold baths. From 1916 to 1919, the building was requisitioned by the military for use as a treatment centre for shell-shocked officers. It was here that Owen and Sassoon met, having both been sent to Craighlockhart for treatment (in Sassoon’s case, treatment was an alternative to court martial, after he had written a scathing letter criticising the war in which he was fighting). Sassoon encouraged Owen’s writing, and particularly encouraged him to write about his experience of war, which Owen did in poems that have become perhaps the most famous poetic representations in English of the First World War.

By the standards of the day, the doctors at Craiglockhart took a sympathetic view of the mental trauma suffered by their patients, influenced by some of the latest thinking in psychiatry. Sassoon’s doctor W.H.R. Rivers, who had previously been an anthropologist (including in Australia’s Torres Strait Islands), developed a close relationship with his patient, one that is portrayed in Pat Barker’s excellent novel, Regeneration. Barker’s novel explores the contradiction that lay at the heart of the work of Craiglockhart: that the job of the hospital was to help men to become ‘sane’ enough to return to the insane conditions of the Western Front. In an editorial for the hospital’s journal, Owen wrote that ‘many of us who came to the Hydro slightly ill are now getting dangerously well’. Of the 1801 officers treated there, 758 returned to active service, including both Owen and Sassoon. Wilfred Owen was killed on 4 November 1918, only a week before the Armistice.

Today, the former Craighlockhart Hydro building is part of Edinburgh Napier University, where it has been joined up with a somewhat futuristic egg-shaped building.
Despite this odd conjunction of architectural styles, the university has recognised its important historical connection with the Craiglockhart Hydropathic, and with the war poets in particular. It is home to the War Poets Collection and to a related permanent exhibition.

On the campus, and walking around the nearby woods and hills, it is easy to see how the environment would have been restorative to men traumatised by war.

The connection between the poets and the landscape is recognised in a sculpture, ‘Hillside’, at the nearby shops. Erected in 2012, the sculpture represents the local hills and includes the whole text of Owen’s poem ‘Spring Offensive’.

From Craiglockhart I walked through the suburb of Morningside to Grange Cemetery. Quite a few notable people in Scotland’s religious, political and business history are buried there, but one of the most interesting memorials is that to a relatively recent political figure, Robin Cook. Cook was Foreign Secretary from 1997 to 2001 in Tony Blair’s Labour Government. In 2003, he famously resigned from Cabinet due to his opposition to the Iraq War. The epitaph on his tombstone reads: ‘I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war’.

Hector Macdonald

‘Erected by the friends of his youth’

A stone tower at the intersection of two country roads in Scotland’s Black Isle led me to the story of Sir Hector Macdonald.

The plaque above the tower’s door says much, and yet so little. Enlisted private, died Major-General. Campaigns and battles – Kandahar, Majuba Hill, Omdurman – parade down the smooth surface. Thanked, awarded, mentioned in despatches.

Nothing about the fatal bullet he fired through his head in a Paris hotel room in March 1903. No allusion to the ‘very grave’ charges of sexual misconduct with boys in Ceylon. Did his friends believe him a hero falsely accused, brought down for being a crofter’s son who got above his station? Did they hear the rumours that he’d faked his suicide and assumed the identity of a German general?

Crucial documents missing, the facts elusive. A closed door bars the way to the tower’s interior.

Inspired by Fiona’s efforts with flash fiction, I decided to have a go at writing some flash history (history written in a very few words) for a competition currently being run by the New Zealand Journal of Public History. The above piece was written for the competition, but unfortunately I didn’t properly read the part about the flash histories needing to focus on an aspect of New Zealand history. So I won’t be able to enter this piece in the competition, but may try my hand at another one.

There is actually a connection between Hector Macdonald and New Zealand, because in 1901 he toured Australia and New Zealand. Macdonald was famous throughout the British Empire, and I’m interested in writing more about his reputation in New Zealand and Australia both before and after his death. I’ve done some research on the topic while I’ve been here, and plan to do a lot more once I get back to New Zealand. So hopefully I may eventually be able to reuse some of my flash history as part of a much longer article!

The ‘last invasion’ of Britain

The town of Fishguard, where we stayed during our time in Pembrokeshire, makes much of its connection with what is often referred to as the ‘last invasion of Britain’.

In the late 1790s, Britain was at war with Republican France, while in Ireland members of the Society of United Irishmen were preparing for a revolt against British rule. The French planned to land a large body of troops in Ireland to support the United Irishmen, while two smaller French forces were to stage diversionary attacks in northern England and Wales. The hope was that disaffected locals might support the revolutionary French.

In the event, however, only the Welsh attack took place. In December 1796 the French expedition reached Bantry Bay in Ireland but the fleet was struck by heavy storms and, unable to land any men, forced to return to France. A similar fate befell the expedition that had been heading for Newcastle in England. The third expedition, however, landed at Carreg Wastad, a headland about three miles west of Fishguard, on 22 February 1797. It was led by an American, William Tate, and was composed of a rag-tag mix of French regular soldiers and irregulars (who included deserters and prisoners).

