Archives for category: history

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There are not many places you can visit in Scotland that still feel like time has stood still. The little village of Culross (pronounced ‘koo-rus’) in the Kingdom of Fife is one such place, with narrow cobbled streets and charming 17th-century cottages nestled into a steep hillside by the Firth of Forth. At 5’4″ (163 cm) I felt like a giant next to the tiny front doors, and I had to fight the urge to peer into windows to catch a glimpse of history. In this town peering would be very rude, as real people live in these houses, which have been carefully restored by the National Trust for Scotland.

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The ‘jewel in the crown’ of this historic port town is Culross Palace, a mansion complex built by wealthy coal and salt merchant Sir George Bruce. The first house was completed in 1597, and when Sir George needed more space to accommodate all his important visitors he built the north wing (above) in 1611.

Sir George Bruce was Laird of Carnock, and he made his fortune first in salt production (which involved boiling salt water in large, shallow pans to evaporate the water) and later in coal mining. He was trained as an engineer and in 1595 he established the first coal mine in the world to extend under the sea with a tunnel deep under the Firth of Forth. Sir George exported coal and salt by sea to other ports on the Forth, and to Dutch and Swedish ports as well. His ships returned with Dutch ceramic roof and floor tiles and window glass as ballast, and these were used in the construction of Culross Palace.

Culross palace interior

Thanks to much painstaking restoration of the interiors, visitors can get a real sense of what life was like in the 17th century for a wealthy Scottish merchant and his family. There is wood panelling in every room, with decorative murals adorning some ceilings and walls. Because these rooms are so well preserved, several episodes of the popular television series Outlander have been filmed here.

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In the first series, the town is known as Cranesmuir and the Mercat Cross above (minus the modern cars) is the scene of a 17th-century witch trial. There are so many beautifully preserved buildings that I’m sure very few changes were required for filming.

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Culross town hall

The Culross Town House above served originally as a court house and prison. Today it houses an exhibition gallery and gift shop. In the foreground of this photo you can see a stone plinth and a wooden post. These mark the spot where merchants brought their produce to be weighed at the Tron, the official burgh weighbeam as shown in the artist’s drawing below. You can see the Town House still under construction in 1625. The clock tower it has today was added some years later.

Culross info sign

Culross and its distinctive ochre-coloured palace are impressive enough, but even more surprising is the terraced garden that extends up the steep hill behind. This has been planted with flowers, fruit and vegetables that would have been grown in the 17th century.

Culross flowers

lilies

Thanks to a long, hot summer this year, the garden is flourishing! There are shady bowers, wooden seating, stone walls and crushed seashell paths. From the top level, visitors have a stunning view across the Firth of Forth.

Culross garden bower

Culross garden inscription

seedling shed

A small orchard has not only fruit trees but also a collection of Scots Dumpy chickens. Apparently these supply eggs for the palace cafe, where we stopped for lunch. And like everything else in this magical place, the food was outstanding!

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(Many thanks to Mark Rickards and Danae Apeiranthiti for the photos shown here.)

 

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Othello painting

Lately I have been rediscovering the joys of iambic pentameter, blank verse and colourful Elizabethan insults. When I was young, Shakespeare was a part of my everyday life, as my dad was a professor of English and would regularly quote the Bard at the dinner table. A gilt and velvet-framed image of Othello telling marvellous tales to a rapt Desdemona and her father used to hang in our front hall. My first introduction to Shakespeare’s plays was in a Classic Comic (popular in the 1960s and ’70s) similar to this one:

Hamlet comic

The story of Hamlet was conveyed in a simplified form, and yet some of Shakespeare’s language was retained to give a sense of the original:

Hamlet comic inside

I remember the play-within-a-play scene had a powerful impact on me that lasted for years. It was the moment when Hamlet’s uncle pours poison into the ear of the sleeping king, murdering his own brother. From the day I read that, I was never able to go to sleep again without the covers pulled up high over my exposed ear! (Not that I suspected my younger sister of wanting to murder me…)

I grew up in Ontario, Canada, and we were lucky to have a town called Stratford on a river Avon, just like the English one. A Shakespeare festival was established in the town in the 1950s and my dad was a young actor there in the early days, along with Sir Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and William Shatner (the original Captain Kirk). The first festivals were held in a big tent, but eventually they built a beautiful theatre whose design reflects its modest beginnings:

