Saturday, 28 January 2012

Wytch farm is the richest of them all

Where is Western Europe’s largest onshore oil field? Perhaps secreted under one of Norway’s fjords, under one of the Shetland Islands or close to the vast coal fields of northern France and Belgium?
Most people wouldn’t guess the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, but this is the home of 480 million barrels of recoverable reserves of crude oil. The oil field stretches east from Purbeck into Poole Harbour and then out into the English Channel to finish just south of the popular seaside resort of Bournemouth.
This was one of the best finds in the third series of the BBC’s Great British Railway Journeys, presented by Michael Portillo. Portillo, who had spent many weeks at Conservative Party Conferences in Bournemouth, was clearly surprised and delighted at this discovery.
The area had long been mined for oil bearing shale rock, but was only prospected for crude oil in the 1950s. The result was Wytch Farm and a mini-oil boom. It was a rich find, with production peaking at 110,000 barrels per day in 1997, and, even today, some 50,000 barrels of oil are extracted every day.
By the 1960s there was the unlikely juxtaposition of an array of nodding donkeys laying just a couple of miles north of the ancient and ruined Corfe Castle. Structures that are more associated with Texan oil finds were happily working away in the remote Dorset countryside.
So unlikely is the location that great care was taken to disguise this vast industrial complex. The metalwork is painted in a reddish-brown to blend with the coniferous forest that was planted all around. The site is sunk a few metres below the surrounding countryside, and , as far as possible, low lying buildings were preferred to the towering structures more familiar to the oil and chemical industries.

Counting the counties

Have you ever been seized with a mad desire to see thirteen British counties in a single day? No? Just me?
In another vaguely interesting section on the BBC’s Great British Railway Journeys, Michael Portillo visited Broadway Tower. This is a curious, three sided folly on the top of Broadway Hill. Broadway Hill is the second highest point in the Cotswolds, rising to 312 metres above sea level. The tower is another 17 metres high, providing a commanding view 329 metres above sea level.
On visiting, Mr Portillo was clearly disappointed to learn that the ‘Saxon’ tower describes the architectural style rather than the period of construction. It was built at the request of Lady Coventry and was designed by James Wyatt in 1794 and completed in 1799. Mr Portillo’s disappointed turned to joy on learning that, on a clear day, up to thirteen counties can be seen from the top. Some other sources suggest that the true figure is fourteen, but this is more a reflection of local government reorganisation than a geographic dispute.
The visible counties (with non-historic counties in italics) are (clockwise from the north):
  •          West Midlands
  •          Staffordshire
  •          Warwickshire
  •          Leicestershire
  •          Northamptonshire
  •          Buckinghamshire
  •          Wiltshire
  •          Gloucestershire
  •          Somerset (listed as Bath & North Somerset (Formally Avon))
  •          Gwent
  •          Herefordshire
  •          Worcestershire
  •          Dyfed
  •          Shropshire

Apophyrical turncoats

The English Civil War was a period of unparalleled brutality across the British Isles. The conflict pitted fathers against sons, tore families apart and divided many communities for generations. Against this violent backdrop, the story of Lady Bankes and the defence and ultimate capture of Corfe Castle is one of the more romantic and audacious tales.
Corfe Castle was one of England’s first Norman castles and occupied an enviably strong position commanding a gap in the Purbeck Hills between Wareham and Swanage in Dorset. It was originally a royal fortress, and remained controlled by the Crown until Elizabeth I sold it to Sir Christopher Hatton in 1572. In the seventeenth century it passed into the hands of Sir John Bankes and his indominatable wife, Lady Mary Bankes.
Sir John was the Attorney General to Charles I and a committed Royalist. He stayed by the King’s side in Oxford whilst his wife remained at Corfe Castle. Unfortunately, most of the rest of southern England, including Dorset, was under firm Parliamentary control. Corfe Castle was put to siege, with a handful of Royalists commanded by Lady Bankes foiling a Parliamentary force of several hundred.
At this point, the Parliamentary forces under Colonel Bingham had the simple if brilliant idea of turning their coats inside out. The lining of their uniforms was in Royalist colours and the castle’s defender’s were tricked into believing they had been relieved. Parliamentary troops thus breached walls, gained entry to the keep and captured the castle.
Unfortunately, this story is not borne out by the word’s printed history. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest entry for turncoat is 1570, predating the English Civil War by over 70 years.
This leads to another, probably apophyrical story of the word’s origins. The 1898 edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has an admirably constrained explanation of the word’s supposed origin in the actions of the Duke of Saxony:
“As the dominions of the duke of Saxony were bounded in part by France, one of the early dukes hit upon the device of a coat blue one side, and white the other. When he wished to be thought in the French interest he wore the white outside; otherwise the outside colour was blue.”
A definitive etymology is impossible, but it is more likely that the word was employed to describe anyone who hid their allegiances by turning their coat inside out and thus hiding their party colours or heraldic badges. You should never let the truth get in the way of a good story, but it is always a good to understand the more likely (if, admittedly, more boring) facts behind the story!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Jubilee nation

