Thursday, 14 April 2016

Beating the Bounds

SATURDAY, August 27 2016 will see the people of Caldbeck walk the boundaries of their parish – a tradition held every 21 years.
Why only every 21 years is anyone's guess. Such 'beatings of the bounds' are normally held annually although there are probably only a few dozen parishes in England that continue the tradition. And Wigton must be one of the last in Cumbria.
North of the border the tradition is more commonly continued as Common Riding or Riding the Marches and an echo of this can be found at Egremont each September when 'Riding the Boundary' sees horse riders process from the sports field to the town centre and back (ie not around the town's boundary!).
Such traditions were usually held at Rogationtide (so that's roughly just after the fifth Sunday after Easter) and had a very clear purpose. The people of the village would walk the boundary ensuring everyone knew precisely where it was and hopefully boundary disputes could be avoided. In some parishes the procession would literally go through someone's house and out a rear window if the house was unfortunate enough to lie across the boundary!
To help 'mark' the boundary specific stones or trees would be used but a more traditional way of ensuring young people remembered might be to give them the 'bumps' at important spots or even hold them upside down and (gently) bump their head on the ground. In 1871, a perambulation in Beckermet impressed the route on their youngsters by throwing pennies into the beck which formed the boundary and allowing them to scramble after the coins. At other spots songs were sung, sports were held or tobacco distributed. The Beckermet tradition died out at the turn of the 20th Century but was revived in 2003 as a charity fundraising venture by West Lakeland Rotary and Inner Wheel.
The only other revival of a boundary tradition that springs to mind is fell-runner Joss Naylor's beating of the Wasdale boundary in 2012 to mark the Queen's Jubilee. It's a route that stretched for 35 miles with an ascent of 11,000ft so it's probably safe to say it won't be repeated by others any time soon.
* Details have not yet been released of the Caldbeck boundary walk on August 27 but will be announced on Patterdale also holds an annual parish walk; this year it is on Saturday, July 2. See

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The thrush's anvil

The thrush on his anvil
The thrush on his anvil. Picture: Derek Parker
I DON'T want to go all Alfred Hitchcock on you but it seems birds have long had the ability to adapt twigs, stones and other objects into tools. A couple of years ago a video of rooks using tools did the rounds on social media. They were pictured dropping stones into a tube of water to release food and even bending a piece of wire to make a hook. They may not be ready to topple man from the top of the food chain but it's a surprising insight into creatures we may assume are, well, bird-brained. Around the world birds have been seen fishing (by dropping objects onto a river to attract fish) and using twigs to hook or tease out insects from tree bark but there are also English birds who are not shy to show off their engineering skills.

While wandering beyond Surprise View (which overlooks Derwentwater, near Keswick), I took a slight detour to look at a red squirrel feeding station. I'm not sure who operates this feeder and it's certainly not flagged up on any websites or tourist information leaflets but it's an easy spot to photograph those elusive red squirrels. However on this occasion I was there at the wrong time (squirrels go for a siesta between midday and 4pm). I was, however, able to watch the coal tits and great tits swooping on the feeder for scraps left over from the squirrels' morning feed and among them was the nuthatch. With its highly improbably black eye mask it looks like a reject from the new Batman v Superman movie. It's this distinctive black band which quickly differentiates it from that other tree-hugger, the treecreeper. The nuthatch is thankfully now a common sight in Cumbria so it's a surprise to many people to learn that it's only in the last 20 years the nuthatch has moved north to colonise our county. He's a welcome immigrant.

It should be no surprise to see the nuthatch keeping company with squirrels; they have much in common. Just like the squirrel, the nuthatch will 'bury' food – usually in tree crevices or under stones – to retrieve at a later date. But it's their engineering prowess I am reminded to note: given a particularly big nut or seed, the nuthatch will push it into a piece of bark using it as a vice to hold it steady while the bird pecks it into smaller bits.

