Category Archives: Travel

Italy Part III 

Meanwhile in 16th Century Vatican City…

“I don’t see what the problem is,” he shrugged.

“You don’t see what the problem is!” he said in exasperation. “Your holiness, he gave me the ears of a donkey!”

“I think they look rather fetching,” he mused.

“And there’s a serpent eternally biting off my testicles!”

“Well that does sound rather uncomfortable,” he said in sympathy.

“So you’ll order him to paint my face out?”

“Look,” he sighed, “I might have released you from purgatory, but over hell I have no power…”

Food rationing in Britain during WWII was so severe that giant, meandering queues became common place. It’s claimed that people would often join queues without knowing what they were for. They just hoped there’d be something worthwhile at the end. Not long after entering Vatican City I did something similar. There was a massive queue snaking its way around St Peter’s Square. I assumed it must be the right queue, so I joined.

Vatican City formed in 1870 when unification of the numerous Italian states resulted in much of the land surrounding the city being claimed. A territorial standoff resulted, lasting almost sixty years until Mussolini signed a 1929 pact rendering the city an independent nation state; the world’s smallest. Amusingly, it has one of the highest per-capita crime rates in the world. Many would argue this is owed to the tiny population skewing the crime figures. But perhaps it’s simply evidence for the Bible’s proverb ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’ After all, when a reporter asked Pope John XXIII how many people worked at the Vatican he jokingly replied ‘about half of them.’

My intention was to queue for the Sistine Chapel, so I was relieved to discover the massive queue was actually for the basilica. It was ‘about three hours long’ I was told. I happily departed and wandered off to find the chapel’s queue.

I kept being approached by guys promising I could skip the queues. After discovering the chapel queue was 1hr 30mins I became interested. I got chatting to one who explained that for 50E I’d get a guided tour of the museum, chapel and basilica. Entry to the chapel was 20E, so it would be an extra 30E. I said I’d think about it and went to leave. He stopped me and offered student price. My comment about not being a student was greeted with casual insouciance. Student price was 41E. So he was offering 21E to skip the queues, receive a guided tour and see the basilica. Seemed like a sweet deal. Five minutes later I was inside listening to the guide’s explanations.

The guide was a slightly eccentric, middle-aged Italian lady wearing clothes daubed with more splashes of colour than your average painter’s smock. She also seemed extremely preoccupied with the male bodies of the museum’s sculptures, which I found rather amusing.

After the museum we entered the Sistine Chapel. It’s named after Pope Sixtus IV who commissioned it, and was built between 1473 and 1481. Its dimensions are the same as the Temple of Solomon’s as described in the Old Testament. It wasn’t until my visit that I realised the infamous smoke that the world’s press awaits when a new pope is being selected emanates from the chapel. A chimney is installed in the roof when required.

Although the chapel was completed in 1481, Michelangelo didn’t begin the ceiling until 1508. He was initially vehemently opposed to the commission. This was partly owed to the daunting scale of the work, but also his contempt for the art form. He considered himself a sculptor first and foremost, and distained frescoes. Despite this, he created such an astounding masterpiece that it changed the direction of western art. It takes someone remarkable to create a world-changing piece of art. To do so in a medium you’re contemptuous off…well… I’ve no idea what level of talent that takes.

It seems Michelangelo was also a pretty strong-willed character. You’d imagine most people would humbly abide any request from the pope. Not Michelangelo. He maintained that if he had to accept the commission then he must have a free hand in its design. He then dismissed the requested design completely and embarked upon an epic series of nine scenes from Genesis. Despite his initial reticence, he eventually painted an astounding three hundred figures covering 460m2. He also ignored the pope’s constant complaints about the mushrooming timescale and spent four years on the work.

The pope summoned his principal architect and instructed him to design a scaffold to aid Michelangelo in reaching the ceiling. Michelangelo laughed at the proposed design and opted to design his own. Many mistakenly believe he painted lying on his back, but he was actually standing up.

While in his sixties Michelangelo was called back to paint the altar wall. Once again he protested the commission; once again the pope dismissed his objections. The result was The Last Judgement – the largest fresco painted during the 16th century and an unquestioned masterpiece. It depicts Christ as the judge sending the damned to hell with his left hand and lifting the saved up to heaven with his right. Despite once again having to endure the pope’s constant pestering to hurry up he took his time and completed the work between 1535 and 1541.

The Last Judgment proved controversial through its depiction of naked figures. It ignited a bitter dispute between Michelangelo and the pope’s master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who considered it disgraceful for such a sacred place to feature nude figures. In retaliation, Michelangelo incorporated Cesena into the scene as Minos, the judge of the underworld, who has the ears of a jackass and snakes biting his testicles. Cesena complained to the pope who responded with the comment at the start of this post (“I might have released you from purgatory, but over hell I have no power” – the rest of the scene was artistic licence on my part.)

It goes without saying that the ceiling is spectacular. Sadly, I can’t share any photos as they’re forbidden. The Swiss guards who patrol the chapel are pretty strict about this. I saw one guy having his cheekily-snapped photos deleted. There’s no talking allowed either. There’s just a lot a shushing.

