Sunday, June 30, 2019

Diversity and High Society in the Regency Period


One of the projects I have had over the last year was to investigate minorities in the Regency period. It came about because I was doing my Life in the UK test and read about the man who started up the first Indian restaurant and who really popularized the taking of waters in Bath as well as the concept of shampooing (Indian head massage) – Sake Dean Mahomet. In June 2018, I went to the Black Salt exhibit in Liverpool and discovered Captain Jack Perkins. There wasn’t much on him at the exhibit as he didn’t fit the narrative of the exhibit but I became intrigued. He was the first black Naval officer and was one of the most prize-winning Naval captains during the American Revolution (therefore of all time). British Naval captains were members of the First Estate and not members of the working class.
 I then discovered Nathaniel Wells who was High Sheriff in Wales in 1818. His first wife was the daughter of George III’s chaplain and his 2nd related to William Wilberforce’s wife.  There was also Cesar Picton who rose from boy-slave to millionaire coal merchant in Kingston upon Hull. And of course there was Gustav Vassa who made one fortune in shipping after buying his freedom as a slave and another as a best selling author during the Georgian period. 
Today I discovered someone else -- a woman.  
The Sunday Times are reporting that the new series of Poldark will carry a strand about the real life adventures of American Revolutionary war hero and British officer Edward (Ned) Despard and his wife Catherine who had once been his servant. Apparently it was a real love match.
On his return to London, he and his wife for a time cut a swathe through Regency high society.
So far, so ordinary, so Regency romance.So far, so Poldark -- although Graham's son denies his father knew anything about Despard and his servant wife.
 Despard however had married his servant Catherine (Kitty) in what became Belize. 
He was an early campaigner for civil rights of the freed slaves and was removed from being the Superintendent of the colony (basically the governor) . Kitty was supposed to be Jamaican (although some people preferred to call her Spanish Creole).
Despard was a friend of Nelson's but it was Kitty who prevailed on him to intervene on Despard's behalf during the trial. Despard  was hanged in 1803 for his part in the so-called Despard plot. She also became an activist for prison reform. They had a son James -- no idea what happened to him.
I suspect some viewing the new season of Poldark will say that the BBC are being politically correct to make Kitty a black woman.
My point is that the notion that somehow black people (and other minorities) in British society during the Regency period was all of low class who did not mix with high society is a canard which is often peddled in Romancelandia as an excuse for not including diverse characters.
 Often they are hiding in plain sight, overlooked because they don't fit the historical narrative or social construct  on many levels.  In short more black men dined with the Prince of Wales than Wellington ever rose from the ranks to become officers. This is not to say that there wasn’t huge discrimination. The fact they continued to be overlooked points to that. To do your research, you must be aware of how people were presented and how things were brushed under the carpet. A painter visiting Wells for the first time expressed surprise at his countenance and that he was as dark as any West Indian but of course, he obvious wasn't (Wells was the son of a slave). It puts another interpretation on Mr Rochester's first  wife and brother-in-law btw. 
NB I haven’t mentioned the French and what was going on there – suffice to say, there is much to excite any historical romance writer who is interested in getting more diversity into their work.
It is time Romancelandia started reflecting what was actually happening during the Regency period, instead adhering to an Edwardian view of the period which Heyer developed.  The late Victorian and Edwardian periods were notoriously xenophobic and people’s family history was bleached. But they are there, hiding in plain sight. It is about time they were restored.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Ghost Wood

View of the dene from under the very large ash in the
farmer's field to the south of the property.