But our most prolific workman is the thrush. And even if you're never fortunate enough to see this master craftsman at work you are likely to stumble across what is known as "the thrush's anvil". The thrush has discovered how to extract a snail from its protective shell by smashing the unfortunate mollusc against a stone (the anvil). You'll often hear the thrush at work before you see him and keep an eye out while walking for these stone anvils - they're easy to spot with the dozens of broken snail shells lying around it.

Web links offers an overview of birds and their habits gives a glossary of the language of the landscape

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Low Lonning, Gosforth

A walk down Low Lonning, Gosforth

Hall Bolton Bridge at Low Lonning, near Gosforth
LOW Lonning, near Gosforth is just one of the many lonnings (country lanes) that can be found in West Cumbria. A lonning is a dialect term for a very specific type of path. In the ages before rail and road, people needed to know the difference between a narrow sloping path (a rake), a trod (a path used by miners), a wath (a sand crossing across an estuary), a drovers route, a corpse road, a lonning or many other types. Many Cumbrians instinctively know what a lonning is - one of the prettier paths. It may have originated as a path to a 'loan' by a farm (the quiet place where cows were milked and villagers could buy milk, cheese or other farm produce). Very few are identified as such on maps or finger-posts (I've come across probably just half a dozen) but villagers all know where they are and what they are called. The names are glorious: Wine Lonning, Love Lonning, Fat Lonning, Thin Lonning and Squeezed Gut Lonning are just a few. You'll find others on my lonning map.

Low Lonning at Gosforth was featured on Secret Britain in March 2016 and is indeed one of the nicer ones in this part of the world. Since Google Maps show it in the wrong place, this blog gives its correct location.

Name: Low Lonning, Gosforth (now usually shown as Low Lane on maps)
Grid reference: NY093040 - NY086028
Post code: CA20 1AS (the village centre)
Parking: Free car park in village centre - please put money in the honesty box!
Toilets: In the car park
Refreshments: Various pubs and cafes in Gosforth
Other attractions nearby: Guards Lonning, Bleng Lonning, Gosforth church with its famous Anglo Saxon cross; Gosforth holy well (near the church); Britain's favourite view at Wasdale; Eskdale and the La'al Ratty steam train.

Description: It is not easy to park at either end of this lonning so it's safer to park in the village and walk (it is probably about an hour and a quarter round route). Head out of the village on the Eskdale road (a country lane so remember to walk single file facing oncoming traffic). Cross over the large Rowend bridge. The first footpath on the left is the start of Low Lonning. This is an ancient path that was once the main route from Wasdale to the coast (not least for the smugglers!). The earliest map showing it is 1774 and later maps indicate its start and finish in slightly different places. The first part is a driveway to Hall Bolton and is sometimes shown as Toft Lane; once you are beyond that you are in the lonning proper. It crosses an impressive stone bridge over the River Bleng which reflects its golden age as a major trade route in West Cumbria. It's an ideal place to stop for some 'bait' (a dialect term for lunch!). From the bridge the lonning rises slightly through an avenue of trees.
The path up from the bridge
To your left is another footpath (the one wrongly identified on Google earth as Low Lonning). Ignore that and carry on. The path levels off and during a break in the hedges you will catch glimpses of the Wastwater screes - steep, plunging rock faces that dip into Wastwater.
The views to Wasdale and the Wastwater Screes
The lonning contines and rather disconcertingly, you will walk past a house and farm buildings. Don't worry! You're on a public path. Eventually the lonning dips down and you finish up at the main Wasdale Road.
The lonning towards the Wasdale Road end
Like most lonnings, this one is about half a mile long. Once on the Wasdale Road turn left and head back to Gosforth. The second path on your right will be Guards Lonning (one of the few lonnings actually signposted). This is one of our longest (probably about two miles) but is an 'industrial' lonning these days used for forest traffic. It is to be frank, one of the dullest lonnings apart from its astonishing views across to Wasdale. But don't let me stop you walking down it! You'll return to Gosforth via the hamlet of Wellington. The road is surprisingly wide because it was once going to be a road across the fells. Initial work included the widening of this road but the plans were eventually dropped.

