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  • Nicholas Rhea's Diary
    British tourists when they realise that an item marked at 10 is actually 10 Maltese lire which converts to something like 16 sterling The most common mode of travel is by omnibus as fares are so cheap Many of these famous yellow buses are over fifty years old and it is an adventure to ride in them as they chug through the country lanes or negotiate potholed narrow streets in town The buses depart every ten minutes or so from the circular bus station in Valetta which is a marvel in itself with its huge central fountain It is difficult to research the ancient history of Malta due to a lack of written records It is thought that settlers from Sicily arrived as early as 5300 BC and certainly well built stone temples dating to 4 000 BC can still be seen These were constructed before either Stonehenge or the pyramids but over the centuries Malta sometimes known as Melita has been invaded by the Phoenicians ancient Greeks Romans Turks Arabs French British and notoriously in 1942 during World War II the Germans For its bravery in the face of that attack the island was awarded the George Cross Britain s highest award for gallantry by civilians Its most famous settlers were the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem otherwise known as the Knights Hospitallers who were granted the island of Malta by the Holy Roman emperor Charles V They arrived in Malta in 1530 and their rent was one falcon a year Under their Grand Master who was answerable only to the Pope the Knights set about building the fortifications which still exist today and which have been used down the centuries in its defence The knights built their hospitals and cared for the sick whilst also undertaking a military role and remained in Malta bringing massive benefits to the island until they were evicted by Napoleon in 1798 Napoleon s navy gained access to the heavily fortified harbour on the pretext of acquiring provisions Two years of dreadful and chaotic French rule followed with the Knights hospitals being destroyed through both inefficiency and disease At the time the English were at war with France and Admiral Horatio Nelson set sail for Malta with his troops and the French surrendered On September 5 1800 Malta became a British colony The visitor who made the single greatest impact on Malta was probably St Paul known as the Apostle of the Gentiles Initially a vigorous opponent of Christianity Paul experienced his famous conversion on the road to Damascus when in a vision Christ told him to preach the faith to the non Jews Paul set about his missionary journeys but got arrested in Jerusalem and was sent to pagan Rome for trial On his way however he was shipwrecked off the coast of Malta He stayed for three months sheltering in a cave which a thousand years earlier had been hand hewn from rock by the Romans then

    Original URL path: http://www.nicholasrhea.co.uk/author/archives/archive-042006.html (2016-02-17)
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  • Nicholas Rhea's Diary
    all garden birds with a current emphasis on blackbirds and its Garden BirdWatch scheme is the only nationwide survey of garden birds to run weekly throughout the year Anyone who is interested in helping with this research can obtain a free information pack by contacting Garden BirdWatch Room 7 British Trust for Ornithology The Nunnery Thetford Norfolk IP24 2PU or by logging on to their web site As I pen these notes the countryside is awakening after its annual winter slumbers Despite the fact we are still in the season of winter possibly with some unpredictable weather ahead more new shoots are appearing almost by the day snowdrops are in full bloom and daffodils are budding up We are hearing more and more birdsong each day and blue tits have been studiously examining one of our nest boxes Trees and bushes are beginning to display new buds while some like the hazel are already displaying yellow catkins In the midst of all this activity however there lurks a handsome villain This is the bullfinch a small plump bird which is slightly larger than a house sparrow but readily identifiable due to its white rump The male is strikingly beautiful He sports a smart red waistcoat a grey back and black tips to his wings and tail he also wears a natty black cap but when he flies it is his white rump which identifies him along with distinctive white flashes on his wings His mate also displays a white rump but although her colours are similar to the male s she is not quite so brilliant her underparts for example are rather dull pink instead of bright red Before maturity all the youngsters bear the distinctive white rump but their colours tend to be more brownish Unfortunately while it may be a handsome bird the bullfinch may not be welcome in our gardens because it has a great fondness for new buds particularly those which are beginning to appear on our fruit trees berry bushes and flowering shrubs In some fruit growing areas the destructive activities of bullfinches have become such a problem that these birds are officially listed as pests which means they may be destroyed Bullfinches are not regular visitors to our garden but a few days ago I did spot a male bullfinch on a bird feeder He was not attacking any of our trees or bushes probably because the buds were not sufficiently developed to satisfy his hunger but he did make a quick meal of some peanuts One odd fact about this bird is that in spite of his brilliant plumage the male can easily hide in thick vegetation his presence often being revealed only when he produces a piping note The bullfinch is just one member of the finch family a colourful group of birds which prompted our Victorian ancestors to capture some of them and keep them in cages High on their list was the goldfinch with its black and yellow wings white

