I was recently in London, and took the opportunity to visit Kew. The one thing I particularly wanted to see there was the Great Pagoda. As you approach you can see the changes, where once there was a shabby building of brick and slate – now there are dragons.
When it was originally built in 1762, Sir William Chambers, who had visited China and knew exactly what a Chinese pagoda was like, decorated the roofs with carved dragons.
Unfortunately the dragons were made of carved pine, which rotted and few survived the terrible winter of 1783, those that did were removed and the pagoda was left bare for over two hundred and thirty years.
In 2018 a major renovation project led to the return of the Dragons. Carefully reconstructed from surviving drawings, the lower ones are carved wood, the upper, in a modern touch, of 3D printed plastic. So now we can glimpse something of the colourful splendour of Georgian popular architecture.
But there may be another explanation, this is the one preferred by my granddaughter.
When the Pagoda was first built, it was occupied by a small flock of Chinese Dragons, they didn’t do very well in the increasingly smoky air of London, and disappeared during the terrible winter of 1783.
Now, with the warming climate and cleaner air the dragons have returned. They sleep during the day, and at night they fly across the gardens. Then this year something strange has been seen in the gardens, giant glassy spheres in the gravel near the base of the pagoda.
“Professor, this rock has a star on it.”
“Wonderful, another of these marvellous stones.”
“But don’t you think it looks as if it has been carved by hand?”
“Indeed it does, the hand of God. My theories about the nature of fossils are proved, I must write the book immediately.”
Illustration from Lithographiae Wirceburgensis
The conspirators were delighted.
“If he publishes he will be laughed at across Europe. We will be revenged.”
“But what if we are discovered? Already the stonecutter wants more money.”
“Don’t worry, he will lose his place in the University and we will be safe.”
They were very wrong.
In the 1720’s Professor Johann Beringer, professor of Natural History at the University of Würzburg, collected numerous fossils. At the time it was debated whether they were the remains of long dead animals and plants or had been created by God during the process of creation.
J. Ignatz Roderick and Georg von Eckhart, colleagues and rivals at the university, arranged for hundreds of mock fossils to be carved and placed where Beringer could find them. Beringer published his book, Lithographiae Wirceburgensis, which was universally mocked.
Then the stonemason came forward, as he hadn’t been paid, Beringer sued Roderick and Eckhart and won, they were dismissed from the university. Beringer remained at the university and wrote many more books, but none as controversial, Roderick and Eckhart died in poverty, not helped by the fact that the stonemason also won his case for unpaid wages!
This piece was written in response to the latest Carrot Ranch prompt; In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rock star. You can feature a central character or write about the feeling like a rock star. Go where the prompt leads!
I, naturally, have been led up a curious byway of scientific history, I hope you enjoy it.
Jane Austen smiled at her sister’s letter, she enjoyed hearing from Cassandra, but sometimes her letters just contained a litany of complaints. Some, such as missing seeing the King and Queen were reasonable enough, but a lack of Ice! In September! After a hot summer! Really.
She picked up her pen, tucked her tongue firmly into her cheek, and wrote;
“Your account of Weymouth contains nothing which strikes me so forcibly as there being no Ice in the Town. Weymouth is altogether a shocking place I perceive, without recommendation of any kind, only suitable for the inhabitants of Gloucester!”
A Georgian Ice House
Jane Austen’s letter was written on Friday 14 September 1804.
At the time Ice was collected during the winter and stored in Ice Houses, specially insulated buildings, for use during the summer. Slightly later it was even imported from the Arctic in specially built ships. To have no ice available in late summer was hardly unusual.
No one knows what she had against the inhabitants of Gloucester.
This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, May 23, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story without ice. It can be a world without ice or a summer camp that runs out of cubes for lemonade. What does the lack mean to the story? Go where the prompt leads!
As usual I have been led on an unlikely byway into the past Hope you enjoy it.
The tree was new to him, a massive silver needled pine. He climbed off his horse and walked slowly round the fallen giant, in the root plate he noticed a yellow glint, carelessly he dropped the golden nugget in his pocket, then found what he was looking for. In what had been the topmost branches were mature cones. Carefully he collected the seed.
His letter to Kew began; “Wonderful discoveries, you must think I have been manufacturing pines, I have found so many.”
He never mentioned the gold, to the plant hunter David Douglas, trees were much more important.
A true story, David Douglas, one of the great early plant hunters, discovered hundreds of species during his expeditions in North West America, the Douglas Fir is named after him. When told that gold had been discovered in California, he replied that he had often found small nuggets when digging up plant specimens, but he had never mentioned it as he didn’t think it was of any interest.