How old is the dene and what were its possible prior uses?
In order to discover, I have turned detective. The first bit was to do a brief survey of the trees in the dene – starting at the kissing gate to the footpath and moving upwards towards my section. Below the kissing gate is farm land, mostly run to sheep or occasionally cows. There are some remnants of trees by the stream but I decided it would not offer any real clues. The ash tree is huge there and must have stood the test of time, rough guess it has about 400 inch girth or so and at one point was heavily coppiced but hasn't been for a long time.
Banked earth by the kissing gate's dry stone wall
However, by the kissing gate, I can detect banked earth – in other words, as Rackham predicted there is a bank separating the woods from the arable field. There is also a stone wall which marks out the wooded area enclosing it to the west, including the footpath and seperating it from the arable field (and houses). Again Rackham suggested that this is entirely what one would expect with an older wood which may have been exploited at certain points.
So it would seem to be the ghost of an ancient wood which developed into a boundary or hedge. 
It was not profitable to farm down the dene, but I suspect the trees were exploited in some fashion and many show signs of coppicing which ceased many years ago. Most woods used to be exploited in some fashion, according to Rackham.
The kissing gate leading into the footpath.
On the house side of the dene are the remains of a hedge – the hawthorn, and several holly bushes. To see if my guess was accurate,  I turned to the 1862  OS Map of Haydon Bridge: https://maps.nls.uk/view/102346473  In common with older OS every feature is shown and this is before the house was built in 1908 so it gives some indication of land use.  The dene is clearly marked as a wood and there is clearly a footpath marked through it.  
Looking at the deeds, the house side of the dene belonged to Broom Hill farm at this time and was used as farm land ( I presume livestock). The land to the east and west was owned by the Greenwich Hospital. As an aside, this means it was the Earls of Derwentwater land which was sequestered after the failed Jacobite Rebellion. The Earl of Derwentwater supported Bonnie Prince Charlie and became the last noble to be executed for treason by the crown.  I have no idea when Broom Hill farm became separate from the Earls of Derwentwater land. However it was long enough ago for a footpath to develop and to demarcated by a stone wall on one side.
The name of the house to the south of us which was built in 1902 is Hedgeley and that probably indicates that the dene and its trees were indeed used as a hedge. the suffix -ley normally means a glade within a wood in Anglo Saxon. Going from the OS map, I assume it was named when built and the owners were creating a glade within the hedge. The Dene, the name of my house is self-explanatory and again features the land.
The trees are mixed – Scot’s pine, sycamore, oak, ash, hazel, willow, holly and lime. The Scots pine was probably plant/wind blown sometime in the Victorian era. Sycamore again is mostly likely 18th century or later. The lime is interesting as there appears to be three types – small leafed (pry) in the oldest part of the wood on the footpath. Pry is nearly always an indicator of an ancient wood. There is also a medium sized leaf lime (assuming common lime) – this is within Hedgeley boundaries. And there is the large leaf limes in my section. As there used to be an outcrop of limestone (assume there still is), it could explain the presence of the trees. Alternatively persons unknown planted them awhile ago.
Footpath 
Near to the limes in my part of the dene, in early spring there are white wood anemones. White wood anemones notoriously only grow in ancient woods. They grow through underground runners and advance very slowly. They also do not like being transplanted.  It is only a tiny patch but it is clinging on.  I have no idea if Hedgeley has white wood anemones or not.  However there are hedge plants such as stitchwort and green alknet. 
We also have wild garlic growing in profusion – wild garlic however can be transplanted. It is certainly though a plant which has gone wild in the garden.
Some of our flowers only appeared after we made sure light was getting into the dene – including the bluebells and the stitchwort. This accords with Rackman’s assertion that regular coppicing allowed certain species to colonise. Hedgeley with its closed canopy has slightly different flora. The footpath is much more open and has a mix of species. The sheer mix of flora through out the dene (I walked up the footpath, starting near the farm (no livestock in the field) seems to indicate a longevity.
While I have nettles (sign of human disturbance), Hedgeley's dene and the footpath are remarkably clear of nettles. According to Rackham, true wildwood doesn’t have nettles.
Further up beyond us is farmland where a disused dam resides. It occasionally gets blocked with the odd sheep carcass. The earthworks are huge though and it used to power the gin-gan of Peel Well Farm. The stream probably always has been here, and they simply blocked it as it was the best way to provide power. The stream also serves as run off from various farms (we have had environmental incidents – most recently in April – all I can do is report to the Environment Agency with photos).
It is also clear that my portion of the dene has been a garden for some years, probably over a hundred years (the house was built in 1908). The nettles give it away and there are remains of paths and retaining walls. The more formal part of the garden will have been farmland before the house was built.  I have no real idea of how the Victorian plum tree is (around a hundred years?) but I suspect the back lawn/orchard with wildflowers was at one point a productive orchard. It was also probably a vegetable patch. We have a much smaller veg patch which is now fenced to keep out the hens and ducks.
Where next?
 I need to find out about the outcrop of limestone and why it was considered to be of local geological interest. It was in the late 1990’s that the geologist decided that it couldn’t be seen. He seemed to think this would be better for us. I assumed at the time, it would mean that it could not be exploited. But I suspect I need to do more detective work here but I am starting to get an idea of how the dene can be managed – get rid of/weaken invasive non-natives (ie ground elder) to allow the native wild flora to flourish. The sticks do need to be left in situ as much as possible.
The robin on the footpath.
I also need to put the measuring tape around some of the larger trees as that might help indicate when the wood really developed. My daughter says that I mustn’t put a tape around large ash which is in the field as it isn’t strictly on the footpath. (At 26, she still gets embarrassed by her mother). It is a very large tree. However, I think I can find out a lot through measuring the beech and large leaf lime which are in my portion.  It is merely to discover if the trees were here before the house.  Given what I know about the wood and the surrounding area, it makes no sense for anyone to create an ornamental wood in the dene. There just were no major country houses in the area. The nearest was Langley Castle and that was a ruin during the period of major parkland creation and again it is too far away for that sort of activity to make any sense.
But I have having fun doing the detective work and thinking about the what used to be here and therefore what do the organisms in the soil (the roots if you will pardon the pun of the ecosystem) want to support?
On my walk up the dene, I noticed a robin (hopping in front of me as if to make sure I had filled in all the forms correctly)  as well as specked wood butterflies. It is the stopping and looking which has me noticing these things and that has to be a good thing.