After the chapel we were guided through to St Peter’s Basilica. The first church on the site was built during the 4th century, but it underwent major rebuilding during the 16th and 17th centuries. This mammoth project took 120 years to complete.

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Catholics believe St Peter’s Basilica is built upon the burial site of the first pope and head of Christ’s apostles: St. Peter. Oddly, his name was actually Simon. He helped found the Christian church after Jesus’ crucifixion. He was later crucified for his efforts. The basilica’s altar is claimed to be positioned directly over his tomb.

Michelangelo was in his seventies when the basilica’s principal architect died. The construction had already been going for forty years. I imagine Michelangelo was hoping to put his feet up and relax in his twilight years, but the pope had other ideas. He dragged him from his retirement and appointed him superintendent of the building program – something he once again vehemently opposed.

Once again he also again demanded a free hand in the design. But he didn’t simply dismiss the work of the previous architects. He built upon it. In doing so he progressed the colossal project to a stage where it could be completed after his death. As such, he’s recognised as the principal architect of what stands today. Going for the hat-trick, the result was another undisputed masterpiece. It’s an example of Renaissance architecture considered by many as ‘the greatest of all churches of Christendom.’ It influenced architecture throughout Western Christendom and even features the world’s tallest dome (inspiring Christopher Wren’s dome at St Paul’s in London). Upon completion it gained the title of world’s biggest church. A title it held until 1989 when the church in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire surpassed it.

Despite initially being uninterested in seeing inside the basilica I’m extremely glad I did. It’s astonishing. I’ve seen a fair few churches in my time, but I’ve never seen anything quite like entering St Peter’s Basilica and lifting my head.

The immense size and beauty is staggering. I was so overwhelmed by the visual hammer-blow that I stopped dead in humbled awe. I hope Christian readers can forgive me, but upon entering the holiest site in Christendom the words that immediately, accidentally, left my lips were “Holy fuck.”

The thing I took most from my Vatican City trip was respect for Michelangelo. He’s the genius rebel who revolutionised everything he begrudgingly touched. He considered fresco an inferior art form, and yet revolutionised it anyway. It was a rival painter who pushed for him to paint the Sistine Chapel – hoping his dislike of frescoes would result in a humiliating disaster. Instead, he elevated it beyond anything anyone had ever seen before.

He consistently rebelled against the pope’s authority. Whether it was arguing against his commissions, dismissing the intended designs or simply ignoring incessant demands to hurry up. Along the way he mocked a leading architect and humiliated the master of ceremonies. He also took one of the holiest sites in Christendom and filled it with nude images (until they were later covered over). He was clearly an unassailable maverick. You’ve got to admire that.

As I’m not able to show you any photos I thought I’d instead share this classic Monty Python sketch. It fittingly imagines Michelangelo arguing with the pope and explains why he never painted the Last Supper (the chapel’s Last Supper scene was painted by Rosselli).

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Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill (Italy Part II)

Crushed between the vast colliding ships, the wooden oars erupted in a shower of shards. Running at full speed he leapt, grabbed the rigging and swung out wide over the ship’s side. Releasing his grip, he landed, with a thump, upon the enemy’s deck.  

A pair of boiling eyes fixed upon the invader. Their owner sprinted forwards, menacingly raising his javelin overhead. The invader leapt to his feet while swinging his broadsword up in one well-trained motion. The razor sharp blade slashed through the approaching torso showering the invader in blood. He snatched the javelin from the dying hand and hurled it towards the source of the arrows raining down from the rigging. It plunged deep into the archer’s chest. The subsequent agonising scream ended with a dull thud and crunching bones as he crashed upon the deck.  

A seven foot tall giant waded through the fighting men towards him. He swung his trident down powerfully upon the invader. The broadsword and trident locked. With grimacing faces only inches apart, the two men grappled. Spotting unsteady footing, he kicked. The giant teetered, loosening his grip. He kicked again, toppling him to the ground. He swung his huge sword high above his head and down, deep, into the assailant’s stomach. The blood pouring from his gasping mouth was met with the raucous roars of the eighty thousand strong crowd. 

The Colosseum was completed around AD 80. Some claim the inaugural games even included a sea battle. As I sat in those stands, gazing down upon that arena, I couldn’t help but imagine the astounding sights that must have once been witnessed there.  

Sea battles would, undoubtedly, have been some of the arena’s most spectacular events, but there were many different categories. From the famous gladiatorial contests to the less famous animal hunts. It was also the host of public executions, re-enactments of famous battles and even dramas based on classical mythology. 

The animal hunts were elaborate affairs. The arena would be transformed into various landscapes using moveable rocks and trees. A huge variety of exotic beasts were sacrificed upon the altar of entertainment. Rhinos, hippos, elephants and giraffes, lions, leopards, aurochs, bears, tigers, crocodiles and even ostriches were slaughtered for the pleasure of the braying crowds. The animals were often introduced unexpectedly via ingenious trapdoors and underground pulley systems. It’s even been claimed whales were involved, though I’m not sure how much of a fight they were expected to put up. And I don’t imagine they entered through a trap door either. The contests often occurred on breath-taking scales. At times 10,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators would battle continuously for months on end.  