I hope you enjoy Low Lonning and that it will encourage you to explore other lonnings. Apart from my Google map, you will find more lonnings detailed in our book, The Lonnings of Cumbria available from Amazon. And I'm always glad to hear about other lonnings that you know about. Email me on

A gate on which to rest a while!

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Writing paper guidelines

ONE of those mild frustrations for those who still hand-write letters is buying a writing pad and then finding there is no guideline sheet included. It's hard enough trying to keep handwriting neat without also having to worry that you are writing in straight lines and leaving the correct leading (spacing) between lines. But when I bought some of Basildon Bond's delightful Three Candlesticks writing paper I assumed that they would, of course, have pdfs of the guidelines on their website for just such an emergency. The pad I bought from the sorry looking display at WHSmith was wrapped in plastic and it was only when I got home that I found the guidelines had been left out. A search of their website revealed no one in the organisation had yet had the bright idea of putting pdfs of guidelines up on the web for their customers so instead I had to spend a few minutes with QuarkXpress to create them. I dropped a line to Basildon Bond with my pdf suggestion. So far they've not taken it up. They did send me a complimentary pack (with guidelines) which was nice of them but the covering note explained that they were no longer including guidelines in their writing pads. I was gobsmacked. Why not? Did they think

  1. Everyone could now write in perfect straight lines
  2. They could save money by not including the guidelines
  3. No one handwrites letters any more so why bother
So for those equally frustrated handwriting lovers, I've attached the pdfs here. Enjoy.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Living on the edge of the world

Judith Wildwood outside her Braystones home
JUDITH Wildwood has a unique perspective on the world - which is not surprising as she lives on its edge.

She is one of a few dozen people who live on the beach at Braystones in West Cumbria  in wooden single-storey homes that started life over 150 years ago as huts for men working on the railway. Their location tucked into the side of the railway - but on the same side as the sea - makes them some of the most precarious homes in Britain. The tide will generally lash against small, fragile walls in front of the houses - and during a storm the wooden structures take the full blast.

"I am incredibly lucky to live here," says Judith - which on the calm, bright, sunny day I visited her is easy to appreciate. The blue and white home looks out on the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man and what must be jaw-dropping sunsets.

"The summers are absolutely breathtaking," Judith said but added: "In the winter though you cannot remember what the summer was like."

Some of the recent guests to Judith's home have been Barney, Clodagh, Frank, Henry and Imogen - all storms with a particularly vicious sting in the tale. And Judith has no doubt that these storms are getting worse as global warming takes hold. Warmer winters, stronger winds and higher tides are all taking their toll. On the day I visited Judith the 'beach road' - it is barely a track with a few stones in front of it - had just been put back thanks to a man with a digger.

"You can see how much has vanished in the last 50 years," said Judith who has watched bigger and higher tides claim more and more of the beach.

So how do you survive on the edge of the world? Some of the homes do have electricity -some of them having set up generators or turbines for that purpose. Lighting is usually by gas cannisters or paraffin. Heating is by an open fire or gas. There is a telephone and some even have access to the internet. For those who want it - though it's hard to see why when you have one of the planet's greatest views out of your lounge window - there is even a TV signal or you can erect a satellite dish. And yes, they do pay council tax - though it's hard to see they get a fair deal  for the facilites on offer. There is waste collection and the postman finds his or her way up the beach (a letter simply addressed to The Blue and White House on the beach at Braystones will find its way to Judith).  Tesco will even deliver food to your door (the nearest shop is in Egremont) but the van sometimes need a hand getting off the beach. But other firms promising "national delivery" are not usually adept enough to find their way across the railway crossing and onto the beach road. After six months Judith gave up waiting for the delivery van with a new bath to find this 'lost' part of Britain. It's a stark existence and in winter some of the residents will retreat inland but for those who make it through another winter it's a reason to celebrate and be thankful. While storm and flood  coverage by the press has concentrated on the likes of Carlisle, Cockermouth and Keswick the forgotten world of Braystones has largely been overlooked. Perhaps the reporters just couldn't find it.