Saturday, June 08, 2019

The Liberate Lawn --Wilding at the Dene




Start of liberation June 2018
note solar powered dryer



Lawn 2017, complete with buckets
where I was trying and failing to capture moles
I have at long last found the term to describe the current state of what was the back lawn – a liberated lawn (i.e. it has been freed from the tyranny of mowing). Eventually it will become a wildflower orchard but for right now it is a liberated lawn.
The Victoria plum has been in for a very long time and has the reputation of producing the most plums in the neighbourhood. Because it is right by the road, I know it has been scrumped over the years. The fig tree which is also by the wall has been in for about 20 years and we do get ripe figs (much to my surprise).
Liberated lawn April 2019
no mole hills
The apple trees have been in for 10 years and were planted in honour of Penny and Tuppence, two of our cats who died. The pear tree has been in for 3 years. It takes time to grow trees. We do get a decent crop of apples.
Liberated lawn May 2019
note no mole hills
Prior to this, the lawn was used as a play space. Previous owners had used it as a vegetable patch (we created a smaller patch by the green house) and before this, it was used as farm land (presume to run sheep or cattle). We had to relay the turf in about 2000 and then had to completely reseed in about 2016 as between the moles and poultry, it was looking worse for the wear. Last year, I gave up and decided to begin this project of letting it grow and seeing what comes.
I have put packets of wildflower seeds on the lawn, but the hens and ducks are excellent at finding the seed or deciding the bare patch is good for a dust bath. As there is little point in excluding them, I have tried plugs with some success and just letting the plants come.  My husband remains dubious that we are creating anything but a mess. He is being allowed to cut both front lawns.
First foxgloves of 2019
Thus far, the ducks and hens appear to be enjoying it more – it is now their favourite spot for hauling out, particularly in the late afternoon. The birds in general like the lawn better and visit far more often. As I write this about 15 blackbirds are feeding. House sparrows are flitting about and I have just spotted a dunnock. This could be because the poultry food is on the ground and there is a supply of water. Plus there are perches available. Jackdaws visit but crows are more wary, partly because Hugo the Buff Orpington cockerel objects to them and chases them away. He is often seen on parade on the lawn at the moment.
The lawn is a gathering place for the various groupings of ducks and there are various rituals of bowing and head bobbing which go on when they enter. There are also the inevitable fights and skirmishes between the drakes but in general they seem to get along.
 The foxgloves have colonised parts by the fence where we used to strim. I thought we would get some mulleins but the ducks took a liking to the leaves…One plant remains. The verbena bonariensis which would never self-seed has set itself well in the lawn. The ducks do not seem interested in eating that or the foxgloves.
June 2019 ducks enjoying the rain
grass there, but no real wildflowers, foxgloves just flowering
Interestingly, we are not nearly as bothered by moles. I am sure the lawn is networked with mole tunnels but lately we are not seeing the hills or it appears it is just a little one.  As I am very bad at trapping them, it is a relief. I do realise the moles were in part a response to the fertility of the soil. I have no real idea how they discovered us (we went for years before the first one appeared – always on the back lawn as well) but they came and built their tunnels. Having conceded they won, they retreated. The irony is not lost on me.
So I shall be updating on the state of liberation but thus far, it is going all right. I do think given its previous use, ensuring that this becomes a wildflower strewn orchard is the right approach. It is very much a work in progress.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Tips for re-creating landscapes in historical romance