Not all animals were there to be killed. Some were there to do the killing. Lunchtime sessions often involved executions. The condemned would be thrust, naked and unarmed, into the arena while beasts were released to tear them to pieces. Though, I have to admit, it’s not entertainment I’d choose to accompany my lunch (“Hey, Lance. Do you want some ketchup with your bacon sandwich?” “Umm…you know what? I’ll think I’m fine on that front…”). But there weren’t only gruesome events. I imagine the acrobats and magicians served as a welcome relief from the stomach-churning violence.  

The Colosseum was the largest amphitheatre ever built. Its capacity is estimated to have been 80,000. Such huge numbers made it necessary that the arena could be emptied quickly in times of emergency. Despite the numbers, it’s thought it could be emptied within minutes. This swiftness was owed to eighty exits. Sadly, many of them have disappeared due to the perimeter wall collapsing. The exits were serviced by corridors called vomitoria. This ability to conduct such a rapid discharge is the origin of the English word vomit. After all the violence and horror featured at the Colosseum, it’s amusing that it was actually the corridors that gave us the word vomit.  

But it wasn’t just health and safety features that made Roman events similar to modern arenas. The arena operators even used a form of ticketing. Spectators were given numbered shards of pottery to direct them to their seats.  

Interestingly, the Colosseum was the first sports arena with a retractable roof, in the form of a canopy. It provided shade and cover from the rain. It had a hole in the centre angled so as to catch the wind and provide a cooling breeze for the spectators.  

The arena’s wooden floor spread was covered with about 15cm of sand to absorb the blood (in fact, our word ‘arena’ derives from ‘harena’ the Roman word for sand). Something I find amusing is that the sand was sometimes dyed red to disguise blood. If you go to watch such horrific violence, how can you be squeamish about a bit of blood?  

The Colosseum saw around 450 years of service. It was later used for housing, workshops, a quarry and a Christian shrine. This shrine was dedicated to the Christian martyrs thought to have died there. However, there’s no evidence Christians were actually martyred there, and, prior to the 16th century, no one made such a claim. Pope Sixtus V intended to turn it into a wool factory to provide work for Rome’s prostitutes, though his premature death derailed the plans. These various uses, combined with earthquakes, have led to extensive damage over the centuries.  

Despite the damage, much of it remains. I’d been told that it would be smaller than I imagined. Personally, I thought it was massive. I’d also read that there wasn’t much to see and you were unlikely to stay long. I think I read one commentator claiming you’d only spend about half an hour there. I couldn’t understand this. I was enthralled. I was wandering around, star struck, with a childlike grin. Whether staring down at the arena and imagining the scenes, or stopping to study the ancient graffiti etched into the walls, I was fascinated. I must have stayed for over 1hr 30min, and I only left when I did as I had other things to do. 

The ticket for the Colosseum also includes entrance to the Forum and the Palatine Hill. Although the Colosseum queue moved quickly, I took the sage advice of getting my ticket at the Palatine Hill entrance as the queues were much shorter. Afterwards, I went back to take a look. 

The Palatine Hill is the central hill of the Seven Hills of Rome. It’s the most ancient part of the city, and during Rome’s height it became a fashionable place to live. Today it features the ruins of many of the great palaces of the Roman Emperors. It was once covered with imperial palaces. Archaeologists believe they’ve even discovered the remains of the house where Augustus, the first emperor, was born. Today most of the hill is peppered with the ruins of Emperor Domitian’s vast palace, which was the main imperial palace for three centuries.  

According to legend, the hill was the location of the cave where the she-wolf had suckled Romulus and Remus, the city’s founders. The name palatine is also the source of the English word palace. Amusingly it’s derived from the Latin word ‘palus’ which means marsh or swamp. So people who live in palaces, semantically, actually live in swamps. Not nearly as glamorous.  

The hill is massive, and the ruins sprawl over a vast area. On several occasions I was about to leave when I thought “I’ll just check around this corner…” only to discover a whole new section. If you visit, my advice is to explore far and wide to make sure you don’t miss any.  

As you walk down the Palatine Hill you reach a large ledge that looks down upon the last part of the spectacular attraction: the Forum. 

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The Roman Forum is a rectangular plaza that features the ruins of numerous important buildings central to Roman life. It was home to Rome’s religious, legal, political, economic, social and commercial life and played host to speeches processions, trials, trade and commerce. It was once filled with shops, temples, offices and arches. It’s situated in a valley at the foot of the Palatine Hill and was used for 1,400 years.  

Since my trip I’ve read that a guide is recommended. I think this is a good idea as it was difficult to understand what you were looking at. It’s fascinating, but, to the untrained eye, it’s a confusing jumble of random crumbling buildings and public art.  