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  • Nicholas Rhea's Diary
    ve named He was Nicholas Postgate a native of Egton Bridge who studied at Douai in France before returning in secret to the English Mission At first he worked around Tadcaster and other places in the East and West Ridings but early in 1660 he returned to the North York Moors living at Ugthorpe and going about his mission disguised as either a gardener or a pedlar His life was always at risk from pursuivants as he celebrated Mass in cottages cattle sheds and other secure places He travelled those moors from 1660 until 1679 when he was executed on York s Knavesmire for baptising a child In 1664 therefore the date on the witch post to which I referred earlier he would be walking those moors and visiting houses In some cases houses were marked to indicate their occupants willingness in spite of the risks to accommodate a travelling priest The sign was five vertical lines etched in stone above the doorway said to represent the five wounds of Christ The 1664 witch post was coincidentally installed at Postgate Farm Glaisdale and it bears the initials EPIB which may be the first letters of the opening line of a Latin prayer I have a Catholic missal dated 1688 but can t trace in it any specific prayers for laying witches although it does contain prayers for King James Queen Mary and the Dowager Queen Katherine So if these posts indicate the visit of a priest travelling in secret might they signify a room where Mass could be safely celebrated Or were they merely confirming the house had been blessed And if the priest did not carve the crosses on the posts who did And why I don t know the answers although I doubt if Postgate Farm is named after the martyr The place name Postgate dates from the thirteenth century long before his time and it means a road marked by posts Whatever the purpose of these curious posts some of which may have been installed after the death of Nicholas Postgate it is interesting to speculate that the Martyr of the Moors may be associated with some of them Posted by Peter N Walker 09 12 AM GMT Link Tuesday January 3 2006 January sunset January is named in honour of the two faced pagan deity Janus who was believed to be gatekeeper of the home of the gods the equivalent of what became the Christian idea of heaven and because he faced two ways he was able to look backwards and forwards at the same time Like Janus we can look back to the past to gain experience while looking forward in hope for the future The intercession of Janus was also sought by those who were starting new enterprises in addition to his gatekeeping duties he was considered the god of new beginnings In ancient pagan Rome the start of any new day month or year was dedicated to Janus rather than any of the

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  • Nicholas Rhea's Diary
    rabbits and so the superstition was reinforced Afterwards if some workers merely saw a rabbit they would stop work and go home and another factor was that sailors in the area were also superstitiously afraid of rabbits being fearful of seeing one before going to sea If they did see one they believed harm would befall them and so they refused to set sail that day This belief was not restricted to the Portland sailors All around Britain rabbits must not be mentioned by name at sea or in any gathering of sea faring folk either on land or at sea For years any fisherman operating along the north east coast would not go to sea if he encountered a rabbit on his way to the boat and even people who were not associated with the sea would consider it unfortunate to meet one In the countryside wild white rabbits were once thought to be witches and so they were left alone and not shot under any circumstances because of fears of the revenge which might follow Probably the most common of all rabbit superstitions is the carrying of a rabbit s foot I ve known people even in our modern society insist on carrying a rabbit s foot at all times both of a means of preventing bad luck but also for ensuring good fortune when travelling going to work taking an exam or undertaking some special task Children have been known to carry rabbits feet when sitting exams and actors would carry them before and during an important performance Mothers would place them in their children s prams as a form of protection and in some areas mothers would brush their new born babies with the fur of a rabbit s foot to ensure luck throughout life It

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  • Nicholas Rhea's Diary
    covering helps to retain the heat of a building while protecting the stonework from the worst of the weather it also provides a nesting site for birds and places for them to roost at night but such a coat of ivy does need to be kept trimmed to prevent it finding its way into cracks crevices gutters and window frames And if there is a structural weakness such as a tiny piece of missing mortar the ivy will find and exploit it I like the story of a stubborn ivy which worked its way through a wall of Magdalen College Oxford and found itself in the wine cellar Undisturbed over a period of time it made its way towards a bottle of port and succeeded in penetrating the cork Having achieved this it then drank the entire contents and when it was discovered it had rooted itself inside the bottle I m sure this would be an extremely happy and very healthy ivy but I do not know what happened to it once this adventure came to an end I would imagine it would have been banned from visiting the cellar In the past ivy on a house was regarded as a sign of good fortune and when we believed in the power of witches and evil spirits it was supposed to keep them at bay If the ivy suddenly died or fell away from the house however this was a sign that the house would shortly have new occupants or that the present occupants would have to tolerate some bad fortune or illness A good healthy stock of ivy was therefore regarded as a sign of one s enduring good fortune particularly so far as women were concerned Ivy is a symbol of feminism and fertility which might explain