Currently I am doing the proofs for A Deal with Her Rebel Viking (out December 2019) and reading it (as well as all the other reading about re-wilding) has reminded  me that I do take very seriously trying to know what the landscape looked like in the 9th century as well as what the *normal* would be for the characters. The baseline has shifted so much.  What is normal was not normal then. And the countryside was changing even in their lifetime.  
In my novel, I have tried to give a sense of the meadows, the forest and the fact that the war with the Vikings (and others) meant that the underwood was abandoned to a certain extent. My eldest knew Oliver Rackman when he was a grad student at Corpus  and introduced my youngest to his books. Because of my interest in history, I was delighted to discover his rural landscape history. He discusses what the land looked like in the early middle ages and explains  about the importance of underwood, particularly at time when there were no saw mills.   I particularly like his Trees & Woodland in the British Landscape – the Complete History of the Britain’s Tress, Woods & Hedgerows.  It has really given me insight into what was going on. And now, I am using some of that knowledge in attempting to figure out when the dene’s wooded area dates from.
I first really became aware of the shifting baseline problem when I reading about lighting in the 19th century. We take the brilliance of our lighting for granted, but to someone living back in the 9th century, their eyes were adjusted to much less light. In many ways, the Romans were probably used to more light as they  used oil lamps than the Anglo Saxons. Romans also had under-floor heating and piped water. If you look at places like Birdoswald, you can see how buildings were adapted to other purposes as the technology became lost.

It is when you realise how much was lost and how they developed stories to explain various unexplained features of the landscape. Hidden Histories –A Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape by Mary-Ann Ochota is also good for this type of thing. My dear friend Kate Hardy who knows I am nerdy about such things gave me this when I became a British citizen and it is truly a fascinating book on many levels. 
With writing in a historical some of the world building involves recreating their normal. It is about thinking what they would see and notice. Think about the wildlife, and the flora. What did they take for granted? How did they use the woods? What was the countryside like  pre-enclosure or pre-highland clearance? We may have lost much but they had not. They experienced a different sort of Britain and I think re-creating this can help to show why we need things like beavers, wild boar and perhaps(whispering here as it is very controversial) lynx or wolves back.

Monday, June 03, 2019

#30DaysWild

Red-tail Queen bumblebee on garlic chives



First foxgloves
On twitter, I am participating in the #30DaysWild scheme which is being run by the Wildlife Trusts in the UK. The main thrust of the programme is to get people to do different things with nature for 30 days.  30 Random Acts of Wildness. You can find me on twitter at @MichelleLStyles in case you want to see what I am up to.
 It can be as simple as stopping to listen to birdsong, watching a bumblebee or enjoying a wildflower. It can also be things like picking up litter or writing to your MP about the problem climate emergency we are facing. Or even signing a petition.
The website has 101 different ideas of things to do. If you sign up, you can download their pack or if they send it to you, you get a pack of wildflower seeds to plant.
View of the dene from the road
Because I am attempting to be more mindful of the eco-system I inhabit and to ensure that the garden is a haven for nature, I think this is a great scheme. It has already made me aware of the little things.
And your 30 days do not have to be June 2019, they can be any 30 days.  Just enjoy nature.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Counting some of my successes -- Great tit fledglings