Stratford Ont theatre

Inside the theatre is a traditional “thrust” stage which is modelled on the Globe Theatre stage (where Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed). This photo shows a 2013 production of Romeo and Juliet:

Stratford Ont stage

Photo ©Stratford Beacon Herald 2013

When I was a teenager we used to drive the hour-and-a-half to Stratford several times every summer to see a variety of plays. I was very lucky to be around during the 1970s and ’80s when famous British actors like Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford used to perform. One of the plays I went to was Much Ado About Nothing in 1980, with Maggie as Beatrice and Brian as Benedick:

Much Ado Maggie Smith

Photo from Cleveland State University Library

Both actors were brilliantly funny in the roles! Thanks to my trips to the Stratford Festival, I was familiar with Maggie Smith’s wry asides and arched eyebrow long before her Harry Potter and Downton Abbey fame.

When I was eighteen, I moved to Toronto (to study at the Ontario College of Art) and I took advantage of all the theatre on offer in the “big city.” I remember a fantastic production of Romeo and Juliet performed outdoors one summer in High Park. It starred a young and handsome Paul Gross as the wildly impetuous Romeo, and was perfectly timed for night to fall just as Romeo challenges and kills Paris in the tomb.

Paul Gross Romeo

Romeo and Juliet in park

Like my dad, my son is now interested in becoming an actor, and getting into drama schools requires mastering a Shakespeare monologue. Inspired by this, I have been exploring the plays as I dip in and out of my battered Shakespeare Complete Works. Unlike the rest of my family, I didn’t read much Shakespeare in university, as I chose to study French literature instead. My younger sister has become a Shakespeare professor too, so I have a lot of catching up to do!

The best way to enjoy Shakespeare is of course to see it, and if a live performance isn’t possible there is plenty of choice online. If you want to watch performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company there are some available on their website HERE, and schools can sign up to Drama Online. The Globe Theatre also has a wide selection of plays to buy or rent on their Globe Player website. The National Theatre broadcasts both live and pre-recorded films of Shakespeare plays (and many others) in cinemas across the UK and around the world through their National Theatre Live programme.

Al Pacino Shylock

And of course there are many Shakespeare plays that have been made into commercial films. One performance my son found particularly inspiring was Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice. This was a 2004 film which also starred Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes, and luckily it is still available on DVD. My son likes the speech in which Shylock points out that Jews are just like any other human being, “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer” and therefore worthy of respect. You can see Al Pacino perform the speech on YouTube HERE.

The best thing about my son having to choose a Shakespeare monologue is all the great films we can watch! The hardest part is making that choice…

The Old English Beowulf manuscript is believed to date from the 11th century, making it 1,000 years old.

The Old English Beowulf manuscript is believed to date from the 11th century, making it 1,000 years old.

I learned a new word today: kenning. This is an ancient Anglo-Saxon poetic device that describes an object or person in a round-about way which sometimes takes the form of a puzzle. The epic poem Beowulf is one source of these intriguing word-pairs that describe something quite simple in a clever way. For example, a ship is described as a “wave floater” while the sea is a “whale road.” The word body becomes “bone house” and a sword is a “battle light.” Each of these paired images is far more evocative than the simple noun they replace. I particularly like “battle light” as I instantly imagine the flash of sun on a metal blade.

At my Patron of Reading school, Comely Park Primary, the P2 classes have been writing kenning poems. Today Miss Lucas sent me eight of them, and I thought they were so good I wanted to share them here. Instead of telling you what they are about, I think in the true tradition of a kenning poem, you must puzzle it out for yourselves:

Kenning 123Have you figured it out yet? I particularly like the images of a “web dangler” and a “banana hider.” Enough to give one nightmares! Here are three more poems to give you further clues:

Kenning 456Clearly Mr Colvin and Miss Meyrick are not fans of this particular creature! I can quite understand, as I’m getting the jitters thinking about a “carpet crawler” and a “house scamperer“! I quite like the image of the “bath slider” too, as you can picture the helpless beastie slipping down the shiny porcelain…

Kenning 78I like Ava’s “web weaver” and Tegan’s dramatic “people poisoner“! I think by now you must have guessed that these kenning poems are all about a spider. I wish they had sent me some drawings to go with the poems, but instead I will provide this failed banana hider:

banana spider

Comely Park Primary class P3/10 have sent me a new kenning poem they wrote together, inspired by the P2 spider poems and by a particular film trailer. See if you can guess what the film might be:

BFG kenning poemIt sounds like a pretty scary film! Here’s a link to the trailer on YouTube: The BFG trailer

Did you guess?

