Friday, 16 December 2016

The Waterside Boggle

Esthwaite Water - picture by Mark Kent

CHRISTMAS - the traditional time for joy, laughter, blazing log fires... and ghosts. In Celtic tradition, midwinter - with its long nights - was the time when the world of the living and the world of the dead were at their closest. This gave rise to the idea that it was the season was when ghosts and spectres could walk among us. 

It's on Christmas Eve that Scrooge's ghosts come knocking. And I remember as a child, Christmas Eve was always when the BBC showed its late-night MR James' horror story. So here's one haunting tale from Cumbria to scare you on your way to bed. In fact, not just any old boggle, dobbie, fetch or boggledeboo. This is easily the scariest ghost story I've come across in my researches into Cumbrian folklore.

HS Cowper. Credit: Lakeland Arts Trust
It's to be found in the very dry papers of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, although variants of it have appeared in other books since. The story is told by 19th century antiquary and collector, Henry Swainson Cowper - usually just known as 'HS' Cowper - and relates to Claife Poorhouse which stood on the banks of Esthwaite Water. This small tarn stands in the south of the county near Coniston, in what would have been at one time north Lancashire rather than Cumbria.

From the outset, it should be stated that this stretch of road by the Poorhouse had a long and fearful reputation for being haunted and I will talk later of some of the other ghosts reputedly seen there in the dark hours. It was generally referred to as The Waterside Boggle and HS Cowper writes that "in most cases the apparition is sighted by a night pedestrian, and when approached, suddenly and silently disappears". While researching this boggle (a Cumberland term for a type of ghost) Cowper was told about a woman still living who had actually spoken with the ghost. "Of course I interviewed her at once," he wrote. She was now elderly and somewhat of a cripple - the result of an accident in the Coniston copper mines where she had worked - but he assures us she was "yet intellectually perfectly vigorous". 

Her encounter had taken place some 30 years previously (ie about 1860). At the time she was living with - and nursing -  her mother at the poorhouse. In the neighbourhood at that time was, she said, a wicked chap called 'S' who had a terrible quarrel with one Roger Dugdale. This feud led to a fight one night as Roger was landing his boat near the poorhouse. 'S' was the victor, succeeding in drowning Roger in the lake. Such an event obviously caused a stir in the community but since the woman did not know the men it was no more than scandalous gossip to her.

But events took an unexpected turn one evening when the woman and her mother were sat in their rooms. She was surprised to see a man walk into the house - a man unusually dressed in his best Sunday clothes. The woman recalled: "He held out his hand to me, and said something but I didn't catch what it was. I had no idea who he was and took his hand. It was as cold as ice. He went to the mantel and struck a light with some matches." 

The mysterious visitor then turned round and left as abruptly as he had arrived. The mother then turned to her daughter and said: "Bairn - whatever have you done. That was Roger Dugdale."

The daughter had never met the murder victim so had no cause to recognise his ghost. She told Cowper, "I was almost dead with terror." Her mother tried to reassure her, saying that he would never come again "as he's been spoken with and touched" but it's clear the encounter had left a permanent effect on the daughter.

But what had the wandering soul said? Had he uttered the name of his killer? Sadly, the daughter had been unable to distinguish any words. And why was he dressed in his Sunday best? It's unclear what he was wearing on the day of his murder. And why should his ghost go to the poorhouse? So many questions and sadly so few answers.

There was one final twist in the tale. When the daughter went back to the mantel no matches had been struck, despite her clear recollection that this is what the figure had done.

There seems little doubt this was a sincere account of a 'real' event. It's not your usual ghost story and it sends a shiver down my spine each time I read it. I have only edited it slightly for clarity and the full version is available online on the CWAAS archives. Cowper refers to a number of the other supernatural experiences people had at this spot by Esthwaite Water but I'll leave you with just one:

"One of the vicars of the parish used to tell his friends how, walking one night from Sawrey, he was approaching the poorhouse when he observed an old lady in old fashioned bonnet walking before him. it was early in spring, and there had been a snow shower so that the road was all white. The vicar trudged along till he was abreast of the figure, and then, thinking she was probably a parishioner, he bade her 'good-night' as he passed. As there was no reply he turned to see who this unsociable old body was. To his horror, under the wide-brimmed bonnet, he saw a death-like countenance with goggle eyes, which gleamed like colour glass with a light behind them. The apparition then suddenly disappeared through a gap in the wall. The vicar, astounded, went up to the wall, but no trace of the figure could be seen. He then looked back along the road which he had come. the moon was bright, and he noticed  a strange thing: The snow bore only the tracks of one pair of feet, and those were his own."