Where I spotted the Great tit fledgling hunting for food.
Because when you are ecosystem gardening, your successes are not just measured in the number of flowers in bloom or that you have managed to get a lot of colour in your garden, but  they are measured in the diversity of wildlife who shared your garden. It is a slight change of mindset and a having to alter my camera lens slightly.
The Great Tits have fledged. This is  excellent news. The young are bobbing about in the undergrowth just below the nest box on the deneside. They will hopefully survive and disperse into the wider world.
The back lawn/orchard/meadow
where the blackbirds, sparrows and songthrushes like to
forage. Ducks and chickens on it
This is why at this time it is so important that there is food. Food in the Great tit fledgling’s case means insects rather than snacking at a bird table. Insects are most likely to appear on native plants, particularly those we gardeners often dismiss as weeds. The dock leaf, for example, is an important food source for a particular type of moth (one which has declined by over 70% and is one of the key British eco-species). The caterpillars are the favourite prey of many birds including Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers (which I’d love to see in the garden). So it is a case of thinking dock equals moths equals bird species. So the dock plants can mainly remain. I have noticed that something (mostly a caterpillar) has been eating various dock leaves on the lower walkway (normally strimmed but I am leaving this year as all we need is a path through) so I shall count this as a success – more food for the fledglings (and obviously hopefully some moths as well)
The parent was also hunt invertebrates in the stream for the youngster. Kate the very bossy duck objected and gave it a peck at which point it flew off. She ruffled her feathers and settled to hunting along the margins. The Great Tit did rapidly find more food for its youngster and so all were happy.
Nest box the tree bumblebees are using
I also spotted juvenile starlings and song thrushes on the back lawn. It isn’t really a lawn anymore though – orchard? Meadow? I am not sure what to call it. Both are red list birds along with house sparrows who also successfully bred in the garden. The dunnock remains amber listed (not as endangered) but also bred in the garden. A juvenile song thrush flew up onto the fence post and peered into the kitchen window. The picket fencing around the back lawn is so that we could (once upon a time) keep the poultry off the lawn. The vegetable patch also has a picket fence around it.  We stopped trying to keep the poultry off in about 2012 when we had a real fox problem. It is better for them to be gathering close to the house. We also put the ducks away at dusk as this helps deter fox problems.
Tree bumblebees have decided to colonise the garden. These are the only bumblebees who nest in bird boxes and one of our tit boxes has a nest. They nest in disused nests and only use it for about 3 -4 months. They are generally docile. Basically you don’t want to be continually walking in their flight path but mainly they will not seek out confrontation. They are a recent settler from Spain and appear to be taking a vacant niche and therefore are to be welcomed. After they leave, I will clean out the tit box and hope for a repeat of something next year.
So I can already see successes and hope to build on these.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Learning to Embrace my Inner Nettle-Lover

The verge outside, complete with nettle patch

Nettles have been the bane of my gardening life. The dene has rafts of them. The verge outside my house which I haven’t mowed since about 1997 but have strimmed is currently sporting a good collection. Nettles can swamp out other plants and well they are nettles. I have generally opted for pulling them. However as I am trying to recover from my Ecological Tidiness Disorder, I thought I ought to figure out what was a nettle good for.
Quite a lot actually.
Nettles support 40 different types of pollinators. They are particularly important for butterflies – the extravagant ones like Red Admirals and Peacocks, the ones I have buddleia so that they can feed in the late autumn. However, it should have been obvious to me – you can’t have butterflies if you starve their larvae. And these feed on nettles. In fact, a good sunny nettle patch is so important to a Peacock male in enticing a female that he has been known to drive off birds.
The reason why nettles host so many different types of insects is that most giant herbivores will not eat them. Their stings mean that they offer safe havens for the insects at important stages during their lifecycle.
The habitat for nettles is decreasing as verges get mowed in the interests of 'safety', and fields get built over etc. However without them, we will not have Peacocks and Red Admirals. Just as without milk thistle in California, you don't get Monarch butterflies. 
 Nettles grow where there has been human disturbance. They can be used to indicate that a building once should there or that a wood was cultivated.
In short, my pulling out of nettles inadvertently has done more harm to the ecosystem than I had considered. I might be allergic to them but they are important for a healthy ecosystem. And I do worry that they sometimes crowd out other native plants. It had been one of my big schemes for this year – pull nettles early to see what  other wild plants grow.  For example, under the bridge, honesty (good for holly blue butterlies -- had one in my garden last week)  and Welsh poppies have flowered this year because I pulled the nettles early. But I really want to encourage pollinators so I shall be leaving the nettles alone. Or if I do pull them because I get tired of being stung, I will be pulling them after the caterpillar season has finished in July/August time.
It is going to take a change of mind set but it can be done. Nettles = butterflies has to be my new motto. And I do like seeing Peacocks fluttering about my garden in late summer.