The British hastily assembled a force of soldiers, sailors and militia, and some civilians also armed themselves to oppose the French. Discipline quickly broke down among the French irregulars, and French forces looted local settlements. On 24 February, the British force lined up in battle order on Goodwick Sands, just west of Fishguard, where the French surrendered and were taken prisoner.

Very little fighting had taken place in the ‘invasion’, but it did lead to a brief financial panic in England and was used to cast suspicion on Nonconformists (Protestants who had broken away from the Anglican church), some of whom were accused of supporting the French. The United Irish Rising did take place in Ireland in 1798, and a small French force landed in County Mayo to support the Rising. The promise of French support was celebrated in Irish nationalist folklore, such as the song ‘The Shan Van Vocht’ (‘”the French are in the Bay,/ They’ll be here without delay/ And the Orange shall decay”,/ says the Shan Van Vocht’).

In Fishguard, by contrast, it was resistance to, not assistance from, the French that was celebrated. For many years after 1797, a thanksgiving service was held annually at Goodwick Sands, and the centenary in 1897 was a major event. This memorial stone, with text in Welsh and English, was placed at Carreg Wastad to commemorate the centenary.
The centenary was also marked by the issuing of this medal.
The medal shows women in traditional Welsh costume, holding pitchforks, and an interesting feature of the mythology of the ‘last invasion’ is the prominent role it gives to women. Here is a photograph of a group of women who dressed up for the centenary.
The reference in the caption to these women as ‘Jemima’s Army’ combines two stories that seem to have gained particular prominence around the centenary. The first story is that the French were tricked by a large group of women wearing traditional dress of red shawls and tall black hats, which from a distance looked like soldiers’ uniforms.


The second story concerns a woman called Jemima Nicholas, a cobbler from Fishguard who is said to have personally captured a number of French soldiers, armed only with a pitchfork. Although this story is recorded earlier in the nineteenth century, it seems to have really taken off at the time of the centenary, and to have become fused with the idea of the ‘army’ of women, who were supposedly led by Nicholas. A newspaper clipping in the local heritage centre suggests somewhat subversively that the councillors of Fishguard, concerned that their town played only a minor role in the history of the ‘invasion’, may have deliberately emphasised the story of this Fishguard resident for the centenary. It was in 1897 that this memorial stone to Nicholas was erected in St Mary’s church, Fishguard, for example.
Another clipping in the heritage centre suggests that Nicholas may have been happy to fight people other than the French. A Jemima Nicholas was apparently among a group of people charged (though acquitted due to insufficient evidence) with rioting in Fishguard in 1824. She seems to have been a formidable figure: at her death in 1832, the local vicar recalled that she was ‘of such personal powers as to be able to overcome most men in a fight’. Interestingly, however, what appears to be a contemporary cartoon from the time of the invasion (photographed from an information board in Goodwick) seems to show a man (possibly a version of John Bull) holding back the French with a pitchfork, while a woman tips the contents of a chamber pot over a French officer.

Whether or not her role has been exaggerated, images of Jemima Nicholas and her pitchfork are ubiquitous in and around Fishguard today.

Another story that may have been invented or exaggerated at the time of the centenary is that a ‘peace treaty’ or document of French surrender was signed at the Royal Oak Inn in Fishguard. The pub displays the table on which this document was supposedly signed.

Women were prominent again during the bicentenary of the ‘invasion’ in 1997. A local woman dressed up as Jemima Nicholas, and was accompanied by her ‘army’.
The major bicentennial project was the creation of the Last Invasion Tapestry, which tells the story of the ‘invasion’ and is now on permanent display in a special gallery in the Fishguard Town Hall. Designed by Fishguard-based artist Elizabeth Cramp, the tapestry was stitched by some 70 local women.

Eighteen years after the ‘last invasion of Britain’, the long period of conflict between Britain and France ended at the Battle of Waterloo. Pemrokeshire-born Sir Thomas Picton was the most senior officer to be killed at Waterloo, and was celebrated as a hero in Wales and throughout the Empire, including in New Zealand, where the Marlborough town of Picton was named for him. In February 1797, however, Picton was busy participating in the British invasion of the Spanish colony of Trinidad. He was then made Governor of the island, whose economy was based on the production of sugar by enslaved Africans, and he became notorious for the brutal and authoritarian nature of his governorship. Perhaps it is time for Picton to revert to its Maori name of Waitohi?

Old South Wales

We’re currently in southwest Wales, staying in the town of Fishguard and walking part of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path with friends. South Wales is beautiful and has a fascinating history, so I’m really glad we’ve made it here before we leave the UK.