There is a wonderful archive of stories and pictures about the huts at Braystones at It's not clear who has put this wonderful resource together but it's well worth a look.

Homes at Braystones in West Cumbria

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Pythagoras' Theorem explained. Or How To Think

This has nothing to do with the Lake District - but I haven't got anywhere else to publish this! I have spoken to a couple of people of late about Pythagoras' Theorem (as you do) and the wonderful explanation of it given by Socrates to a slave boy. There's no clear illustrated translation that I can find on the web so I've had a go at adding illustrations myself. It is the simplicity of it which is so remarkable. It is like watching a magic trick - then being told how the trick works, watching it again and still being amazed. If you didn't think you liked maths, didn't think you would ever understand Pythagoras' Theorem or thought ancient Greek philosophy was boring, this is for you. Here Meno asks Socrates to demonstrate how "there is no teaching" and he does so on Meno's slave. This dialogue is nearly 2,500 years old. Socrates did not 'believe' in writing as it too firmly fixed ideas that might be wrong - Plato therefore wrote this.

"There is no teaching, but only recollection" - Socrates 

Socrates believed you could not teach anyone anything - only remind them of what they already knew deep down. He believed the soul knew everything but once it was born into a human body that knowledge was lost, waiting to be rediscovered.

Yes, Socrates; but what do you mean by saying that we do not learn, and that what we call learning is only a process of recollection? Can you teach me how this is?

Soc: I told you, Meno, just now that you were a rogue, and now you ask whether I can teach you, when I am saying that there is no teaching, but only recollection; and thus you imagine that you will involve me in a contradiction.

Meno: Indeed, Socrates, I protest that I had no such intention. I only asked the question from habit; but if you can prove to me that what you say is true, I wish that you would.

Soc: It will be no easy matter, but I will try to please you to the utmost of my power. Suppose that you call one of your numerous attendants, that I may demonstrate on him.

Meno: Certainly. Come hither, boy.

Soc: Attend now to the questions which I ask him, and observe whether he learns of me or only remembers.

Meno: I will.

Soc: Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?

Boy. I do.

Soc: And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc: And these lines which I have drawn through the middle of the square are also equal?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: A square may be of any size?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc: And if one side of the figure be of two feet, and the other side be of two feet, how much will the whole be? Let me explain: if in one direction the space was of two feet, and in the other direction of one foot, the whole would be of two feet taken once?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: But since this side is also of two feet, there are twice two feet ie four square feet?

Boy. There are.

Soc: Then the square is of twice two feet?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And how many are twice two feet? count and tell me.

Boy. Four, Socrates.

Soc: And might there not be another square twice as large as this, and having like this the lines equal?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And of how many feet will that be?

Boy. Of eight feet.

Soc: And now try and tell me the length of the line which forms the side of that double square: this is two feet-what will that be?

Boy. Clearly, Socrates, it will be double.

Soc: Do you observe, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything, but only asking him questions; and now he fancies that he knows how long a line is necessary in order to produce a figure of eight square feet; does he not?

Meno: Yes.

Soc: And does he really know?

Meno: Certainly not.

Soc: He only guesses that because the square is double, the line is double.

Meno: True.

Observe him while he recalls the steps in regular order. (To the Boy.) Tell me, boy, do you assert that a double space comes from a double line? Remember that I am not speaking of an oblong, but of a figure equal every way, and twice the size of this-that is to say of eight feet; and I want to know whether you still say that a double square comes from double line?