Sweet dreams - and merry Christmas.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Dobbie Lane

Dobbie Lane and Dobbie Bank, Cark, Cumbria

Extract from The Annals Of Cartmel Or Annals Of Cartmel 1872 by James Stockdale, relating to the Dobbie that haunted Dobbie Lane

The road from the lower part of Cark to Holker did not, until about the year 1815, pass by the west end of the High Row Cottages as it does at present. The old road to Holker passed from near my house, through the place where the lower gateway now is, into Carke Villa grounds, and up the hill into where the coachhouse and stable yard of Carke Villa are at present, and then into the present Holker Lane. Where these barns, stables, and yard now are, the lane was very narrow, and overhung with high hedges, there being a deep and wide sandhole at the top.

This lane had ever had the terrific name of “Dobbie Lane!” and so terrific was it indeed, that even those who were the stoutest of heart did not pass that way to Holker on a dark night in winter without having, as the saying is in this country, “their hearts in their mouths!”.

About the year 1809, a servant boy, then in the service of my late father, was sent with some newspapers to Mr. Kirkes’, of Holker House, one dark winter’s night about eight o’clock. He, like everyone else, had his apprehensions of “the dobbie;” still he passed through this frightful Dobbie Lane without observing anything. On his return, however, and when just beginning to descend the steep hill, he ventured to look back, when, to his infinite terror, he beheld a ball of fire following him! In an instant he took to his heels, “terror lending him wings” - particularly as he could perceive that the ball of fire, as he called it, was close behind him. In a few minutes he entered the kitchen at Carke, where were sitting some of his fellow servants, and, to their utter consternation, fell flat on the floor in a fainting fit. Very soon my father and mother, and some relatives who were staying in the house, were summoned to the kitchen to witness this extraordinary occurrence. Restoratives were administered as quickly as possible, and in about ten minutes the boy was just able to utter the word “dobbie,” and then fell into a second fit, in which he remained some time. After a while he had so far recovered as to be able, trembling and terror stricken, to make known to them what he had seen, as he has been related above.  All those who heard the tale he told, of course laughed at him, believing that he was labouring under some delusion; but from what I am about to relate, the truth of which cannot be doubted, a different opinion probably will be entertained. Several years after this, about the year 1817, after Dobbie Lane had been closed, my brother, coming late one winter’s night from Cartmel, (about twelve o’clock), on passing through Hoker, saw a light opposite the gate which then led into the Pot Level, nearly opposite to where the present new schools are. As the light was an odd-looking one, and had passed across the road, and was then on the top of the opposite wall, he at first thought that some of the gamekeepers might be behind the gate with a lantern, and that the light on the wall was reflected from the lantern. Knowing that he would have, on his return from Cartmel, to pass through Cartmel Park Woods, he had provided himself with a brace of pistols, and with one of these in his hand he approached the gate into the Pot Level, when all at once the light (and a most unnatural-looking light it was) came flickering down from the top of the wall into the middle of the road, and on his approach ran before him at about ten yards’ distance, along the middle of the road, till my borther, in some astonishment, stood still; when it at once passed along the ground across the highway and up the wall, placing itself on the top a second time. Of course it was not easy at the time to account for a phenomenon of this sort. My brother then again walked forward, on which the light left the wall, and came a second time into the middle of the road, moving along the very centre as my brother walked forward, stopping short in its onward course and retiring across the road to the top of the adjoining wall on every occasion of his stopping, and as regularly leaving the top of the wall and moving along the middle of the road on his approaching it; and such were its vagaries all the way (200 yards) to the west end of the High Row Cottages, where my brother, on passing down to his own home, not a  little astonished, left it, about ten yards from him, in the middle of the highway, being then quite at rest with the exception of a slight fluttering motion. The light, it may be mentioned here, was a pale (phosphoric) light, rather bright, but not flashing or sparkling, and was about the size and shape of an ordinary pineapple.