End of Term 2016

On the last day of school, the pupils of P3/10 presented Mrs Roy with a special poem they had written for her. It’s another kenning poem and celebrates all the wonderful things she did for them during her time as Support for Learning Assistant at Comely Park Primary:

Mrs Roy poem

GlendaruelA little while back I received a wonderful package of letters from Kilmodan Primary School, a two-classroom schoolhouse in a tiny rural community in Argyll, Scotland. There are only thirteen pupils in the school, and the surrounding countryside is very beautiful. The river above winds through Glendaruel quite close to the school, and the harbour below is Colintraive where some of the pupils live.

Photo ©www.dive-firth-of-clyde.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

Photo ©www.dive-firth-of-clyde.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

The eight P1-4 pupils and their teacher Ms Hawkins had been reading my two puffin books, Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero in class, and they each wrote a lovely invitation to Lewis the puffin to come and visit their school tearoom in September. Along with the letters, they enclosed photos of their impressive classroom display of puffin drawings and a fantastic seabird scene. Sadly, Lewis was on tour with the circus in Canada in September, so he couldn’t manage a visit. Instead, he sent each of the children a postcard from Toronto and told them all about his adventures. Since then, Ms Hawkins has been tweeting about Lewis and Harris on her school Twitter account, and she gave me an idea…

puffin holiday planLewis and Harris are back together now, as the circus is taking a little break. On Sunday the two brothers decided to fly off to Ayrshire to visit Blairquhan Castle, as it was a lovely sunny autumn day. They found a picture of the castle in a book and thought it would be great fun to go exploring there.

arrival castleWhen they arrived, it looked just as impressive as the picture! The enormous wooden door stood open in welcome, so Lewis and Harris hopped up the steps and went inside. They were very impressed by the big, beautiful rooms and all the paintings on the walls. One painting showed a rather large family playing out in the countryside:

big paintingAnother painting was of a little girl holding a pet rabbit. Lewis and Harris got up near the painting to get a closer look. They thought the rabbit looked a bit worried.

puffins and rabbitNext they visited the library. They had never seen so many books in one place! The little spaces in between felt just like a puffin’s burrow in the cliff.

libraryNext they wandered into the dining room, where they found a strange bird. It was a pheasant, but for some reason it refused to talk to them. Eventually they gave up and left him alone. What a rude fellow, they thought.

puffins and grouseLewis and Harris ventured up some very grand stairs and found a big four-poster bed with tartan drapery. Next to the bed was a lamp with another animal – this time a handsome stag made of metal. The puffins flew up to the bedside table to take a closer look.

stag lampIt was clear this one was not going to talk, but they thought he made a lovely lamp. Blairquhan Castle was a great place to visit, but it was getting late and Lewis and Harris needed to get home. On their way out they stopped in the grand ballroom and spotted a very special ice cream cart. What a funny thing to find in a castle!

ice cream cartThey asked the man what he was doing there, and he explained that this was an open day for people who wanted to have their wedding at the castle. He offered a free taste of his special wedding ice cream, and Lewis and Harris couldn’t say no!

ice cream choicesLewis liked the look of Rhubarb and Ginger, and Harris went for Yummy Watermelon. They were delicious! Ice cream was a perfect end to a great day out, and it gave them lots of energy for the long flight home. I wonder where Lewis and Harris will go next?

subway entranceOn our second day in Toronto, my son and I hopped on the Yonge Street subway line to head down to the Harbourfront area. The subway system has been expanded since I lived in Toronto, and now reaches further in all directions. A good deal simpler than the London Underground system, the Toronto subway has two main lines: the yellow one goes North-South in a big U, and the green one goes East-West along Bloor Street.

Toronto Subway map showing the three lines. Map ©TTC.