I was trying to find out about early nineteenth century plant labels (I will tell you why another time), when I came across an interesting name, a name associated with ghosts in the garden.
Now I don’t mean ghosts like the young lady, wearing a long white dress, who I saw one late summer evening, long years ago, walking across an old garden in Bristol. She stepped behind a clump of shrubs and vanished. I hope she walks there still. I can think of worse ways to spend your afterlife than walking though English gardens in the summer twilight.
No this ghost is very real.
At the beginning of the last century lived Ellen Willmott, she was a great gardener. One person dubbed her “the greatest of all living women gardeners”, though none would agree with that now, simply because the remark was made by Gertrude Jekyll, who was the greatest of all women gardeners.
Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Ellen Willmott was a great gardener. She was also a notable garden writer, writing for magazines like ‘Country Life’. In the course of her journalism she visited many gardens, up and down the land, nervously welcomed as everyone wanted a good review from Miss Willmott, and all dreaded a bad one.
And then – after a few years gardeners everywhere began to notice a new flower appearing in their herbaceous borders, a straggly blue flower with spiky leaves. Then it was realised that the flowers began to make an appearance a year or so after a visit from Miss Willmott. She never admitted it, but people though that she had a secret pocket full of the seeds, which she discretely scattered in the flowerbeds as she bent to admire a particular flower.
It is for this reason that Eryngium giganteum is now known as;
Miss Willmott’s ghost
It has been some time since I described a discovery I had made in a charity shop, and the journey of discovery on which it could lead. My previous discoveries have included Playing Cards, a Kitchen Ladle and a collection of Regency Music.
It was in a glass case, it looked very tatty but old, the initial glimpse suggested a couple of hundred years or so old.
It was a small tray, the base of which was a picture, clearly of eighteenth century date. On initial examination it could be seen that the picture looked as if it was a print of a young couple. The rest of the tray was faded and discoloured, but immediately suggested something interesting, that it was not a professionally made object but something made by an amateur. I naturally bought it immediately and took it home for examination.
Cleaning it confirmed what I had expected, the base had been decorated with a section cut from a larger print and then coloured, probably in watercolour. It was in excellent condition, having been protected by a sheet of glass, now heavily scratched from long use. The same could not be said for the sides of the tray. Made from thin wood they had been covered with ribbon and the top protected by a length of metal braid.
Whilst I was now pretty certain, that the box was of eighteenth century date, there were some things I could do to help confirm this. The first was to identify the print. Here the British Museum website proved invaluable. It allows you to enter a series of criteria to search their huge collections. It was a print, it was probably eighteenth century, the style looked to me to be French, and the young woman seemed to be feeding the young man cherries. I therefore entered these terms and in the few moments discovered this;
The print dates from 1784 and shows a scene from a French comic opera ‘Les Sabots’, with the hero and heroine Colin and Babet. The opera was written by Jacques Cazotte, an unusual author who was claimed to be able to predict the future, and is supposed to have given detailed descriptions of what was to happen to his acquaintances during the revolution. This skill didn’t help him though, as he was guillotined in 1792.
The sides of the tray were decorated with what appears to be a ribbon with a woven pattern, probably a floral sprig and the top is covered with a metallic braid folded over the wood. This suggests that the tray was made at home of material readily available, and is typical of some of the craftwork done by the ‘accomplished ladies’ of the eighteenth century. Prints were used to decorate just about everything on which they could be stuck, from small items like this tray, to furniture and even entire rooms.
The tray was probably used on a dressing table, to hold small objects.
So I will add the tray to my collection, and keep exploring our local charity shops.
He struck the chisel with the wooden mallet, carefully. There was hardly any light as there was firedamp in the mine. Any flame or spark and the explosion would be devastating.
Then he saw it – a flame. It was approaching, he had nowhere to run, he shouted.
“Stop! there’s firedamp, stop!”
The flame approached, he continued to scream, the man was trying to shout something but the miner didn’t hear, as he fainted in terror.
He came too to see his vicar looking down, by the light of an impossible flame burning in – the world’s first safety lamp.
Firedamp, which mostly consisted of methane, was a terrible danger in early coal mines. It was highly inflammable, and as candles were the only way of lighting mines, the cause of many disasters.
After a terrible explosion which killed over ninety miners in 1812 the Rev. John Hodgson, vicar of Jarrow, campaigned for a safe way of lighting mines. The challenge was taken up by Sir Humphrey Davy and George Stephenson, in 1815 the two men had come up with similar solutions. It was whilst demonstrating Stephenson’s light that my tale took place.
This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a chisel. Use chisel as a noun or a verb. Hope you enjoy it.