My friend Vilma bought me a voucher for a trip to the Chiltern Valley Winery and Brewery near to Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. It was last year’s birthday present. The vineyard is way out in the country, down narrow country lanes, it was a good job we had sat nav.
Our tour started promptly at 11am, in the shop. Steve, our guide, explained that the vineyard started life as a pig farm. When it was purchased in 1980, the new owner decided that pig farming was not for him. He contacted the Department of Agriculture to get them to test the soil to see what would grow best there. When the report came back, his choices were rhubarb or grapes. He plumped for grapes. The first harvest was in 1984 and the vineyard has moved from strength to strength ever since. In the 1990s they moved into brewing beer. They were awarded a Royal Warrant in 2007 – the Duke of Edinburgh is rather partial to Barn Ale, one of their beers.
Steve took us into the brewing area, and showed us the big wine press and the bottling plant (which was rather impressive). He explained the processes while we were there. The sparkling wine is produced in the traditional methode champenoise with the second fermentation taking place in the bottle.
The beers are also made in traditional ways, using pale, crystal or chocolate malted barleys – Steve explained this better than I can, but in essence, the longer the barley is roasted, the darker it becomes, so pale is roasted for the shortest time, crystal longer and chocolate longer still. (I did become rather excited when the word chocolate was mentioned but the malting is named after appearance rather than taste.)
And then to the tastings…
I was rather partial to the English Sparkling Wine (absolutely delicious) and the Dry White, although we didn’t try all of the wines that they make there. I have a feeling that there would have been others that took my fancy. After the beers came the liqueurs. I’m rather prone to sloe gin but I bought a little bottle of the Irish Cream. I actually prefer it to the better known variety, I found it a softer taste.
You really do need a car to get here, it’s down narrow country lanes, but it’s well worth a visit.
A chance remark by my sister-in-law the other day made me wonder about the history of the English pub.
According to Historic UK (Historic-uk.com) they date back to Roman times. In Rome, tabernae were shops that sold wine. When the Romans invaded, they brought the tabernae along with them, although ale being the local drink replaced the wine that would have traditionally been drunk in Italy.
As is the English way, the word tabernae became corrupted to the word tavern. They were built beside the great Roman roads, which were the main transport hubs. Back in those days, there weren’t many towns, England was mostly villages.
In case you, like me, ever wondered, taverns and alehouses (a far more English term) provided food and drink, inns also offered accommodation. Apparently, Inns were also used as recruitment centres to accompany the king on his crusades. It wasn’t until the fourteenth century that we started to use hops in brewing so making beer instead of ale.
Over time, inns, alehouses and taverns became public houses, and eventually pubs. In 1552, an act of parliament required those who ran pubs to have a licence. By 1577, there were over 19,000 pubs across England and Wales – around one pub to 200 people. Some competition, then.
Brewing was the traditional way of purifying water in the northern hemisphere, making it a part of everyday life, even when tea and coffee were introduced into the country in the 1600s as it was only the wealthy who could afford to drink these
Around the first half of the eighteenth century, cheap gin came over from Holland, as well as other cheap spirits from elsewhere in Europe. They rose in popularity, bringing their own set of social problems – if you’ve ever watched any adaptations of Dickens’ novels, you’ll have some idea of this, but it was good for the pubs.
When stagecoaches hit the street, coaching inns were built on the main routes up and down the country, providing food and drink, stabling and changes of horses, an absolute necessity for the stagecoach companies. It was the stagecoaches that started the first, second and third class system of travel that persisted on to the railways, and pubs set themselves up in a similar way – the public bar and saloon bar.
So there we have it ladies and gentlemen, a brief history of the English pub.
Bro, Li’l Sis and I took a trip to St Paul’s Cathedral at the weekend. We had booked a guided tour. Our guide, Janna, a very passionate and exuberant lady who told us that she really wanted to keep us in the Cathedral for two weeks to tell us and show us everything that there was to know and see… That wasn’t as creepy as I’ve just made it sound, she really did mean it as a joke. I think. She also told us that we were not allowed to take photographs inside the cathedral, which is a real shame since it was so stunning.
St Paul’s Cathedral since 604AD
Janna told us that there has been a cathedral on this site since 604AD (earlier than the first abbey was built down the road at Westminster). The site where St Paul’s stands was chosen for a few reasons – one was that what we know as the City of London was London in those days, most of the rest of what is now London was fields and marsh land. Ludgate Hill, where St Paul’s stands, is the highest point in the City, so strategically a good position to have a building of importance. When the Romans were here (what did they do for us??) it is likely that there was a temple in the same area, so the rest, as they say, is history.