On our way to Fishguard, we made a few quick visits to places which played important roles in the political and industrial history of Wales. First stop was Newport, where in 1839 a large demonstration in support of the Chartist movement took place. (Chartism was a working class movement that sought the extension of the vote to all adult males, rather than only those who owned property.) Troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing around 22 of them. Several Chartist leaders were subsequently sentenced to death for treason for involvement in the ‘rising’, but their sentences were subsequently commuted to transportation to Australia. Newport’s role in the Chartist movement is commemorated by a set of statues near where the demonstrators were shot, and was also formerly commemorated by a mural that, controversially, was destroyed by the local council in 2013.
From Newport we drove through part of the Valleys, the former coal-mining and iron-working region that is synonymous with the industrial history of Wales. Today, coal-mining has almost entirely ceased in Wales, as in the rest of Britain, and the mines have passed into the realm of heritage. We drove through Blaenavon, which has been declared a World Heritage site for its role in the production of coal and iron, and stopped briefly at the Big Pit – formerly a working coal mine, now the National Coal Museum, where visitors can be taken down the mine shaft by a former coal miner.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go into the museum, and drove on to another important industrial town, Merthyr Tydfil, where we visited Cyfarthfa Castle. Cyfarthfa Castle was built in 1824-25 as the mansion of William Crawshay II, owner and manager of the nearby Cyfarthfa Ironworks. The Crawshay family left the house in 1889, and in 1908 it was bought by the local council, becoming a museum. Today, the museum has a fascinating split personality. The upper floor largely displays art, and artefacts illustrating the life of the castle’s wealthy owners; the lower floor represents the life and political struggles of the working people of Merthyr Tydfil.

The town has a radical history, from the Merthyr Rising of 1831 to the miners’ strike of the 1980s. The Merthyr Rising, prompted partly by William Crawshay’s decision to lower his workers’ wages, started with an attack on the debtors’ court and escalated into a riot which was put down by troops from a Scottish Highland regiment, who killed around 20 civilians and wounded many more. The Rising is believed to be the first occasion on which the red flag was flown in Britain. A number of leaders of the Rising were sentenced to transportation to Australia, and one was executed for allegedly stabbing a soldier. The Rising and its martyrs have been commemorated ever since, and on the day we visited a festival of music and politics called Merthyr Rising 2017 was taking place.

Heading further west into Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, we entered the heartland of another outburst of popular protest, the Rebecca Riots of 1839 to 1843. These riots were triggered by charges at toll gates which, coming on top of other taxes and charges which poor farmers could ill afford, were seen as excessive. The riots were named for their mythical leader, ‘Rebecca’, and male rioters sometimes dressed in women’s clothes. One incident in the riots was an attack on the workhouse in the town of Narberth, where we stopped for dinner.
Lower Fishguard, where we have been staying, was formerly a port and centre of the herring industry. One of its claims to fame is that it was used as location for the films of Under Milk Wood (1971), with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and Moby Dick (1956), starring Gregory Peck. The model whale from Moby Dick is rumoured still to be in the sea off Fishguard.
Fishguard is mainly known today as the location from which the ferry for Rosslare in Ireland departs, although in fact the ferry leaves from the neighbouring town of Goodwick. Historically, it is known for its connection with the ‘last invasion of Britain’ in 1797, about which I’ll write separately.

The wider Pembrokeshire area has other interesting historical associations. The stone for Stonehenge is believed to have come from Pembrokeshire’s Preseli hills, and Pentre Ifan is an astonishing neolithic monument capped by a stone that appears to teeter precariously on the tips of three supporting stones.
Nearby is Nevern church, home to a magnificent 10th-century Celtic cross.
Further away from Fishguard is St Davids, which has the distinction of being Britain’s smallest city (on the basis that a city is a town with a cathedral).
While we were looking round St David’s Cathedral, a rehearsal was going on in the cathedral for a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore that evening, which was a nice bonus. Saint David, the patron saint of Wales, is supposed to be buried at the cathedral, and his shrine was a major place of pilgrimage in medieval times. Saint David is said to have been baptised by Elvis, which may explain why Wales is known as the Land of Song…

One thing that is very noticeable in Wales is the presence of the Welsh language, which is the strongest of all the Celtic languages. All official signs, and most unofficial ones, are in Welsh and English. A bit under 20% of the Welsh population speak Welsh, although the proportion varies in different parts of the country. English is the primary language, but you do hear people speaking Welsh around where we’re staying – just today I heard an old man breaking into Welsh when talking to staff at the local council office. Another thing that strikes me is that old gravestones are written at least partly in Welsh – by contrast, in areas of Scotland that were formerly predominantly Gaelic-speaking the old gravestones all seemed to be in English.
New Zealand has been trying to learn from the Welsh experience in keeping a minority language alive: in fact, a group of Maori language students have been visiting Wales while we’ve been here, having already visited Ireland and Scotland.