just for fun

Although there are certain aspects of my job that I am less than happy about, I have to admit that it has brought me opportunities that even a few years ago I would have found difficult to imagine. Many of these revolve around the chance to travel to places I would otherwise not have seen, such as Utrecht or Turku

My recent invitation to the Scripta in Itinere conference gave me a chance to visit Alcala in Spain and to pop into Madrid. In Alcala, I spent some happy times just wandering the streets.

I was also able to visit Cervantes’ birthplace and the local archeaological museum.

In Madrid, I went to the incredibly opulent Palacio Real.


Back in February, as part of the Embodiment and New Materialism conference in Lancaster, I was part of a drama workshop which took place in Lancaster Castle.  It was somewhere that I’d been intending to visit for a long time, but had somehow never got around to it. So over the Easter break, we all went on the castle tour to get a proper look round.


Of course, one of the most interesting things about the castle for me is that it was where the Lancashire witches were tried.  Living near Pendle and teaching witchcraft as part of the undergraduate early modern history survey course meant that it was going to be a place I wanted to see.  Tradition has it that they were held in the medieval Well Tower before their trial.


But there were plenty of other good reasons to go. It’s an amazing place – the most secure court in the country on account of the keep walls, which are 3 metres thick!  It’s a hotch-potch of buildings clustered on a site that was first used in the Roman period.  Several buildings date from the medieval period, while the women’s prison was built in 1821 on the panopticon design.

The tour was excellent, and although it’s forbidden to take photographs in some parts of the castle because it is a working court, the are areas where photography is allowed.  The tour was excellent, finishing in the cells, where there was a display of prison clothing designed to humiliate the inmates and make them easy to spot if they escaped.  The condemned cell was rather more luxurious than the ordinary cells.


Another reason for my interest in the castle, though, is that my mother lived in Lancaster as a child and walked to school alongside the castle each day.


I don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter, but I have noticed the hashtag ‘academics with cats’.  Cats are a big thing on Twitter. Personally, I’m not keen on cats – they interfere with the birds and shrews in my garden and leave behind unpleasant deposits that threaten my children’s health.  So I’ve started up a rival hashtag. I don’t expect it to take off. But it seemed a good idea at the time.
Academics with chameleons.

Actually, I don’t know any other academics with chameleons. Just me.  He’s called Dave.  #DaveC

My interest was sparked by the chameleon in the Rochdale garden centre where I used to take my children for lunch occasionally before they started school.  My youngest was very taken with the ‘meelikon’ and we had to visit him every time we went.  When I started doing a bit more work last autumn and had a bit of money coming in, I decided that after years of personal austerity, I would treat myself – and so I bought Dave.

Chameleons always look glum. It’s their natural expression. And I find that appealing.  Sometimes, he comes to keep me company at my desk, where he usually finishes up  hanging on to the stem of my desk lamp.  He’s good to read my papers to, and to share my thoughts with, although I have to admit he NEVER looks impressed.


After being rather unwell at the beginning of 2016, I decided that this summer I would spend as much time on holiday as I could.  This was only made possible by the fact that we have access to a caravan that is currently in Oban, and we have a trailer tent, and it meant that the holidays were going to be in the UK.  A friend asked me if my children were happy with being forced to holiday in caravans and tents.  This got me thinking about what I gained from the holidays that I went on as a child, most of which were caravan holidays in the UK.  I decided that they are partly responsible for my interest in history – along with the folk music that I love, which I have written about before.

Glen Coe

Glen Coe

Glen Coe

I spent a lot of time at National Trust and English Heritage properties.  I spent a lot of time, therefore, in places where the present collides with the past.  I spent a lot of time in places where good stories, maybe even the best stories because they are true, come to life.  Take, for example, Glen Coe.  It’s a landscape that seems to have barely changed in hundreds of years.  You can just imagine the MacDonalds running and scrambling for their lives in February 1692.  This, for me, was always helped by knowing John McDermott’s The Massacre of Glencoe by The Corries. Somehow, it’s always made it easy for me to imagine Macbeth, too.



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Part of the beauty of Easedale Island is the pools of water left in the abandoned slate quarries.












Then in Wales, we went to Harlech Castle.  It was easy to see why it was built where it was – the commanding views over the surrounding coast and countryside are hard to beat.  There were piles of cannon balls lying around, and turrets to climb.  You could see the grooves where the portcullises (is that the plural of portcullis???) were lowered and raised.