A Bit of History to put it in Context
By medieval times, London was still a walled City, and hadn’t spread much outside at that time. As 95% of the population was illiterate, streets became named after the trades carried out in there: Milk Street (milk was sold there), Bread Street (bread was made there), Love Lane (you can work that one out for yourselves). The social lives of the common folk revolved around the 87 churches in the City, and St Paul’s was at the heart of it all.
Most of the houses were timber built (there was plenty of wood in England) and when the families got bigger, people just extended their houses upwards. London wasn’t a clean city in those days, all the household waste was just chucked in the streets, and eventually made its way into the River Thames.
St Paul’s – Destroyed and Rebuilt
On 2 September 1666, soon after midnight, in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane, a young apprentice fell asleep whilst in charge of the fire under the oven. A spark flew out of the fire and set fire to the flammable materials nearby and the fire took hold. The fire lasted for four days. Despite King Charles II himself taking charge and ordering a number of buildings to be destroyed to create fire breaks, it persisted for four days because the wind kept changing direction. Amazing then, that although there were only about eight fatalities when so much of of London was destroyed, St Paul’s included.
Sir Christopher Wren (he was plain old Chris Wren when he started working on rebuilding St Paul’s) was a very clever man – an architect, mathematician, he could read Latin and Ancient Greek, to name but a few of his talents. He designed many buildings, including Christ Church College Bell Tower, Oxford, The Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge and the Royal Hospital at Chelsea.
The King engaged Wren to do a lot of the reconstruction in London, including St Paul’s. (In fact, he rebuilt 52 churches in the City after the fire. I think I am correct in saying that the the remaining 35 were never rebuilt.) Wren told the King that he wanted the new cathedral to be different from the original, he wanted people to see the light of God. He also said that he wanted the cathedral to have a dome.
The King rejected Wren’s first four designs. The King, whose father had been beheaded, and who was still concerned about Catholic:Protestant unease, felt that an Anglican Church with a dome was not right, it seemed more in the style of Catholic Churches eg St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Eventually, after some negotiation and modification, Wren’s fifth design was accepted. It took Wren 28 years to perfect the style and build of the dome – I believe he did “trial runs” on seven other churches before he was sure he’d got it right – St Stephen’s at Walbrook being one of them. The whole rebuild of St Paul’s took 35 years.
A Triumph of Structural Engineering
London is built on a clay soil, relatively weak in structural terms, which presented something of a challenge to Wren because of the weight of the cathedral he was about to build. St Paul’s has a crypt, the largest of any church in Europe. About half of the area of which is taken up by columns that support the weight of the cathedral. Additionally, the dome is supported by eight columns (rather than the usual four for similar designs) in order to distribute the weight more easily. As the foundations settled during the building of the cathedral, Wren made adjustments in the design to allow for this.
During our tour, Janna took us to what is known as the Dean’s stairway, a spiral staircase in which each of the 88 steps only goes into the wall by about 150 mm. Such was Wren’s genius that he worked out that if he cantilevered each step slightly, the weight would be born down thus obviating the necessity of a large inset into the wall. The entrance here has been seen in a number of films, including the Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Junior and one of the Harry Potter’s.
The strength of the design was born out during World War II, when two bombs exploded nearby and an incendiary device also went off. The steps remained in place. In fact, about four years ago, when the building was being checked, only a couple of the steps were found to have cracks, some 300 odd years after being built. I know of many newer buildings that haven’t withstood the ravages of time so well, without bombs going off nearby.
The main doors of the cathedral weigh a ton each, and yet, because of Wren’s design, they can be opened easily by one person.
Although you wouldn’t know it to look at it, there are actually three domes. The outer one, that we all know and love is wooden, covered with lead, the inner one is brick. The one in between, a bit like an inverted ice-cream cone is made of wooden struts that hold the other domes together. Although Wren wanted mosaics in the dome area, it was, once again, thought to be too similar to a Catholic Church, so it wasn’t until many years later that the mosaics were installed.
It is 365 feet from the ground floor to the top of St Paul’s Whispering Gallery, with 257 steps to get there. From the Whispering Gallery to the next level, the Stone Gallery, is another 119 steps, and from there to the Golden Gallery is a further 152 steps – 528 in total.
There is much, much more to be said about St Paul’s, far too much for one blog post. Too many secrets for one visit too. Definitely worth another visit.
I had dinner with my friend named Dorothy the other day, which set me on thinking about the origin of the expression, “A friend of Dorothy’s.” I first heard this expression a few years ago, when a gay friend of mine used it. As he knows our Dorothy, I thought he was referring to another friend of hers to start with. How confusing life becomes.
