A rather fruity month! I’ve been interested for a long time in slightly unusual fruits and vegetables. Take damsons. They aren’t really unusual, but it’s very difficult to buy them in the shops. My two great-aunts, retired teachers, had a huge damson tree in their garden and every year my Auntie Elsie used to make damson jam, right on into her mid nineties. I developed a love of damsons, and have finally been able to plant a couple of damson trees, so I can now harvest my own damsons, remembering her.
Once I managed to grow quite a sturdy little lemon tree from a pip, until it produced those wonderfully scented flowers and had even started some tiny fruits. It was left in the care of a teenage son while we were away in France and sadly died. Great disappointment.
I’d heard that THE lemon tree to grow was a Meyer lemon, by far the best flavour but rarely available commercially because their thin skins make them difficult to transport. This month the local garden centre had some Meyer lemon trees growing in pots, the larger ones (about 2-3 feet tall) cost around £30 – out of the question. There were some smaller ones, trained round a trellis and much cheaper. I got one of these, which already had one full-size lemon.
Hating the way the branches had been forced and contorted around the trellis support, and reckoning that it was unlikely to produce much fruit under such strain, I have set the branches free. They are gradually straightening themselves out, so I hope it will eventually be able to grow into a proper bush and produce more fruit. Flowering should come in the spring, so watch this space!
I’ve also bought an apricot tree this month. A bit mad, I know, but it is meant to be kept in a container, so I can move it into shelter, even indoors. At the moment it is standing by the front door, which is sheltered and south-facing. There’s nothing to see but bare branches at the moment, but if it survives the Scottish winter I’ll post pictures later.
We been watching the BBC production of Tudor Monastery Farm, the latest in their series with Ruth Goodman and Peter Ginn, reliving historical lives (though not Alex Langlands this time). They do these series so well. As historians and archaeologists they really want to get things right and to live the genuine experience. Ruth Goodman was talking about growing alexanders (smyrnium olusatrum), so I pricked up my ears.
A vegetable or herb which originates around the Mediterranean, it was introduced into Britain by the Romans and was hugely popular right down to the nineteenth century, when it curiously went out of fashion, although apparently it can still be found growing wild on the sites of old monastery gardens.
All parts of the plant can be eaten: the leaves as a herb like lovage, the seeds as a flavouring spice, the flowers fresh in salads or cooked, the stems like celery, and the roots like parsnips. It also has uses in traditional medicine. The name derives either from Alexandria, as one of the places where it originates, or from the tradition that Alexander the Great fed it to his troops. Anyway, I found an organic nursery in Co. Mayo in Ireland which could supply me with seeds, so that’s another little unusual experiment. You can plant them in autumn – possibly a little late this year, but I might try with a few.
It certainly feels more like winter than autumn here at the moment. We managed to hold out until November 8 without heat, but then switched on just two heaters – only to discover than the big one in the main downstairs hall wasn’t working properly. David has bought spares and rebuilt it (he’s handy that way), so there’s been a slight lessening of the cold. The Aga provides warmth in the kitchen, where we eat most of the time. However, the shock of last winter’s fuel bills and the recent massive price increases have prompted the wearing of more and more layers. The cats know the best way to keep warm!
My main crafting effort this month has been a thick, Aran weight, heavily cabled jersey for David. The back and one sleeve done, now knitting the front. It should provide a good layer of warmth through the bitter days ahead.
I did, however, also make a pair of Aran weight fingerless mitts for our local Big Issueseller. There’s always a cold wind blowing along the main street through Broughty Ferry in winter, and I couldn’t bear to see him standing there in the cold with nothing on his hands.
Two things have dominated our lives in November. As planned, I started on the first of the month to write the second book in my series The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez, covering 1587-8. It deals with the lead up to the Armada, the battle itself, and the aftermath, which has involved a lot of background reading on the Armada:
And about Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester:
My central character, Kit Alvarez, works as a physician caring for the wounded survivors of the siege of Sluys (very like Dunkirk in 1940), then is sent on a mission to the Low Countries, is caught up in the Armada battle, then tends the English soldiers and sailors, who suffered sudden and unexplained deaths (not usually mentioned in the history books). I want to bring out the contrast between the myth of the defeat of the Armada, usually portrayed as a glorious English victory (which it was), and the reality for the men who fought in it. Kit’s involvement both in this and in the murky events in the Low Countries, including murder and poison plots, leads to the greater development of her character as an agent of Walsingham’s secret service. I’ve now written over 92,000 words. With two and a bit chapters to go, it’s going to be longer than my usual 100,000 word first drafts.
At the same time David’s time has been more and more taken up with the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster Memorial Trust, of which he is the chairman. For those outside Scotland, the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 may be unknown, but it made an enormous impact at the time. David himself wrote a book about it some years ago:
The Tay Railway Bridge, when it was built, was the longest bridge in the world, an engineering miracle.
Queen Victoria travelled across it on the way to the royal family’s castle at Braemar. And then came the disaster.
A new bridge was completed in 1888, still in use today. When the tide in the estuary is out, you can see the stumps of the original bridge:
Why is all this important now? I thought this would be of interest, so I asked David to write a bit about the original disaster and the Trust, to include here.