It happened that I was awaiting  my brother’s return from Cartmel that night; and on mentioning what he had then just seen, I marvelled for a while, of course, and then said, “Surely this must have been ‘Will-o’th’-Wisp,’ let us go and try if we can see it again.” Accordingly we were not long in reaching the place; but it was in vain: for though we walked backwards and forwards for more than an hour along the lane and Pot Level Field,  the light never appeared again. No one will doubt that this was the luminous “Jack-o’-t-Lanterns,” or  ‘Will-o’th’-Wisp,’ to which the superstitious and credulous have ever ascribed extraordinary and mischievous powers, and was no doubt that “dobbie” previously mentioned, which so frightened my late father’s servant boy, and very probably from time to time many others, so as to give the name of Dobbie Lane to the old road from Carke to Holker. Even at this day, there are not a few people who, in passing on a dark night the gate leading into Carke Villa stable yard, and the hollow in Pot level Field, have not some apprehension of seeing this “dobbie” or a hobgobbling of some kind. It is well known that there are particular districts and places where this  ‘Will-o’th’-Wisp may occasionally be seen, and these are about swampy grounds, stagnant ponds, churchyards, and other burial places, and it has been observed to be but little affected by storm and wind, and to retire always on the approach of anyone, and to follow occasionally when anyone retires from it. The field call ‘Pot Level’’ adjoins the old lane called Dobbie Lane; it is bowl-shaped and of course the very reverse of level, there being in the middle of it, a  considerable hollow or depression, in which part, formerly, there was a rather deep pit or pond of water. Till about the year 1775 this field was rough, coppice wood, but was theng rubbed up and trenched over in the usual way. As a great quantity of stones and rubbish was turned out in this operation, the whole mass was thrown into the deep pond, so as to entirely fill it up, and some soil being laid on the surface, this part became much like the rest of the field. Anyone however looking at the hollow place in this Pot Level Field, even at the present day, will at once perceive where the pond or tarn has been, and in father proof of stones and rubbish having been thrown into the water, it may be mentioned that in the very dry summers the grass on the place turns brown, whilst in very wet weather the water rises above the stones and soil, appearing more or less on the surface.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Finding Maggy

Maggy's Lonning
Maggy's Lonning, Loweswater

Finding Maggy

Maggy's Lonning at Loweswater has not quite lost its character despite it being a tarmacked road. It is a single track road (NY 13587 21016) that leads to the impossibly-small car park by Loweswater and I've always had a soft spot for it. Perhaps it's the loneliness in the north-western corner of the Lake District that gives it its appeal or perhaps it's the name. Who was Maggy and why was the lonning named after her? And there's also a packhorse bridge nearby called Maggy's Bridge (even OS mark it as such) so she appears to have been at one time a famous or well-loved person in the valley. I did once ask the farmer who Maggy was but he said no-one knew. Well, thanks to the astonishing work of the British Newspaper Archives, I've now found out something about her.

The British Newspaper Archives are slowly but surely scanning in 400 years of newspaper archives into digital format, making the easily accessible and, more importantly, searchable. I've used it many times and was randomly surfing one morning when a search for lonning came up with a note about Maggy's Lonning at Loweswater. It was in The Cumberland Pacquet for 1833:

VILLAGE FAME - A clever and worthy old lady, sister to the eldest of the three venerable men named in the preceding paragraph (ie John Mirehouse, of Miresike, who died aged 102) and who died at the good old age of 98 years, although never the owner of a foot of land has had the honour of having her name perpetuated in her native vale (Loweswater) in Maggy's Lonning (lane or road), Maggy's Bridge, Maggy's Gate, Maggy's House, Maggy's Garden and her 'flowers grown wild' and even the very birds in Maggy's Robin and various anecdotes of Maggy's sayings and doings. Poor Maggy! her garden no longer smiles, and her house now lies in ruins.

The preceding paragraph talked about the Mirehouse family which "furnishes such instances of longevity as are rarely to be met with". In particular it spoke of Maggy's brother, John Mirehouse, who died in 1807 at the age of 102. A further Google search revealed that The Literary Panorama (Published 1808) told how on his 100th birthday he "received a very numerous party of his neighbours ("all his juniors") seated in a new oak chair, and cloathed in a new coat, which, he pleasantly observed, might, with care taken, serve his life-time."