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My youngest was particularly taken with a trip to Sygun Copper Mine, a Victorian mine which closed in 1903.  We went on an underground tour, which took in some spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, accompanied by atmospheric rumblings in the audio guide.  He was IMG_20160808_142454019especially impressed when he looked across the valley to Dinas Emrys and heard the legend of the sleeping dragons in the lake below the hill.  Vortigern was trying to build a stronghold against the Saxons on the hill of Dinas Emrys, but each night the builders’ work  was mysteriously reduced to piles of rubble.  Vortigern’s magicians recommended that he sacrifice a fatherless boy, but the chosen  boy explained that two dragons lay asleep in a lake under the hill.  Vortigern’s men dug into the hill and revealed two dragons: one red, the other white.  When the two dragons  were released from their slumber, they fought each other.  The eventual winner was the red dragon, symbolic of the Welsh victory over the Saxons.  The boy who knew the dragons lay under the hill? Merlin.


My eldest, on the other hand, was fascinated by the industrial archaeology above the ground.  We decided to walk the Fisherman’s Path at Beddgelert, and found ourselves climbing Cwm Bychan, which is scattered with the remains of copper mining pylons.

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We passed Frongoch. Almost every day, in fact. It took me several days to place the name – I knew it was something to do with the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising but I couldn’t remember what, exactly, until we pulled up on our last day to have a look at the information board. Michael Collins had been interned there.  My daughter immediately made the link between Frongoch, Michael Collins and Michael by Johnny McEvoy.

(My summer holidays this year have gone by the subtitle a tour of the UK’s highest peaks which you can’t see because they are obscured by cloud, and the answer to my friend’s question was yes, the children seem to enjoy themselves, just like I did.)

Loch Linnhe, below Ben Nevis

Loch Linnhe, below Ben Nevis

Somewhere beneath that cloud is Snowdon

Somewhere beneath that cloud is Snowdon

I am slightly afraid that I might be buried alive by a chocolate avalanche in the night. In an homage to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Fags, Mags and Bags’, I have built a Wall of Chocolate instead of a Wall of Crisps. What this Christmas lacked in books (not a single one, for the first time that I can remember), it made up for in chocolate and biscuits.


As I haven’t yet managed to read John Elliott’s History in the Making, which I got for my birthday, I have been taking breaks from the chocolate to read that over the last couple of days.

Show of Hands

Show of Hands

Where did my thesis come from?  It was born of the twin passions for history and music that go back to childhood, although I’d be the first to agree that it neither had a trouble-free gestation (it’s something of a mutation), nor was it entirely my idea.   They are bound up together in my love of folk music.  It’s rather nicely summed up in a song called ‘Roots’ by the rather brilliant Steve Knightley of Show of Hands.  When my thesis is published (how’s that for optimism?!), the epigraph should be this:

Without our stories or our songs
How will we know where we come from?

History is, after all, stories; ballads and folk songs are stories set to music.

“Seed, bark, flower, fruit
Never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot
We need roots

Haul away boys, let them go
Out in the wind and the rain and snow
We’ve lost more than we’ll ever know
‘Round the rocky shores of England”

Caerlaverock Castle

Caerlaverock Castle

As we didn’t get much of a summer holiday, what with the small matter of a thesis to finish, we’ve just enjoyed a few wet and windy days in Dumfries.  We got completely soaked through at Caerlaverock Castle, the only triangular castle in Britain, went on a boat trip to Threave Castle and saw red squirrels in Dalbeattie Forest.

Dalbeattie Forest

Dalbeattie Forest

Now that we’re home, I have to make a real effort to find a job of some sort.  So priorities for this week include trying to get some school experience so that I can go back into teaching and reacquainting myself with my articles on John Roberts and the Lady Marques  ballad.

On the Galloway Kite Trail

On the Galloway Kite Trail

These are just gorgeous, so I felt the need to share.


Andre Amador’s Playa Paintings are Sandy Works of Art.

DSCF3072I don’t have a lot to tell, this week (after all, it’s only a couple of days since I last posted) so I thought I’d just share the good news that I’d managed to write a bit of my common weal chapter and then post some photos of some of my favourite birds from today’s visit to Martin Mere.

Yesterday morning I intended to spend a couple of hours on my common weal chapter, but just as I got stuck in and finally started making something that feels like proper progress, I had to abandon it in favour of looking after a dying hamster.  The hamster is still with us, just, but I doubt it will be much longer.  The chapter remains unfinished, but I can see a light at the end of the tunnel.  I hope it isn’t the oncoming train.

To the left is a fibre optic crane.  At least that’s what we call it – really it’s a grey-crowned crane.  Fabulous creatures.  And below are some avocets.










I am lucky enough to own one of Roger’s custom-made models (though it wasn’t custom-made for me!).  It will always be one of my most treasured possessions.  Beautiful to look at; beautiful to hold; beautiful to listen to; beautiful to play.

BBC News – Fylde Guitars’ Roger Bucknall looks back at 40 years of acoustic adventures.

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