The Bloor/Danforth line has been extended north at the eastern end. It ended at Kennedy when I lived there. So I see a new blue line and also a little purple one that wasn’t there before! These go out into the suburbs. Downtown Toronto is the area served by that lower part of the U.

The subway trains have also changed a great deal since I was last in Toronto. Now they are sleek and open with no divisions between carriages. They were revamped in 2010 and now look similar to New York subway trains.

The new Toronto subway trains were launched in 2010. Photo ©TTC/Mike DeToma.

The new Toronto subway trains were launched in 2010. Photo ©TTC/Mike DeToma.

The platforms are clean and modern, and signposting is pretty clear. You can get a transfer to travel on a bus or streetcar once you come out of the subway, but remember to get it at the station where you start! Look for the red transfer machines.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Inside, the trains look great but the seats are a bit hard. Plenty of room for standing though, and you can walk down the full length of the train.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

There are regular announcements at each station and a set of arrows on the overhead display shows which side to exit on. There is also a clever illuminated map of the subway network with a green light indicating the train’s current location. Red lights show the route you are on and where you will go next.

So, all this to say we took a subway train down to Union Station, where we took a short walkway south to the Harbourfront. I hardly recognised the place, as so many new hotels and highrise condominiums had been built in the past 20 years! We were meeting a friend at the Queen’s Quay building, but I had some trouble finding it in a forest of glass and concrete towers.

queens quay condoThe Queen’s Quay Terminal building was originally a warehouse on the waterfront, but was converted to luxury condominiums in 1983. Back then it was virtually the only one of its kind, with lovely terrace restaurants on the quayside and a landscaped walkway behind. A nearby powerhouse was converted into an art gallery in those early days of cultural transformation.

Now there are a huge number of attractions, including a dog and cat centre, the Purina PawsWay, where pets are welcome to take in exhibits (such as the Animal Hall of Fame) and events like obedience training and obstacle races. Not being pet owners, we didn’t venture in.

Giant bronze pets welcome you at the PawsWay at Harbourfront. Photo ©Purina PawsWay.

Giant bronze pets welcome you at the PawsWay at Harbourfront. Photo ©Purina PawsWay.

Instead we had a lovely walk along the waterfront and a great meal with our friend on a sunny terrace. The next stop was the CN Tower, but when we arrived it was so crowded that we would have had to wait two hours to go up, so we decided against it. My son had forgotten his glasses anyway, so Toronto from the air would have been a blur!

We decided to stroll up Yonge Street, the longest street in Canada at 58 km. We had only travelled a few blocks when we came past the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, a handsome Edwardian double theatre built in 1913 by Marcus Loew and designed by Thomas W. Lamb.

Photo ©Elgin Winter Garden Theatre.

Photo ©Elgin Winter Garden Theatre.

Originally designed for vaudeville, the lower Elgin Theatre was a sumptuous gilt and red velvet hall where silent films were introduced, and later it was adapted as a mainstream movie house.

The Elgin Theatre has been in continuous use since 1913. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The Elgin Theatre has been in continuous use since 1913.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The separate Winter Garden Theatre is located seven stories above the Elgin, and is a whimsical creation with its hanging beech branches and twinkling lanterns.

The unique Winter Garden Theatre has tree-like columns and hanging leaves. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The unique Winter Garden Theatre has tree-like columns and hanging leaves.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

This theatre was aimed at a more discriminating audience but it also featured vaudeville shows. When these declined in popularity the Winter Garden Theatre closed, and lay unused for 65 years. In the 1980s both theatres were restored by the Ontario Heritage Foundation. In the upper theatre, volunteers spent many months rolling the painted walls and boxes with raw bread dough to remove the soot. This was the only way to clean them as they were painted with simple water-based paints.

The boxes and stage surround are painted with trellis and roses. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The boxes and stage surround are painted with trellis and roses.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

We had intended only to pop in and look at the lobby with its lovely stained glass doors, but we ended up going on a 90-minute tour! A very lucky discovery, and much more interesting than the CN Tower, as it turned out.

The entrance to the Elgin, with beautiful stained glass doors. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

There is so much more to see in Toronto that we must try to get back very soon. I’m going to make a list and be a bit more organised next time!