But what more of Maggy? The tantalising paragraph indicates she was indeed well loved and something of a village character but sadly not much more. Research in this age of Google can almost be too easy but a family tree on and references in Google Books revealed she had been born on St Valentine's Day 1714 in Loweswater and later married to become Margaret Longmire. She died in 93rd year (ie 1807) on Tuesday, July 14th  according to The Athanaeum Vol 2 (published 1807) at Thrushbank, Loweswater. But the Pacquet said she lived to be 98. Further research may resolve that mystery although the burial records kindly put online by the Lorton & Derwent Fells Local History Society does not include her.

So for now, we can at least revive the identity of Maggy as Maggy Longmire (nee Mirehouse) who was born on February 14th, 1714 and died in 1807 or 1813. And at least we still have her lonning - and bridge.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Ghosts for Sale

The Tannery Boggle

IT was the day that The Whitehaven News (in Cumbria, UK) advertised Six Live Ghosts for sale. And it wasn’t even April Fool’s Day. October 20, 1932 was even a bit early for Halloween. Yet there it was: “Miscellaneous. For Sale, Six Live Ghosts. – Apply, Tannery, Egremont.”

The ‘explanation’ elsewhere in the paper asks more questions than it answers but reports on a most remarkable sighting of a boggle by multiple witnesses. It’s a tale worthy of Scooby Doo but the Whitehaven News reporter seemed convinced from the outset that it was nothing but a hoax. The News’s Egremont correspondent reported: “An old tannery at Beck Green which has been in disuse for many years has been the centre of great activity since last weekend. Men, women and children armed with crude but effective weapons have been engaged in a new pastime or ‘ghost-laying’.”

It seems rumours of a ghost in the building had spread through Egremont resulting in crowds of people keeping watch from the old black bridge. Among them was the Egremont correspondent who received this statement from former Sergeant Rose: “What I am going to tell you is the truth. On Thursday evening, between half-past ten and eleven o’clock, four young men came to the garage opposite in an exhausted condition. One of them was my son. He was trembling like a leaf and when I asked him what was the matter he gasped out he had seen a ghost down at the old tannery. I went to investigate and, keeping watch, I saw something rise up from the ground and float towards the tannery.”

Sadly our correspondent gives no more details of that sighting but the policeman returned the following night with his wife, son and other witnesses. And astonishingly the ghost once again made an appearance – this time bringing a fellow spectre with it.

He said: “I left the others near the Black Bridge and secreted myself in the ruins. I looked towards the top of a small hill on the road past the tannery and suddenly I was aware of what looked like a white mist rising from the ground. It gradually assumed the shape of a human body about five feet seven inches in height. There was no head and no sign of feet. Gradually the thing, whatever it was, floated down the road until it was opposite the cart entrance to the tannery. It slowly turned towards the entrance and then I made out a similar figure by its side. I called out for the rest of the party and my wife, son and two ladies came up. What they saw terrorised them. The thing had floated up the step against which carts used to back for loading and was standing in the doorway. It paused a moment and then vanished inside. The women were terrified and ran. Presently the husband of one came and we entered the building together. We lighted a candle and looked round the room but saw nothing. There was no sign of footsteps on the dust of the floor.”

The following night – a Saturday – word had spread about the Tannery boggle and more than a hundred spectators turned up. But they seemed determined to send the apparition back to its supernatural home and were armed with sticks and stones. But the ghost, which hitherto had appeared with the regularity of Hamlet’s father, failed to appear.

Mr Rose described the ghost in more detail to the Whitehaven News: “It was certainly nothing human. I particularly watched the place where its feet should have been to see how it walked, but there were no feet; it simply floated along the ground. I have been in the jungles of India and in the desert. I have seen strange sights and heard strange noises but never before have I experienced anything like this. What I have told you is the truth: the nine people whom I have mentioned by name will bear me out in that.”

At one point Mr Rose and his son had thrown stones at the ghost as it stood in the doorway but the stones passed straight through the figure. And another witness was later discovered who had seen the ghost a few days before but had been too scared to say anything. Yet despite the expert testimony of Mr Rose and the other witnesses, The Whitehaven News decided it must be a hoax, a practical joke. This seems largely based on the placing of the advert in that week’s For Sale section offering six live ghosts for sale. It’s not known who placed the advert or why.

Today the tannery ruins can still be seen but neither hide nor hair has been seen of the boggle.

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.
* Here is a report of the 2016 event.
* 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.