Soc: But does not this line become doubled if we add another such line here?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc: And four such lines will make a space containing eight feet?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: Let us draw such a figure: Would you not say that this is the figure of eight feet?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And are there not these four divisions in the figure, each of which is equal to the figure of four feet?

Boy. True.

Soc: And is not that four times four?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc: And four times is not double?

Boy. No, indeed.

Soc: But how much?

Boy. Four times as much.

Soc: Therefore the double line, boy, has given a space, not twice, but four times as much.

Boy. True.

Soc: Four times four are sixteen - are they not?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: What line would give you a space of eight feet, as this gives one of sixteen feet? Do you see? 

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And the space of four feet is made from this half line?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: Good; and is not a space of eight feet twice the size of this, and half the size of the other?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc: Such a space, then, will be made out of a line greater than this one, and less than that one?

Boy. Yes; I think so.

Soc: Very good; I like to hear you say what you think. And now tell me, is not this a line of two feet and that of four?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: Then the line which forms the side of eight feet ought to be more than this line of two feet, and less than the other of four feet?

Boy. It ought.

Soc: Try and see if you can tell me how much it will be.

Boy. Three feet.

Soc: Then if we add a half to this line of two, that will be the line of three. And on the other side... and that makes the figure of which you speak?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: But if there are three feet this way and three feet that way, the whole space will be three times three feet?

Boy. That is evident.

Soc: And how much are three times three feet?

Boy. Nine.

Soc: And how much is the double of four?

Boy. Eight.

Then the figure of eight is not made out of a three?

Boy. No.

Soc: But from what line? Tell me exactly; and if you would rather not reckon, try and show me the line.

Boy. Indeed, Socrates, I do not know.

(In Socrates' philosophical arguments he often starts by demonstrating that the 'expert' or 'teacher' does not know anything. Or that his arrogance actually hides ignorance. So Socrates does the same with meno's slave - first demonstrating that he knows nothing.)

Soc: Do you see, Meno, what advances he has made in his power of recollection? He did not know at first, and he does not know now, what is the side of a figure of eight feet: but then he thought that he knew, and answered confidently as if he knew, and had no difficulty; now he has a difficulty, and neither knows nor fancies that he knows.

Meno: True.

Soc: Is he not better off in knowing his ignorance?

Meno: I think that he is.

Soc: If we have made him doubt, and given him the "torpedo's shock," have we done him any harm?

Meno: I think not.

(There's no easy translation of Plato's phrase 'torpedo-shock'. The torpedo fish stuns its prey by giving it an electric shock. ie Socrates' has shocked the slave out of his complacency)

Soc: We have certainly, as would seem, assisted him in some degree to the discovery of the truth; and now he will wish to remedy his ignorance, but then he would have been ready to tell all the world again and again that the double space should have a double side.

Meno: True.

Soc: But do you suppose that he would ever have enquired into or learned what he fancied that he knew, though he was really ignorant of it, until he had fallen into perplexity under the idea that he did not know, and had desired to know?

Meno: I think not, Socrates.

Soc: Then he was the better for the torpedo's touch?

Meno: I think so.

(Having 'disarmed' the slave by demonstrating to him that what he knows is wrong, Socrates now helps him understand the right answer)

Soc: Mark now the farther development. I shall only ask him, and not teach him, and he shall share the enquiry with me: and do you watch and see if you find me telling or explaining anything to him, instead of eliciting his opinion. Tell me, boy, is not this a square of four feet which I have drawn?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And now I add another square equal to the former one?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And a third, which is equal to either of them?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: Suppose that we fill up the vacant corner?

Boy. Very good.

Soc: Here, then, there are four equal spaces?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And how many times larger is this space than this other?

Boy. Four times.

Soc: But it ought to have been twice only, as you will remember.

Boy. True.

Soc: And does not this line, reaching from corner to corner, bisect each of these spaces?

(Here is the key to Socrates' 'trick' - one might almost say he's teaching the boy ;-) He shows that a square can be split in two by a vertical line, a horizontal line - or one other: a diagonal)


Soc: And are there not here four equal lines which contain this space?