One particularly notable aspect is the Via Sacra. The Via Sacra was a major road during Roman times. It was along this road that returning armies would march. Today those ancient armies have been replaced by armies of tourists, but it was still incredible to stand on those very same cobbles and imagine, two millennia ago, legions of tired, battle-weary soldiers marching along in a massive unbroken line snaking its way towards the horizon and beyond.  

Since my return I’ve discovered this video which features a 3D virtual reconstruction of the forum helping to explain the site.  


I Name You…Me! 

Legend claims that long ago there lived a princess named Rhea Silvia. She was the daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa. But her villainous uncle, Amulius, envied his brother’s great power. He ousted the king, seized the throne, killed his sons and forced Rhea to become a Vestal Virgin – a priestess sworn to chastity and charged with sustaining a sacred eternal flame.  

Contrary to her chaste obligations, Rhea fell pregnant by the god Mars. The betrayal of her vow would ordinarily have resulted in her twin sons being killed. But, upon learning of their father’s identity, King Amulius felt reluctant to risk angering the gods. So, he ordered them to be killed by either live burial, exposure or being thrown into the River Tiber. He reasoned that if they were to die by the elements then he and his city would be spared the god’s wrath. But the servant tasked with completing the order took pity on the twins. Instead, he placed them in a basket which he set adrift upon the Tiber.  

A series of miraculous events conspired to protect the young twins from harm. Firstly, the river god, Tibernus, calmed the river, ensuring their safe passage. Next, he influenced the currents so their basket would become caught amongst the roots of a riverbank fig tree. Afterwards, a lupa (she-wolf) discovered the twins and suckled them in the safety of a cave. Later, a wood-pecker or picus (someone turned into a woodpecker) supplied them with food. Eventually, they were discovered by a shepherd and his wife who took them in and raised them. After surviving their ordeal the boys grew up to become shepherds like their adoptive father, completely unaware of their royal blood. 

One day, while herding their sheep, the brothers encountered some of King Amulius’ shepherds. A fight broke out during which one of the brothers was captured and taken before the king. The other sibling gathered a band of fellow shepherds to free his incarcerated brother. 

The rescue was a success, the brother was freed and the devious king was killed. The city’s citizens offered the brothers the crown, but they declined and restored Numitor to the throne. 

Instead, the brothers decided to found their own city, but quarrelled over the ideal location. They agreed to settle the matter through augury. Augury was a type of prophecy that involved observing birds to determine what actions the gods favoured. One brother claimed to have won the contest having seen twelve birds. The other brother disputed this claim on the grounds that he’d seen his six birds first. They argued until one brother decided to begin building his own walls and trenches. His attempts were derided by his brother, who even jumped over the walls in jest. This mocking resulted in a fight breaking out. The mocking brother, Remus, was killed. The surviving brother, Romulus, founded his new city. Eponymously, Romulus named the new city Rome.  

Roman historians accepted the above story as historical fact. Citing the city’s founding as between 758 and 728BC. The image of the she-wolf suckling the twins even became an iconic representation of the city. Unsurprisingly, modern historians are a little more sceptical of the story’s veracity.  

Modern historians believe the city grew from several settlements situated around seven hills near the River Tiber. The location was advantageous as the river was narrow enough to be bridged. The downside was that the ground between the hills was marshy. Being isolated upon their hills made the settlements vulnerable. For safety, they drained the marsh and united as one easily defendable city.   

Rome’s early inhabitants were from a tribe called Latins, from the Plains of Latium. They were successful farmers and traders. The riches accrued through their success aroused jealousy amongst the surrounding tribes. This rivalry necessitated the need for a skilled army to protect the city. Over time the successful army expanded the territory so that by 300 BC the Romans controlled most of the Italian peninsula.  

A while back I decided to take a trip to Rome and explore its fascinating history. This is the first post in the series about my trip.  

 

Footnote 

You may notice the similarity between the story of the twins being placed in a basket and the story of Moses from the New Testament. The Roman myth predates the Moses one, but the original myth dates back much further. The story can actually be traced back to at least ancient Mesopotamia and the myth of Sargon (~2,300 BC).  


Yarmouth Castle

This is the last post about my trip to the Isle of Wight. The first can be found here. 

When I was around eight years old my class in school held a castle building competition. We were divided into teams, given a pile of boxes, scissors, string and Sellotape and the timer was started. I’m not sure why, but I became adamant that our team’s castle should be replete with a working drawbridge and portcullis. This, due to the time constraints, caused some consternation among some members of the team. A degree of teacher diplomacy was called upon, and I was eventually awarded a splinter group within our team to build the drawbridge and portcullis. We won the competition. I felt rather satisfied that our castle’s working drawbridge and portcullis was named as a deciding factor in the win.  

Still, this small success is no evidence that I could have made it as a successful castle builder. I was so determined that it should have a drawbridge and portcullis that I had little concern for anything else. If I’d have been a castle builder during the Medieval period no doubt I would have been standing back to admire my fancy gatehouse with working drawbridge and portcullis when the enemy arrived and I was asked, “Maybe we should have built some walls as well?” 