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Assuming the Queen makes it to February, she will join Queen Victoria as the only British monarch to reach the landmark of a diamond jubilee. Elizabeth II then has another 3 years, 7 months and 3 days to become the longest serving British monarch of all time.

Although no King has reached sixty years on the throne, George III, Henry III and Edward III prove that longevity is not the exclusive preserve of female rulers. They are the only three English monarchs to have reached the landmark of a golden jubilee (although only George III can be said to have celebrated a golden jubilee as it is his fifty years on the throne that kicks off the age of royal jubilee celebrations). James I of Scotland joins them as the fourth longest reigning British monarch.

It might be pure coincidence that the English kings were all the third to bear their royal name, but this could be auspicious for the Prince of Wales if he decides to take his birth name as his royal name and become Charles III.

Nine other English (or UK) monarchs reached their silver jubilees, ranging over a millennia of British history from Aethelred the Unready to George V. Scotland also has nine monarchs who reigned for more than 25 years.

United Kingdom or England

Queen Victoria – 20 June 1837 (63 years 7 months 2 days)
Queen Elizabeth II (60 years on 6 February 20120)

George III - 25 October 1810 (59 years 3 months 2 days)
Henry III – 18 October 1266 (56 years 29 days)
Edward III – 25 January 1375 (50 years 4 months 25 days)

Elizabeth I - 17 November 17 1583 (44 years 4 months 5 days)
Henry VI - 1 September 1447 (39 years 9 months 12 days)
Aethelred II - 18 March 1003 (38 years 1 months 5 days)
Henry VIII - 21 April 1534 (37 years 9 months 7 days)
Henry I - 3 August 3 1125 (35 years 3 months 28 days)
Henry II - 25 October 1179 (34 years 8 months 11 days)
Edward I - 20 November 1297 (34 years 7 months 14 days)
George II - 11 June 1752 (33 years 1 months 14 days)
George V - 6 May 1935 (25 years 8 months 15 days)


James VI (later James I of England) – 24 July 1593 (57 years and 246 days)

William I – 6 December 1190 (48 years, 360 days)
David II – 7 June 1354 (41 years, 260 days)
Alexander III – 6 July 1274 (36 years, 256 days)
Malcolm III - 17 March 1083 (35 years, 241 days)
Alexander II - 4 December 1239 (34 years, 214 days)
James I - 4 April 1431 (30 years, 323 days)
James V - 9 September 1538 (29 years, 96 days)
David I - 23 April 1149 (29 years, 31 days)
James III - 3 August 1485 (27 years, 313 days)

Sichaun the city?

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The blistering pace of development in China ensures there are no shortages of dazzling statistics and facts about the middle kingdom. The latest to attract my attention was a report in today’s Financial Times that announced that China’s urban dwellers now outnumbered the rural population. At the end of 2010 49.95% of its population lived in cities. By the end of 2011 this had risen to 51.27%. At some point in 2011 China reached the urban tipping point, joining many others around the world.

The world reached a similar tipping point in 2008 (according to this report by the UN) when the earth’s urban population made up more than 50% for the first time. This is another step along a process that started with Britain’s majority urban population in 1851, and developed through Europe, North America and South America.

The next major population centre to become majority urban will be India. This is forecast to occur by 2025, but could be much sooner if the current rate of demographic shift is matched in years to come.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Malmesbury - the first capital of England?

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I was dozily watching the first programme in the BBC 4 documentary series ‘Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings’ late last night when the presenter, Dr Janina Ramirez, said something that grabbed my full attention:

“the place he treated as capital of his new kingdom [i.e. England] was near its centre – Malmsebury”.