The term “a friend of Dorothy” originates from the Second World War, or maybe earlier. In those days, homosexual acts were illegal in both the UK and the USA. That meant all homosexual acts, whether behind closed doors or not. So, in the States, asking if someone was “a friend of Dorothy” was a way of finding out someone’s sexual orientation without giving too much away. In the UK, at around the same time, the question was, “Are you a friend of Mrs King?”
My thinking around this moved me onto thinking about the origin of a few other phrases that I still use:
CupboardLove – I use this a lot with my cats, who seem to find me utterly desirable when I am eating chicken or fish… I believe the technical definition is affection that is given to obtain reward. Sounds about right in my household. Somewhat annoyingly, I haven’t been able to find the origin of this expression, but I wanted to include it.
Month of Sunday’s – means a long, indeterminate time, eg, “I haven’t seen Jo in a month of Sunday’s.” It is believed to originate from the Christian Holy Day Sunday, when activities were (and still are, to a certain extent, at least in the UK) regulated eg, shops not open, etc. Some people perceived Sunday’s as being long and boring, and a month of Sunday’s would have been 30 or 31 weeks, the amount of time it would take for a month of Sunday’s to pass.
Every Cloud has a Silver Lining – I love this phrase, I think it’s lyrical and full of hope (which it is, of course). John Milton first used the expression “Silver Lining” in 1634. From then on, it started to be used extensively in literature. It wasn’t until 1840 that “There’s a silver lining to every cloud,” was first used, and that was how the phrase came to be commonly used until 1849 when the current form was used in a book review.
A Fate Worse than Death – this originally meant anything that would make life unbearable, and was generally used with regard to rape or loss of one’s virginity in the days when respectable ladies “didn’t do that sort of thing” outside of wedlock. Back in those days, women were believed to be better off dead if either of these circumstances had occurred. (I dare say that some would still feel that way about rape.). It seems to have first been used in literature in the late 1700s but nowadays is used in a much more lighthearted fashion.
The English language is full of odd little sayings and idioms, and maybe I’ll write about more in the future, but that’s all for now.
I had occasion to go to Elstree recently. As you come out of the railway station, which is called Elstree and Borehamwood, and walk up to the High Street there are a few big stars embedded in the pavement a la the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Reg Varney (comedy actor from “On the Buses”, Peter Sellers (we all know Peter Sellers don’t we?), Gregory Peck and Jack Nicholson.
A little further on there are plaques to celebrate Sir Cliff Richard (50 years a music legend) and another for Dame Barbara Windsor.
Elstree itself is still a village, or a small town, at any rate, with a few pubs and a couple of nice coffee shops. There is also an enterprise park there, with a Frankie and Benny’s, Debenhams, Boots and other shops. Quite nice but fairly unremarkable. So why all the film star rush… Because Elstree film studios are located there.
In fact, there is only one studio at Elstree, the other studios are at nearby Borehamwood, and even more at other nearby locations such as Leavesdon. North and West London had a fair few film studios at one time.
When the studio was first established in 1914, Elstree was a bigger town/village than Borehamwood. Nowadays it’s the other way round, with Borehamwood being the bigger of the two, but the Elstree name stuck and encompasses both Elstree and Borehamwood.
There is a whole world of history here, if you are interested in film and TV. The first film to be made here was a silent film, Madame Pompadour, which starred the silent film actress Dorothy Gish. The first British “talkie,” Blackmail, was made here by Alfred Hitchcock in 1929.
In the 1930s, a number of actors who went onto become famous, household names in their day, started their careers here: Stewart Granger (King Solomon’s Mines, The Prisoner of Zenda), Ray Milland (at one time, Paramount Pictures’ highest paid actor), Laurence Olivier (four academy awards) and Anna Neagle (Odette, Nurse Edith Cavell) to name but a few. Charlie Chaplin called it the “home of the British film industry.”
The 1950s saw the arrival of a host of Hollywood stars such as Gregory Peck, William Holden, David Niven and Errol Flynn, as well as famous British actors of the day.
By the 1960s, the studio had decided to move in to comedies and musicals – Summer Holiday and The Young Ones starring Cliff Richard were made here. The studios also became the home of ABC television – cult TV series such as The Saint (Roger Moore) and The Avengers (Patrick McNee and Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg) were made here.
In the mid 1980s the studios hit tough times and much of the area was sold off to a leading supermarket brand who built a superstore there, provided that they built state of the art TV studios on the site. The studios were later completely restored and (re)opened by Prince Charles in 1999. Fortunately, they are now highly profitable and as well as films, the BBC makes programmes such as Strictly, Room 101, Never mind the Buzzcock here.
Star Wars was made here in the 1970s, the Indiana Jones films in the 1980s and more recently, The King’s Speech, Suffragettes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Something for me to think about next time I go to Elstree.