The competition was inspired by a project we were doing on castles. It was this project, and the subsequent trip to Porchester Castle, that sparked my early interest in these ancient defences. But I wasn’t the only one keenly interested in castle defences.  

Much like Southsea Castle (discussed in my previous post), Yarmouth was designed differently to Henry’s earlier castles. It was square and featured a new ‘arrow-head’ bastion protruding from its southeast corner. This new style of bastion, developed in Italy, made the castle one of the most innovative military buildings in England. Most of the castle’s firepower was directed out to sea, leaving it vulnerable to land attack. For this reason a moat was dug on the land side. The new bastion was positioned at the corner of the moat and enabled the garrison to provide flanking fire to protect the moat-side walls. Any would-be attackers who tried to get close to the walls could easily be despatched.  

The arrow-bastion revolutionised the design of fortresses, although the example at Yarmouth was initially somewhat lacking. The stone walls designed to protect soldiers from enemy fire were too short. Later alterations addressed the issue. It appears that Henry’s designers were experimenting with the concept before fully understanding it.  

Yarmouth was the last of Henry’s castles. Not long after Southsea’s completion a French fleet approached Portsmouth, on 18th July 1545. They were retaliating for an invasion by Henry the previous year. Owed to a long standing dispute, Henry still believed he, as king of England, was the rightful king of France. The fleet landed on the Isle of Wight. The next day a naval battle occurred in front of Southsea while Henry watched from the mainland. It was during this battle that his beloved, and infamous, flagship the Mary Rose sank.*  

Until the French fleet’s invasion, it was considered unnecessary to build a castle on the island. But by landing there they were beyond the reach of the mainland’s guns. The local militia defeated them, but the defensive weakness had been exposed. It was decided to build Yarmouth Castle. It was completed in 1547, after Henry’s death. It never saw action, but was garrisoned until 1885.  

This is how it originally looked: 

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But the castle has been altered significantly since its construction. Its original courtyard was filled in during the late 16th/early 17th century, and in 1670 the outer earthworks were removed. The moat was also filled in and a house was built – now the George Hotel. 

This is how it looks today: 

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Much like Southsea, Yarmouth’s only major action took place during the English Civil War. It was held by a Royalist captain, but he was clearly more sober and sensible than Southsea’s captain (as discussed in my previous post). When the Parliamentarians arrived the captain acknowledged that his tiny garrison was unlikely to repel such a large force, so he surrendered.  

The castle’s displays explained how the town of Yarmouth once exerted Parliamentary influence vastly disproportionate to its size. During Elizabethan times, Yarmouth’s burgesses (local officials) were able to send two MPs to Parliament. This situation continued until 1832, despite Yarmouth only possessing around six hundred residents. Birmingham, meanwhile, with a population of nearly 150,000, didn’t have the right to send any! 

In 1763, Yarmouth’s mayor was chosen during a meeting in which only he and one other burgess was present. This seems a little unseemly. Especially when the following year the same situation occurred, only with the two swapping places! It’s no wonder Yarmouth gained a reputation as a rotten borough. It still enjoys prestige beyond its size though. It’s Britain’s smallest town (unlike villages, towns have the right to hold regular markets, appoint mayors and construct town halls). 

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*As an aside, I visited the Mary Rose during a school trip in, I believe, the same year as the castle building competition. It was behind glass while being sprayed with water as part of its preservation. I remember wondering how long it would take to complete the process. That was back in the 1980s (it was raised in 1982). It’s scheduled to go on full display in the summer of 2016. It seems incredible that it’s taken so long. What an astounding amount of work it’s taken to preserve such a magnificent treasure. I’m thinking I might have to pay it a visit… 


(Dino) Footprints in the Sand

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

– Sir Isaac Newton

Warning: This blog post is about rocks. As I’m sure you can imagine, blog posts about rocks feature an extreme degree of adrenalin-fuelled drama that often proves too excessive for many readers. Those with a nervous predisposition or known heart condition should proceed with caution.

This is the fifth post about my trip to the Isle of Wight. The first can be found here. It’s also my third post about rocks. I’ll save the links to the other rock posts until the end. You need to pace yourself. If you can survive the below then feel free to tackle the others.

As I crunched my way over the pebbly beach one particular pebble amongst the thousands of others caught my attention. I stopped. “Hmm…now that is interesting,” I thought to myself. I bent down. Picked it up. Inspected it. Turned it over in my hand. “Interesting,” I thought again. I slipped it in my pocket and continued on my journey.

Many thousands of years ago our Neolithic ancestors undoubtedly walked along similar such beaches looking for similar such rocks. Admittedly, their vision was far keener than mine and their attention was focused far more on survival.

The next day I pulled into a car park besides a different beach. After grabbing my coat and rucksack I joined the gathering crowd of strangers assembling at the meeting point. There were parents struggling to herd their excited children, young couples hugging each other in protection against the building breeze and well-equipped older enthusiasts patiently waiting in earnest. As the scheduled time of our meeting passed our guide, Oliver, concluded that everyone who intended to join had likely done so; it was time to begin. Over his shoulder was a well-worn satchel. He dug in deep and retrieved a small collection of rocks. He then began passing them around amongst the eager audience. They were like the clothing of a missing person to rescue dogs. They were the examples to train our eyes upon before departing on our quest. The rocks were fossils. And we were on a fossil hunt.

