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  • Archived Weblog Entry - 05/03/2006: "Blackthorn"
    love the blackthorn too because they can shelter or nest in complete safety knowing that very few predators can reach them inside that thorny refuge The blackthorn s fruit is the sloe but in its raw state it is virtually inedible It looks like a beautiful little plum with a delightful blue black skin and its attractive appearance belies its bitterness However it can be made into a very palatable sloe gin and some country women manage to produce tasty jam and even wine from it The wood is also useful because it is tough and polishes up well Because the tree is rather small it can only be used to make small items such as the teeth of rakes It also makes useful walking sticks Irish cudgels known as shillelaghs are fashioned from this wood whilst another of its uses is in marquetry Not surprisingly a good deal of superstition surrounds the blackthorn with some believing that a blossoming branch should never be brought indoors because it is an omen of death I think this arises from an old belief that Christ s crown of thorns was made from this thorny wood and so it has acquired a reputation for being unlucky In some districts there was a curious ritual where a crown of thorns was made from the blackthorn on New Year s morning and then scorched in the household fire The charred remains were then hung with mistletoe to ward off bad luck The blackthorn is often confused with the hawthorn which is very common as a hedgerow plant and was used extensively in early land enclosures It has strongly scented creamy white or pink flowers in May hence their wellknown name and the song Here we go gathering knots of may The Holy Thorn of Glastonbury

    Original URL path: http://www.nicholasrhea.co.uk/author/archives/00000042.html (2016-02-17)
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  • Archived Weblog Entry - 04/06/2006: "Malta"
    shops is marked with the sterling sign This is a bit disconcerting for 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

    Original URL path: http://www.nicholasrhea.co.uk/author/archives/00000041.html (2016-02-17)
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  • Archived Weblog Entry - 02/20/2006: "Early Birds"
    Garden BirdWatch scheme The BTO is interested in the early nesting activities of 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

    Original URL path: http://www.nicholasrhea.co.uk/author/archives/00000040.html (2016-02-17)
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  • Archived Weblog Entry - 01/20/2006: "Witch Posts"
    and it is interesting to note that past authorities such as Canon Atkinson and Richard Blakeborough in their comprehensive books about the moors make no reference to them Close interest in these posts stems from the last seventy years or so and in the absence of any known explanation for their presence it was assumed without any real evidence that when carved they were a form of protection against witches In medieval times and more recently country people believed witches cast evil spells upon them their homes and their cattle and so made use of various charms to keep them away including witch bottles under the threshold Other deterrents included horseshoes the wood of the rowan tree and a bewildering host of very local charms But were these posts really a form of protection against witchcraft or did they serve another purpose Although our superstitious forebears used a wide range of charms against witches the X shaped cross does not seem to feature among them Apart from being the cross of St Andrew this is also the Greek symbol for Christ and so we might ask who carved those oak posts And why Clearly it was someone skilled with wood carving tools and it would take some considerable time to complete each one If the purpose was to deter witches why not simply nail a horseshoe to a post or make use of some other simple charm Why use oak not rowan wood And why place it inside the house instead of outside where witches would see it And was the carving done upon a post already in position or was it specially created The fact that these so called witch posts have been credited with being a deterrent has been disputed by folk lore experts but it may be significant that before they were given that name they were known as priest marks or priest posts The theory was that a priest would visit the house to lay the witch and then secure the premises against further trouble by marking it with a cross If this was the case why did the priest not make use of the better known cross of Christ s crucifixion One persistent theory is that the posts were the work of a travelling priest hence the Lancashire example and bearing in mind the date of 1664 a famous priest was working in the moors at that time Because he was a Catholic however he had to work in secret and his parish included the villages I 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

    Original URL path: http://www.nicholasrhea.co.uk/author/archives/00000039.html (2016-02-17)
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  • Archived Weblog Entry - 01/03/2006: "January"
    from his distinctive two faces something a human would not normally possess Janus is often depicted as a heavily bearded man generally carrying in his hands either a staff or a set of keys Apparently some images show him without a beard and in some instances where he does not hold either the staff or keys the fingers on his right hand will show the number 300 written in the Roman form of CCC Similarly the fingers of his left hand will show the number 65 LXV the total coming to 365 the number of days in a year In pre Christian Rome there was a temple dedicated to Janus and probably founded by Romulus the double barbican gate of which was kept open during times of war but closed in peacetime It was said to have been shut only four times before the Christian era but it seems the reason for leaving the gates open during wartime was to enable the city s armies to come and go without hindrance whenever they were speedily needed The open gate under the protection of Janus was also said to ensure good fortune Indeed some archways and gates were later named Janus Although January is the first month of our year it was not always so An early Roman calendar from which ours is derived was based on an even more ancient Greek system The start of a year in that Greek calendar was in what we could call June ie upon the new moon nearest the summer solstice The months were all named after Greek gods and later the Greeks adapted an Egyptian system The very ancient Egyptian and Greek calendars each had twelve months always with the intractable problem of dividing the year into a number of precise days When

    Original URL path: http://www.nicholasrhea.co.uk/author/archives/00000038.html (2016-02-17)
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  • Archived Weblog Entry - 11/17/2005: "Rabbits"
    The ground beneath his crane collapsed due to the burrowing activities of 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

    Original URL path: http://www.nicholasrhea.co.uk/author/archives/00000037.html (2016-02-17)
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  • Archived Weblog Entry - 10/13/2005: "Ivy"
    as a kind and useful plant There is little doubt that a thick 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

    Original URL path: http://www.nicholasrhea.co.uk/author/archives/00000036.html (2016-02-17)
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  • Archived Weblog Entry - 09/09/2005: "Oak trees"
    this sturdy impregnability that gave the oak a kind of divine status in 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

    Original URL path: http://www.nicholasrhea.co.uk/author/archives/00000035.html (2016-02-17)
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