Friday, January 13, 2012

Letters from England (No. 1)

By Barbara Wittman, Archivist, Rotch Wales Papers, Massillon Public Library
Visiting Scholar, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge

Maiden Castle by trekker308 at flickr.com
We begin our visit to the southern coast of England at Maiden Castle, not really a castle, but rather a huge earth embankment just south of the town of Dorchester. The castle mound or hill fort, approached from the west was a hilltop settlement, the most complex and largest in Britain with a series of occupations from at least 6,000 BC. During their quest to assert control over the area, the Roman army occupied the embankment around 43 AD and intermittently thereafter until the 4th century when the mound was used for agriculture. Today, Maiden Castle is a protected site conducive to walking and picnicking in warm weather amid sheep from neighboring farms that graze on open pasture.

Imagining the relative size of a pliosaur, human, and whales.
Dorchester, now a town of 17,000 was founded by the Roman invading armies around AD 43. It is thought that the modern town still covers much of the 85 acre ancient town. The Dorchester Walks of today are the site of the ancient town walls, originally 2.5 meters thick and 6 meters high. In the 18th century the Roman walls (with the exception of a small piece at the top of Prince’s Street) were replaced by a line of large trees that define the town’s Roman parameter. Extant remains of the Roman town include a townhouse behind the County offices and a Roman bath house under the present car park on Acland Road. In 1978, archeologists excavated the bath house and removed mosaics and pottery to the Dorset County Museum where they are on display in company with an enormous 155 million year old Pliosaur that was discovered in coastal Weymouth Bay, in June the venue for water sport of the 2012 Olympic Games. The length of the skull of this impressive specimen measures 2.1 meters from the tip of the snout to the back of the parietal ridge. The overall length of this Pliosaur was up to 15 meters. By any standards, this is a huge animal!

Thomas Hardy
The Dorset County Museum located on High West Street is the headquarters of the Thomas Hardy Society and also contains his study. The museum tea room is usually packed out as tea rooms are an institution in this country and the perfect opportunity for quiet conversation. The museum is staffed by volunteers who also provide their homemade cakes and pastries including shortbread, cheese chili savory, parsnip and walnut cake, sticky date cake, ginger cake and stuffed monkey (cinnamon pastry with almost filling). Recipes are available upon request. The museum administration may possibly add light lunches of toasted sandwiches and soup to the menu board which would bring even more people into the museum. Museum volunteers are also proposing publication of a Cookbook. A notice will be posted on the museum website, calling for submission of recipes from a large museum membership. The cookbook would contain historical good quotes from Thomas Hardy’s most remarkable novels, Far from the Maddning Crowd (1876) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). Hardy (1840-1928) Dorchester’s favorite son, was an avid walker who knew the Dorset landscape intimately. Over his lifetime, he chronicled the changes taking place in Britain as the country transitioned from an agricultural economy to a largely industrial nation.

The weather in southern England has been divine since my arrival on December 23 with the exception of one day of heavy rain and winds downed numerous trees, including many in Scotland. The Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh lost 40 old trees including huge oaks. The good news is that healthy lichen were found at the tops of these trees meaning that the city pollution was far less than previously thought.

Temperatures on the whole over the country remain in the low 50s, good for walking along the beach at Lyme Regis with the dogs. Numerous people throughout the country mounted up for the annual Boxing Day hunt, although fox hunting is banned now, while others took to the frigid Thames for the annual plunge. The morning papers also revealed that the Duke of Edinburgh was released from hospital in good condition after treatment for a blocked coronary artery, driven away in a land rover to the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. He ventured out to church on Boxing Day and was greeted by 300 well wishers, while the Queen in a great coat was photographed on a massive draught horse, riding about the estate grounds.

Yesterday, January 3, we traveled by car to the town of Chard in Somerset to view a house for sale on the market. In 1805, Chard consisted of two streets, market day was on Monday, -probably the largest market in England for potatoes and for cattle. One arrives at Chard from Dorchester through the village of Cricket St. Thomas on the A30 road between Chard and Crewkerne. Crewkerne sitting on a branch of the river, Ax, and also an ancient town, is well watered and wooded and blessed with a salubrious air. The town church is an elegant ancient gothic structure with a room containing bones dug up in the church yard.

Returning to Dorchester in the late afternoon, the mistress of this house produced a fabulous winter soup. I enclose the recipe here and remember to serve in a warm bowl with a crusty French bread.

Broccoli and Stilton Soup for ONE
1 tbsp olive oil½ onion chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 bunches of broccoli florets, blanched
4 ½ oz hot vegetable stock
1 ½ oz Stilton cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preparation method
1) Heat the oil in a frying pan then add the onion and garlic and try until softened
2) Add the broccoli and the stock and simmer for 8-10 minutes
3) Add the stilton and season to taste, and salt and pepper
4) Allow to cool slightly, then transfer to a food processor and blend until smooth.
5) To serve, pour into a warm bowl.

January 6, 2012: we traveled 7 miles distant from Dorchester by coach to Weymouth on coastal Britain, site of the Pliasaur find mentioned above. In 1348, the Chronicles of the Greyfriars of King’s Lynn documented the arrival of a seaman aboard a ship sailing from France who was infected with the plague. Known as the Black Death, the plague reached London by 1348 and by the next summer it covered the entire country, killing about 1/3 of the population before ending in 1349. At Weymouth we saw the much acclaimed “The Iron Lady,” Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister. Although there are a few flaws in the film, Meryl Streep’s work in this film has earned rave reviews on both sides of the pond. Reviewers agree that this is her best work ever, making her a certain fit for an Oscar.

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