The Isle of Wight constitutes one of the richest fossil hunting sites in Europe. Over twenty-five different species of dinosaur have been identified on the island. The connection to dinosaurs is so strong that it’s become a major tourist draw. This point is illustrated by a fun walking tour created along the south coast. This ‘Dinosaur Island Trail’ has a series of ‘meteorites’ (rocks) which you can locate. There’s an associated phone app. When you reach the meteorite you open the app and point the phone’s camera at the meteorite. It then super-imposes an animated dinosaur, complete with sound effects, on the scene allowing you to take a photo. Each location has a different dinosaur to discover. Here’s a photo I took at one location:

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Besides the walking tour there are also opportunities to go on fossil hunts. Having been fascinated by dinosaurs since I was a kid (as mentioned here) I opted to take a tour and learn some more.

My first discovery came less than a minute into the hunt. I was standing on a raised ridge when I heard a panicked lady asking if anyone had seen a young boy in a red coat. From my vantage point I could see a lone child playing on the other side of the ridge. He was wearing a red coat and appeared too young to be safely playing on his own. From my elevated position I was able to direct the appreciative lady to the missing child. He wasn’t quite a dinosaur fossil, but I guess it was a good find nonetheless. His mum seemed rather relieved anyway.

As we made our way along the beach, armed with our new know how of what to look for, we scoured the ground. Oliver was a local professor of palaeontology and, along with a fellow expert, was on-hand to identify the various finds. He was a jovial fellow and seemed more than accommodating to the relentless queue of budding-fossil hunters hoping for confirmation of having found something special. “That’s a good find, but unfortunately it’s just a bit of wood…” “They look a bit like that, but unfortunately that just some flint…” “Umm…that’s some glass…”*

I was determined to find a fossil. I forensically scrutinised the scene at my feet as I slowly made my way along the beach. Every slightly unusual rock or oddly coloured example was plucked from the sand, excitedly examined , before disappointedly discarded.

We’d been searching a lot longer than I realised when Oliver called out to announce we’d reached as far as we were to go. I was initially disheartened to have progressed so far through the hunt without success. That was until Oliver drew out attention to this:

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140 million years ago the Isle of Wight was a floodplain with a monsoonal climate of long dry summers punctuated by flash floods. It was also home to a great many Iguanodons. It seems that a whole herd of these 3.5 ton herbivores had made their way across the muddy terrain that eventually became the Isle of Wight’s coast. It seems likely that a flood struck causing a river to burst its bank filling the footprints with sand. Over millions of years the mud turned to mudstone and the sand turned to sandstone. Sandstone is tougher than mudstone so as the relentless waves erode the soft mudstone cliff the perfectly formed sandstone casts fall out onto the beach.

There was a time when people would collect the footprints. This was fine until some budding entrepreneurs began selling them. This kick-started a lucrative business creating great demand for the footprints. Unsurprisingly, demand soon out-stripped supply. The unsustainable situation came to a head when a footprint was destroyed by someone trying to cut it from the rocks. In desperation the National Trust, who owns the stretch of coastline, sought legal advice. It was recommended that a by-law should be introduced making removal of footprints illegal. The law was introduced in 1984. Since then, any unusual or scientifically important footprints have been removed and taken to the local museum. All others are left on the beach for the public to enjoy. Here, enjoy some yourself:

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And here’s another of the Dinosaur Trail photos:

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It’s a Pelorosaurus. It’s one of the rarest types of sauropods and grew up to 20 metres in length.

The highest concentration of the footprints can be found around Hanover Point. It’s a geologically interesting location. The underlying rock is being pushed north. This has caused it to rise and at Hanover Point it has cracked and given way. As such, it features the oldest layers of the beach. This can be explained by imagining several layers of paper stacked upon one another. If you push the stack from each end then the middle will rise, creating a peak (Hanover Point). Wind, rain and glaciers has since eroded the top few layers leaving the older layers (the lowest layers of paper) exposed. It’s Africa’s gradual movement northwards which, alongside creating the Alps, has caused this phenomenon.**

While walking back Oliver stopped to point out an apparently incongruous anomaly in the rock strata. Near the top of the cliff was a 128 million-year-old layer. Sat directly on top of it was a layer only 6,800 years old. He asked us if we could explain the odd feature. Can you? (Answer at the end of the post)

Naturally, I assumed I’d discover a completely new species of dinosaur that would totally revolutionise our whole understanding of them. Surprisingly, this didn’t occur. I found a few interesting things, but sadly no dinosaur fossils. As we neared the car park and the end of the hunt I excitedly approached Oliver with my latest find. I was convinced that it must be something. It looked nothing like else I’d seen. The fossils are very, very dark black. And, despite having been subjected to unimaginable heats and pressures for millions of years, their surface still looks remarkably like bone. This was the darkest, blackest thing I’d seen. It also had a slight bone-like surface. Sadly, it was nothing of interest. It was just an odd, dark rock. I think Oliver must have taken pity on me though. He offered me a small fossil that he’d found. He thought it was likely a turtle bone or something. He said I could keep it, which was very good of him. Maybe I didn’t find my new species of dinosaur (The Lanceasaurus), but at least I got my own fossil. I found a few other interesting things as well:

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On the left is a 115 million-year-old lobster burrow. The top-right is a piece of fossilised wood (you can see the grain), and the sample at the bottom-right has white shells and fish bones.