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  • Nicholas Rhea's Diary
    primitive times Added to this was the fact that it hosted mistletoe a plant which did not require earth to flourish and therefore long regarded as a magical plant The pagans would get married beneath the oak and special trees were selected for this purpose These became known as Marriage Oaks and although the church forbade such marriages when Christianity replaced paganism one of these trees survived at Brampton in Cumberland until the middle of the last century Indeed some couples who had married in church would continue to visit the Marriage Oak in the belief that it would bring them good fortune in their wedded bliss The fruit of this majestic tree the acorn was also thought to have special properties in that it could protect a household against lightning and in the absence of the genuine article wooden acorn were made and placed within the home The ideal place was close to the windows through which a lightning strike might come so they used these acorns on the ends of curtain rails and pull cords Acorns were sometimes carried around by people who believed they would preserve their young appearance ladies would carry them hoping for perpetual youthfulness and they also served as charms in the process of discovering whether or not a girl would marry the man of her dreams In this case two acorns were named after the girl and her lover and dropped into a bowl of water If they floated near to one another it was an indication that the wedding would go ahead but if they separated it was proof that they would not marry or that the lover would prove to be an unfaithful husband But the acorn had a more positive function Even in the early years of this century it

    Original URL path: http://www.nicholasrhea.co.uk/author/archives/archive-092005.html (2016-02-17)
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  • Nicholas Rhea's Diary
    local corpse way This was done because private landowners did not want the body passing across their land due to the old tradition that such a route would thereafter be a public right of way Even if it was considered ill mannered or unlucky to obstruct a funeral procession there are tales of battles between the staff of landowners and mourning families trying to carry bodies over private land and of course there were also tales of funerals attempting to pass over private land deliberately to establish a right of way In the past however most landowners and farmers were sensitive enough to permit a funeral procession to cross their land in an emergency even at the risk of local people using it as a public route The fact is however that there is absolutely no legal ruling to support this belief and yet over the centuries the notion has persisted In 1935 there was a case Belton v Nicholas which formally disposed of this old tradition it was heard at Haverfordwest County Court and brought a legal end to this ancient idea Nonetheless despite of that case the idea has persisted even into modern times A variation of this belief was that it was unlucky for a corpse to cross a bridge whilst another said it was unlucky if the corpse crossed a bridge twice Yet another problem arose with toll roads and toll bridges some believing that if a corpse passed through a toll then the owners would never again be allowed to make a charge A similar superstition said that if a body was carried across a ploughed field the field would never produce a very successful crop while even today some believe that a corpse should always be carried out of the house feet first and

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  • Nicholas Rhea's Diary
    found in grassy areas throughout the country Those of us with lawns know how tenacious the white clover can be once it has established itself It can take years to eradicate roots which are left in the ground Nonetheless the white clover is another splendid producer of nectar Bee keepers like it because it supplements the dandelion and sycamore flowers as a main producer of nectar in the spring Without the white clover many bees would have a tough time when the dandelion and sycamore have matured but this flower is not welcomed in the same way as its red cousin If eaten in large quantities by animals it can produce prussic acid which is harmful to them but fortunately the white clover s taste is not very appetising a good deterrent The leaves of these clovers consist of three leaflets Those of the white clover are rounded whilst those of the red have a rather more pointed shape but in both cases there are distinctive white patterns on the leaflets It is these leaves which our forebears considered very lucky if they produced four leaflets which happens on occasions Although the clover in general was considered a lucky plant and one capable of keeping witches and evil spirits at bay a four leaved clover was especially valuable It was considered capable of protecting humans animals and buildings against all manner of ill fortune and many country people would wear four leaved clovers in their hats or button holes Some believed that possession of a four leaved clover enabled the owner to see fairies To protect their livestock or their milk and butter supplies farmers would hang four leaved clovers in their byres or dairies while a love sick girl believed that if she placed a four leafed clover in

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