The Tay Bridge Disaster – Memorials
At about 7.15 on the evening of Sunday the 28th December 1879, the ‘High Girders’ of the railway bridge over the River Tay in Scotland collapsed into the river, taking with them the passenger train travelling from Burntisland. All those on board – passengers and crew – were lost.
This event was a huge disaster – in human terms of course, but also in terms of the disruption of travel across the Firth of Tay, the cost to the North British Railway company, and the irremediable damage to the reputation of the bridge’s designer, Sir Thomas Bouch. The tragedy is well known among the people of Fife and Tayside, and something of the order of six full length books have been written about it. But curiously, in all the 134 years since the event, no permanent memorial to the victims has ever been erected. That omission will hopefully soon be remedied. A Trust has been set up – appropriately called the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster Memorial Trust – dedicated to erecting substantial granite memorials on both sides of the river on the anniversary of the disaster itself, in December this year.
The idea of building the bridge in the first place was conceived by the North British Railway Company for sound commercial reasons. They operated the eastward railway route from Edinburgh to Aberdeen and this involved crossing two substantial river estuaries – the Firths of Forth and Tay. Passengers and goods traffic carried north from Scotland’s capital had to interrupt their rail journeys twice, and take to the ferries. The rival company to the North British – the Caledonian – which operated an inland route via Perth, had no such problems. Their journey from Edinburgh to Aberdeen took significantly less time than the North British route, and it was to reverse that situation that the Tay Bridge was built. In this it was very largely successful. Journey times were cut, the greater proportion of the Edinburgh to Aberdeen traffic fell to the North British, and the value of the company’s shares soared. On the evening of Sunday the 28th December, 1879, all this was lost.
Inevitably perhaps, much of what has been written about the disaster, including my own account, has concentrated on the question – why did the bridge fall? The Board of Trade Court of Inquiry held after the event, noted that what had failed in the structure of the bridge were the cast iron lugs on the supporting columns, through which bolts passed securing wrought iron tie bars which bound the columns together. Bouch, as both the designer and the engineer in charge of the project, came in for particular criticism – for the weaknesses in design, construction, and maintenance. But speculation has continued.
Some commentators have claimed that the design of the bridge made insufficient allowance for wind pressure – and it was a very windy night when it fell – so perhaps the bridge simply blew down. Others have looked for a more robust cause – claiming that the wind caused a second class carriage to be dashed against the side of the bridge, and started a chain reaction which brought down all of the High Girders. Others point to a long standing defect – the ‘kink in the rail’ – a distortion which meant that every time a train passed over this kink, a series of hammer blows was struck which over the months of operation weakened the whole structure. It was a disaster waiting to happen. The debate goes on.
In recent years attention has moved to some extent away from the engineering and towards the more human aspects of the Fall. This is true of Andre Gren’s The Bridge is Down, and Robin Lumley’s Tay Bridge Disaster – the People’s Story. For the purposes of the Trust the most apposite work has been The Victims of the Tay Bridge Disaster,compiled by Murray Nicoll and members of the Tay Valley Family History Society. What they have done is to try to find out just who was killed, and as much as they could about them, and as part of that research they have consulted the death certificates registered at the time in St Mary’s Parish, Dundee. One result of this work is the conclusion that while there have been various claims as to the number of victims – usually around 75 – there are death certificates for only 59. Moreover that figure squares exactly with the list compiled by the local police at the time of the disaster.
For the Trust, this provides the only sure guide as to the number, names and identities of the lost. To be on the safe side, however, the wording on the Memorials themselves will make it clear that the names engraved on the granite panels are of those ‘known to have died’. This leaves it open for other names to be added if and when robust proof can be supplied to justify the addition.
So – we are very much in the process of making all this happen. The memorials have been designed – an earlier concept in the form of a model of part of the bridge – costing perhaps £100,000 each – being exchanged for a more modest ‘war memorial’ style. There will be two of these – more or less identical – one on each side of the river, consisting of three separate granite panels six feet high, with the victims’ names and ages inscribed on the two outer panels. Through the generosity of local people and organisations just about enough money has been raised to pay for them. Sites have been selected and permission granted to erect the memorials on them. In one case this involved persuading the local landowner to donate a small piece of his land, in another a local council. Work has begun on the foundations. Plans for an evening firework display mounted on a barge below the modern bridge are well advanced. Arrangements for a reception for our many supporters have been put in place.
The actual ceremonies have been planned, and these will involve local Members of Parliament and other dignitaries, representatives of the descendents of the victims, the reading of a specially written poem, the singing of a local school choir, and blessings from local church ministers.
We are now in the closing stages of planning and execution. There are still some difficult problems to overcome, and exactly one month in which to do so. But I’m sure that we will soon be able to look back on the event with pleasure and satisfaction, knowing that a long standing injustice has at last been put right.
The Tay Bridge today, seen from the north (Dundee) side:
So, fingers crossed that all goes well with the unveilings, reception and fireworks, just after Christmas! I’ll let you know.
Till next time,