I also got the chance to ask Oliver if the stone I’d found the previous day was anything of interest. I was pleased to be informed that it was a 90 million-year-old fossilised sponge that he considered a good find:

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The fossil is made from flint. Flint is made from silica. It turns out that the majority of silica comprising flint comes from the remains of ancient creatures (such as sea sponges or various microorganisms). That’s something to bear in mind next time you see some flint. You’re looking at fossils. It’s also interesting to note that our ancestors found flint to be a great source of cutting blades. As they combed beaches in search of cutting tool material they were undoubtedly unaware that they were in fact searching for the remains of ancient creatures. Ancient creatures that had lived and died lived long before our ancient ancestors could possibly have imagined.

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My fossil

 

Incongruous Rock Strata

The reason for the disparate layers being so close is that the ancient layers were pushed up and eroded. This resulted in the 128 million-year-old layer being near the surface. During the Ice Age glaciers carved away the remaining layers. When the glaciers melted, 6,800 years ago, the ancient layer was left exposed. Subsequent layers then began to be laid down.

 

*To be honest, I was the one who excitedly showed him the piece of glass. It had been smoothed by the sea and severely scuffed up, so it looked peculiar and unlike anything else around.

 

**As an interesting side note, a documentary I watched a few years ago explained that Africa’s northward migration will eventually result in Morocco and Spain meeting, making the Mediterranean the world’s largest inland sea. With the water not being replenished it will eventually evaporate creating the world’s largest salt bed (something to consider next time someone offers you an investment in a beachside property on the Med).

 

If you managed to make it all the way through this rip-roaring rock post without requiring hospitalisation, feel free to see if you can survive the excitement of my other rock-based posts here and here.

 


Trampling on the Shoulders of Giants

This is my fourth post about my trip to the Isle of Wight. The first can be found here.

It’s quite obvious to anyone that casts a cursory glance around the world today that the future will be dominated by those nations who excel in science and technology. Only the most foolish and short-sighted leaders would fail to invest in such a lucrative field. As for those who invest, succeed, but subsequently abandon that success, for such nations only the most serious of scorn should be reserved. I’m talking, of course, about the UK. As, after all, the UK is the only nation to have successfully developed a satellite launch capability and then idiotically abandoned it.

Hidden from the mainland by the one of the Isle of Wight’s most famous landmarks is an isolated, wind-swept, concrete husk that was once a thriving, ground breaking facility.

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It may seem surprising today but during the 1950s the UK’s place in the space race was on par with both the US and the USSR. In fact, by the early 60s the UK was actually ahead of the US. A sobering thought in light of this being the same decade when the first American steps were taken upon the moon.

During the 1950s a rocket testing site was built at High Down on the Isle of Wight (just above the Needles). A rocket named Black Knight was designed, developed and tested there as a means of delivering a nuclear bomb. Despite the incredibly tight budget, Black Knight performed exceptionally well. In fact, it experienced no failures whatsoever. It was this success that led to the decision of adapting the technology into a low-cost satellite launch system. This became known as the Black Arrow satellite launcher. Much like the Black Knight the Black Arrow was chronically under-funded. Also much like the Black Knight project, it was astoundingly successful.

Its fourth and final launch succeeded in its goal of successfully placing a satellite into orbit – thus proving itself to be viable and low-cost means of launching satellites. It also made the UK one of only six nations to have successfully sent a home-made satellite into orbit.

As the UK had no suitable launching sites the rocket was launched from Woomera in Australia. Sadly, despite the projects ongoing success, short-sighted politicians of the time cancelled the project. The cancellation was confirmed while the team were on their way to Woomera. “Officially” word of the cancellation never reached them, so they continued with the launch, although some believe they were indeed aware of the order but chose to ignore it. I hope that’s true. I like the idea of them shaking their head in disgust at their superior’s foolhardy ignorance but deciding to bloody-mindedly go ahead anyway just to prove a point.

The subsequent successful launch proved a political embarrassment for the UK government. Equally embarrassing are the views of the minister who made the decision. By his own admission, he could see no commercial value to launching satellites. Now there’s a man with some remarkable foresight.

After cancellation the only real means of commercial satellite launch was through the American Scout rocket. To a large extent the Scout held a monopoly on the lucrative market. It went on to launch over a hundred satellites and continued operating until 1996. This included various British satellites. The fact that the Scout was more expensive and arguably less capable than the Black Arrow only adds to the foolishness of the Arrow’s premature cancellation. To add salt to the wound, prior to the cancellation of Black Arrow, NASA had offered to launch British payloads for free. After the cancellation the offer was withdrawn.