Boy. There are.

Soc: Look and see how much this space is (in the red square).

Boy. I do not understand.

Soc: Has not each interior line cut off half of the four spaces?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And how many (triangular) spaces are there in this section?

Boy. Four.

Soc: And how many in this?

Boy. Two.

Soc: And four is how many times two?

Boy. Twice.

Soc: And so this space is of how many feet?

Boy. Of eight feet. (Two triangles = 4 sqft so Four triangles = 8 sqft)

Soc: And from what line do you get this figure?

Boy. From this.

Soc: That is, from the line which extends from corner to corner of the figure of four feet?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And that is the line which the learned call the diagonal. And if this is the proper name, then you, Meno's slave, are prepared to affirm that the double space is the square of the diagonal?

Boy. Certainly, Socrates.

(ie - the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides - Pythagoras' theorem)

Soc: What do you say of him, Meno? Were not all these answers given out of his own head?

Meno: Yes, they were all his own.

(And now Socrates goes on to extrapolate that since he has this knowledge deep inside him it is proof of the existence of the soul)

Soc: And yet, as we were just now saying, he did not know?

Meno: True.

Soc: But still he had in him those notions of his - had he not?

Meno: Yes.

Soc: Then he who does not know may still have true notions of that which he does not know?

Meno: He has.

Soc: And at present these notions have just been stirred up in him, as in a dream; but if he were frequently asked the same questions, in different forms, he would know as well as any one at last?

Meno: I dare say.

Soc: Without any one teaching him he will recover his knowledge for himself, if he is only asked questions?

Meno: Yes.

Soc: And this spontaneous recovery of knowledge in him is recollection?

Meno: True.

Soc: And this knowledge which he now has must he not either have acquired or always possessed?

Meno: Yes.

Soc: But if he always possessed this knowledge he would always have known; or if he has acquired the knowledge he could not have acquired it in this life, unless he has been taught geometry; for he may be made to do the same with all geometry and every other branch of knowledge. Now, has any one ever taught him all this? You must know about him, if, as you say, he was born and bred in your house.

Meno: And I am certain that no one ever did teach him.

Soc: And yet he has the knowledge?

Meno: The fact, Socrates, is undeniable.

Soc: But if he did not acquire the knowledge in this life, then he must have had and learned it at some other time?

Meno: Clearly he must.

Soc: Which must have been the time when he was not a man?

Meno: Yes.

Soc: And if there have been always true thoughts in him, both at the time when he was and was not a man, which only need to be awakened into knowledge by putting questions to him, his soul must have always possessed this knowledge, for he always either was or was not a man?

Meno: Obviously.

Soc: And if the truth of all things always existed in the soul, then the soul is immortal. Wherefore be of good cheer, and try to recollect what you do not know, or rather what you do not remember.


I am sure others can illustrate this better than me - please do so! - but I hope you enjoyed it. The original translation was by Benjamin Jowett.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Christmas Truce 1914: The Pte Heath letter

Out of the dozens of 1914 Christmas Truce letters transcribed from newspapers by volunteers of the Operation Plum Pudding project, this one stands out from all the rest. Partly, it's because Private Heath writes about the whole truce, from beginning to end. But also it's the beautiful - almost poetic - way it is written. It is as relevant today as it was in 1914. It was found and transcribed by Marian Robson. 

That Christmas Armistice
A Plum Pudding Policy Which Might Have Ended The War
Written in the trenches by Private Frederick W. Heath

THE night closed in early - the ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches came to keep us company as we stood to arms. Under a pale moon, one could just see the grave-like rise of ground which marked the German trenches two hundred yards away. Fires in the English lines had died down, and only the squelch of the sodden boots in the slushy mud, the whispered orders of the officers and the NCOs, and the moan of the wind broke the silence of the night. The soldiers' Christmas Eve had come at last, and it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it.