Malmsebury? Whatthenow? I had never even heard of Malmsebury, let alone of its central position in English history. I blame the Anglo-Saxons – I have never really delved much before 1066 in history. It is all graphemes and dipthongs, Æthelwulfs, Æthelberhts and Æthelreds. It isn’t until the Normans that we get kings with ‘normal’ names.

Putting my Anglo-Saxon prejudices aside, I had to look up Malmesbury and see what claim it had to be considered not only the capital of England, but also the nation’s first capital.

I knew London had not always been England’s capital city. I have visited Winchester and seen the towering statue of Alfred the Great and knew of its former primacy. I knew it had been the centre of the kingdom of Wessex and ultimately of a united England.

Winchester has a good claim and strongly believes it was the country’s first capital. Hampshire County Council even commissioned the Hampshire Jubilee Sculpture to emphasise this august history. Various other bodies also promote this line, from train companies to national parks. It certainly was England’s capital for much of the pre-Norman period, with important royal palaces, mints and ecclesiastic foundations.

So where does Malmsebury fit in? And is there any truth in the claim that it was England’s first capital? Malmsebury’s claim rests on its special relationship with King Athelstan (or Æthelstan). Some historians record that Athelstan made Malmsebury his capital in 925 AD. The date is important, because Athelstan would become the king of a unified England from 927 AD. If Malmsebury was his capital, then surely Malmsebury was capital of this new kingdom and therefore England’s first capital?

Malmsebury certainly thinks so – and places great store in this claim for its modern tourist appeal. But others claim that although Athelstan bestowed great privileges on the town, he had not gone so far as to remove the capital from Winchester. Winchester still retained some of the vital bureaucratic functions, buildings and offices of state.

So who is right? As ever with early English history, there is a decent argument for either interpretation. The notion of a single, fixed capital city had not yet really emerged, especially in a country that had only recently been forged from the instability of the Heptarchy. Both places undoubtedly played key roles during Athelstan’s reign, along with Westminster and Salisbury.

And so, with no clear answer I am left with just a little more knowledge and the desire to visit what looks like a very pretty and interesting Cotswold town. Perhaps there is power to the tourist pull of Athelstan’s legacy. 

What a palaver!

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I was walking down Roman Road in east London when I heard someone say something that made me smile. Roman Road, with its thriving street market and tight local community, is one of the most authentically Cockney places left in the capital. You’ll hear plenty of rhyming slang, strong accents and see market traders that would put Del Boy to shame.

It was amongst this crowd that I heard a throaty shout from a middle-aged stall holder: “oh, what a palaver!”, with her last word stretched with a long middle ‘a’ sound for extra emphasis. This seems the natural home of the word but it has travelled well, becoming an established part of Mockney and Thames Estuary vocabularies.

The deep jungle villages and tiny fishing ports of Sierra Leone and Liberia are far, far removed from E3. So it is surprising to find out that the word palaver enters English from these remote west African spots. I came across this reading Tim Butcher’s excellent book ‘Chasing the Devil’. Butcher retraces Graham Greene’s path through the jungle trails of these two African states and notes that the gathering places in the villages are called Palaver Huts.

Here the etymology becomes more complicated and entwined with west Africa’s difficult colonial history. Early Portuguese traders would use it as a word to described discussions or negotiations with the natives. It retains this direct link to speech in Portuguese and Spanish – palavra and palabra mean word in both languages respectively, and originally had a sense extending to talk or discussion. The ultimate root word is the Latin parabola (which also supplies the English word ‘parable’).   

The natives took a narrower interpretation, and in various Pidgin languages it emerged as a word for anything that needed arbitration – quarrels, disputes, misunderstandings and negotiations.  It was only natural, therefore, that the place that these disputes were settled would become known as the Palaver Hut.

If you can imagine the hubbub of different dialects, accents and languages that could be heard in a particularly fierce dispute, it becomes obvious how it came to mean a fuss or commotion, especially if it involved a tedious or unnecessary and drawn-out process. But how did it leap from the west African jungle to the streets of Tower Hamlets? This again links into our colonial and maritime past – the term appears to have been picked up by English seafarers in the early 18th century and to have passed from nautical slang to more common use by the later 19th century.

What a palaver!