According to the National Space Society every $1 spent on basic research today is thought to generate $40 worth of economic growth (ref: www.nss.org). Granted, the National Space Society is unlikely to be unbiased, but it still indicates the huge economic benefit of investing in science and technology. It also indicates how dangerous to future prosperity it can be when the political class fails to grasp this concept. The Black Arrow story clearly demonstrates the pitfalls of having a political class possessing a dangerous combination of too much power and too little foresight. Still, I’m sure they’d never do anything that stupid again…

There is perhaps one humorous footnote to this sad tale. The successfully launched satellite was originally meant to be named “Puck” (from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). After the cancellation it was renamed by one of the engineers. Its new name, Prospero, was taken from the Shakespeare play The Tempest. The character Prospero was a great wizard who spent many years mastering his mystical art. At the end of the play Prospero abandons magic and loses his abilities. The renaming took place after the cancellation, clearly demonstrating the engineer’s dim view of the cancellation. And the sore reminder of this foolish abandonment will certainly continue for some time. Prospero remains in orbit. It passes over our heads twice every day, and it’s believed that it will continue to do so for the next 220 years. Yep, there’s clearly no future in such technology.


Appuldurcrombe House

This is the third post about my trip to the Isle of Wight. The first can be found here.

Regular readers may remember this post about Calke Abbey where I focused on the demise of country houses during the 20th century. While I was on the Isle of Wight I decided to take a trip to Appuldurcrombe, which is in an even more advanced state of decay.

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It may seem soppy and sentimental but I’m always saddened to see places of such former glory and grandeur reduced to hollowed-out shells. As I wandered around those empty rooms I couldn’t help but ponder how, over the course of their three centuries, they’ve witnessed every chapter of the human experience played out repeatedly. Within those walls many friendships were forged, and many loves blossomed. Raucous laughter of long forgotten jokes echoed down those hallways. The raised voices of bitter arguments did so too. Joyful singing marked the passing of untold birthdays, Christmases and New Years. Gentle, sweet-nothings were whispered into the ears of lovers in those bedrooms. Other times the lonely and broken-hearted sobbed their bitter tears. Some people’s fondest memories were formed within those walls, others their most painful. New born babies gasped their first breaths from air bounded by those walls. Others, on the final page of their life story, drew their last. Their memories of that place passing with them. All of it now long gone, lost and forgotten.

Instead, wind whistles down chimneys and out of empty fireplaces around which families once gathered for warmth. Pits within bricks betray locations of joists that once supported long departed floors upon which residents walked. What were once smooth, finely plastered surfaces are now coarse, un-cut stones bare, naked and exposed. Moss and lichen now clings to walls where priceless works of art once hung. These are walls which have stood stoically and witnessed the natural world hunker down to survive three hundred winters and welcome three hundred springs. Once much-loved. Now much-neglected. Gutted and ghostly. A vacant husk battered and bruised by wind, rain and storms. Elegantly framed windows that once guarded against the worst of the elements now freely let them pass. And with each passing gust evermore grains of those stones are carried away as they’re slowly worn down and crumble to dust.

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Appuldurcrombe originally featured 365 windows, 12 principled room, 52 rooms and 7 staircases. Such houses were known as calendar houses for the way their interiors represent the days, weeks and months of the year.

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From these now bare walls once hung one of the country’s greatest art collections, and displayed the most important collection of ancient Greek marbles in England.

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The ornamental grounds were shaped by the legendary Capability Brown in 1779.

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Some of the 18th century’s most eminent figures were entertained by lavish parties in the Great Hall.

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Use of the site can be traced back to 1100 when there was a priory situated on the land.

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Like many country houses Appuldurcrombe faced demolition in 1952, but was saved.

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The unusual name comes from the Old English ‘appuldur’ which is a place where apples grow and the Old English ‘cumb’ or Celtic ‘cwn’ for valley.

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Work began on it in 1702 and took 70 years to complete.

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It’s considered a baroque masterpiece and was once the grandest house on the island.

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A key factor in the building’s decline occurred in 1943 during the Second World War. A German Dornier bomber plane was badly hit and about to crash land. In hope of surviving the crash the crew dropped the sea mine they were carrying. The mine landed in the grounds of Appuldurcrombe. The explosion blew out the house’s windows and caused the roof to collapse. Despite their desperate attempts, the crew died on impact.

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One of its former owners was Richard Worsley. He was embroiled in an infamous scandal when a bitter court case revealed that his wife, Seymour, had 27 lovers. Worsley later died at Appuldurcrombe in 1805.

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A photo of one of the rooms when in use as a drawing room in the late 19th C when the house was a school.

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A photo of the Great Hall in use as the school dining room between 1867 and 1896.

Appuldurcrombe is currently for sale for almost £5 million, so if you’ve got some spare cash lying around…