Memory in her shrine kept us in a trance of saddened silence. Back somewhere in England, the fires were burning in cosy rooms; in fancy I heard laughter and the thousand melodies of reunion on Christmas Eve. With overcoat thick with wet mud, hands cracked and sore with the frost, I leaned against the side of the trench, and, looking through my loophole, fixed weary eyes on the German trenches. Thoughts surged madly in my mind; but they had no sequence, no cohesion. Mostly they were of home as I had known it through the years that had brought me to this. I asked myself why I was in the trenches in misery at all, when I might have been in England warm and prosperous. That involuntary question was quickly answered. For is there not a multitude of houses in England, and has not someone to keep them intact? I thought of a shattered cottage in -- , and felt glad that I was in the trenches. That cottage was once somebody's home.

Still looking and dreaming, my eyes caught a flare in the darkness. A light in the enemy's trenches was so rare at that hour that I passed a message down the line. I had hardly spoken when light after light sprang up along the German front. Then quite near our dug-outs, so near as to make me start and clutch my rifle, I heard a voice. there was no mistaking that voice with its guttural ring. With ears strained, I listened, and then, all down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: "English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!"

Friendly invitation

Following that salute boomed the invitation from those harsh voices: "Come out, English soldier; come out here to us." For some little time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other's throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. 

Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity - war's most amazing paradox. 

The night wore on to dawn - a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired, except for down on our right, where the French artillery were at work.

Came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink. Under the early light we saw our foes moving recklessly about on top of their trenches. Here, indeed, was courage; no seeking the security of the shelter but a brazen invitation to us to shoot and kill with deadly certainty. But did we shoot? Not likely! We stood up ourselves and called benisons on the Germans. Then came the invitation to fall out of the trenches and meet half way.

Still cautious we hung back. Not so the others. They ran forward in little groups, with hands held up above their heads, asking us to do the same. Not for long could such an appeal be resisted - beside, was not the courage up to now all on one side? Jumping up onto the parapet, a few of us advanced to meet the on-coming Germans. Out went the hands and tightened in the grip of friendship. 

Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends.

The Gift of Gifts

Here was no desire to kill, but just the wish of a few simple soldiers (and no one is quite so simple as a soldier) that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease. We gave each other cigarettes and exchanged all manner of things. We wrote our names and addresses on the field service postcards, and exchanged them for German ones. We cut the buttons off our coats and took in exchange the Imperial Arms of Germany. But the gift of gifts was Christmas pudding. The sight of it made the Germans' eyes grow wide with hungry wonder, and at the first bite of it they were our friends for ever. Given a sufficient quantity of Christmas puddings, every German in the trenches before ours would have surrendered.
And so we stayed together for a while and talked, even though all the time there was a strained feeling of suspicion which rather spoilt this Christmas armistice. We could not help remembering that we were enemies, even though we had shaken hands. We dare not advance too near their trenches lest we saw too much, nor could the Germans come beyond the barbed wire which lay before ours. After we had chatted, we turned back to our respective trenches for breakfast.

All through the day no shot was fired, and all we did was talk to each other and make confessions which, perhaps, were truer at that curious moment than in the normal times of war. How far this unofficial truce extended along the lines I do not know, but I do know that what I have written here applies to the -- on our side and the 158th German Brigade, composed of Westphalians.

As I finish this short and scrappy description of a strangely human event, we are pouring rapid fire into the German trenches, and they are returning the compliment just as fiercely. Screeching through the air above us are the shattering shells of rival batteries of artillery. So we are back once more to the ordeal of fire.


This letter is also published in a hand-stitched book price £4.99 (available in the UK only) from my website.

NOTE TO OTHER PUBLISHERS: This work is out of copyright but if you do reprint it please credit the hard-working volunteer - Marian Robson - who found and transcribed it. A book of all newspaper letters about the truce - Not A Shot Was Fired -  is available from Amazon.