The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Monday, 25 April 2016


Brewing beer has happened for about the last 8,000 years. Recipes have been found in Sumerian writings and Egyptian hieroglyphics, as well as regularly throughout history since.

In that time humankind has found many and varied ways to make a brew and there's even a museum devoted to it at the spiritual home of brewing, Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire. It's worth a visit, if you're in the area, but even if you don't go in you can catch a few glimpses as you drive around the town.

Along one side of the museum car park, and conveniently next to a set of traffic lights that were red when we passed by, is an example of the  Burton Union brewing system.

Breweries in Burton were traditionally known for using a system that allowed recirculation of the excess foam produced as yeast fermentation took place. (If you don't know the principles of brewing, see below.)

The yeast foam, known as barm, can take up a lot of space in a barrel. The Union system allowed foam to be transferred back through other barrels and beer to flow in to fill up the gap. So there were rows of barrels lying side by side, and linked with pipes, in the production area.

Marston's Pedigree is believed to be the last beer in commercial production using the Burton Union system.

The brewing process
Beer brewing involves steeping a source of starch (usually cereal grains) in water, then fermenting the resulting liquid  with yeast. Different flavours and styles are created by means of other treatments, such as malting the grain (allowing it to begin germinating to increase sugar and starch levels) or adding hops. The resulting product can also be treated in a variety of ways such as conditioning in a cask or barrel, or adding fruit to the mix.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Roman Lincoln

Old photo of Steep Hill in
Widow Cullen's Well
The modern city of Lincoln is dramatically divided into top and bottom towns, joined by the very aptly-named Steep Hill. The original Roman settlement of Lindum Colonia was built by retired soldiers (as the name Colonia suggests) who received a pension and a grant of land to settle there. It was at the top of the hill on the site of the current castle.

Excavations at the castle have revealed remains of several houses on the site, including a beautiful mosaic that was wrecked by Victorian workmen during demolition of the old gaol. Other Roman artefacts are on show at the newly refurbished castle museum.

You can encounter bits of Roman Lincoln all over the city and according to a photo on show in Widow Cullen's Well (It's a pub!) there's part of an old gateway set into the wall of two shops on Steep Hill.

Other remains are quite well hidden. Down a very narrow street called East Bight are the remains of a water reservoir, built on the inside of the northern defensive wall. One wall of the tank still exists in a back garden. Its foundations are about 16 feet deep and it was lined with waterproof cement. Its capacity has been estimated at 2,660 gallons, so was probably one of several around the town.  This reservoir probably helped serve the baths complex, which was nearby.

The remains of the water tank
In common with modern services suppliers, the Roman authorities were faced with a problem of how to get a water supply to the top of a very steep hill. They built an aqueduct at least a mile long from a spring called Roaring Meg but were then faced with the challenge of raising the supply to the city, 100 feet higher. No evidence for a mechanism has been found, but there must have been some sort of bucket arrangement to lift the water onto the aqueduct so it could run to the town. However, archaeologists have shown that there are no lime deposits in the clay pipe along the aqueduct, so perhaps the system was less than effective.

Newport Arch - still in use today
The East Gate of the Roman walls of Lindum Colonia was the grandest of the entryways into the city. It began as a simple wooden structure, however, constructed in around 60 AD. It developed over the next hundred or so years until it became an impressive two-storey, double-towered building with two arched gateways. It remained in use well after the Romans left but only the foundations now exist in the street that bears its name: Eastgate.

The only surviving Roman arch in the UK that is still used by traffic is across the old road of Ermine Street, now known as Newport. Its survival is impressive, given that it has been attacked many times: in the 13th century by medieval knights laying siege to the town and in the 20th century by a delivery lorry from Humberside! (Though never in the Roman period.) It's now reinforced with steel rods to protect it from traffic vibrations.

It is believed to have been built when the northern defensive wall was strengthened in the 4th century, by which time Lindum Colonia had grown in importance and served as a provincial capital. Originally the gate would have had a pedestrian arch at both sides and would have been two storeys high.

Lincoln's Roman remains are not as complete as those of York or Chester, but somehow they are more personal, more relevant to a modern observer. Well that's how I feel about them anyway. Of course I'm biased.  Years ago I used to live just beyond Newport Arch and walked under it every day on my way to work.  I also drove under it on my driving test.  Makes me wonder now how I passed.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Pannett Park

Representation of the Whitby whalebone arch
Robert Elliott Pannett was a Whitby philanthropist who gave much of his time and money to educational and charitable causes in the town. In 1902 he bought a tract of land to the south west of the town to prevent it being bought by speculative developers, and on his death in 1920 he bequeathed it to the people of Whitby with the proviso that a public park be created.

Pannett Park still exists today, and provides a delightful green space that is dotted with works of art. It's also where you'll find Whitby museum and art gallery.

Various areas of the gardens commemorate Whitby's history, for example, in the South Seas Garden you will find plants native to the southern hemisphere among artworks with Maori carvings. This marks the journeys of Captain James Cook, the explorer, who sailed from Whitby to make his voyages.

At the top of West Cliff stands an arch made from whalebones, a reminder of Whitby's past as a whaling port. There's a similar arch in the park, though this is a wooden structure carved with images of ships and nautical maps.

Whitby has no war memorial, so a commemorative garden has been set up with a wooden sculpture echoing the arches of Whitby Abbey, which can be seen from the park.

There's also an area called the Jurassic Garden, which marks Whitby's fascinating geological features. A pathway leads through the garden, with bands representing the different rock bands to be found in the area, and typical fossils set into the surface at relevant points. The path leads the walker through 60 million years of the Jurassic period and includes fossil casts taken from examples that can be seen in the museum at the top of the hill.  Including dinosaur footprints!

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Whitby Jet

Whitby ghost sign for wholesale jet merchant
The Yorkshire coast town of Whitby is known for a few things. Wandering around the town you can't miss references to: Dracula (Bram Stoker shipwrecked his eponymous vampire in the town in his novel); kippers (and lots of other fish and shellfish like cod and crab); Goths (they've adopted the town as their own, possibly for its Dracula links); and jet.

If you've never heard of jet you've almost certainly never been to Whitby, because every shop that isn't selling fish and chips is offering examples of the black, semi-precious rock. Its best known source in Britain is Whitby  but there were mines all over North Yorkshire where it was extracted. The stone is fossilised wood from a type of monkey puzzle tree and is technically a specialised hard form of lignite.

Jet jewellery items in a Whitby shop window
Jet items have been found in a number of prehistoric sites all over Europe. Small carvings occur with Mesolithic finds in Germany and Switzerland and jet beads were discovered in a Neolithic burial in France. The earliest British finds date from the Bronze Age and are mainly beads and small pieces of jewellery. When it occurs on excavation sites it is usually in apparently good condition but it is extremely sensitive to waterlogged conditions and becomes crumbly when it dries out. Archaeological samples are usually consolidated in the same way as wood.

Jet has been used in jewellery for so long because of its lustrous hue, but also because of the belief that it had magical powers. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that it could protect against snakes; an idea borne out by a necklace found in York during excavations of a Roman site that takes the form of a coiled snake.

This one's mine and I wear it often
Although jet items continued to crop up throughout history it was not until the Victorian era that it gained its massive popularity. The Queen was extremely fond of the material and already wore it before she went into permanent mourning for the loss of her husband Albert. She ordered that only jet jewellery could be used at court after Albert died and the country followed suit. Soon jet could be seen all over Britain and the industry took off. Many pieces from the Victorian era are large and ornate and they are frequently combined with other materials such as ivory or cameo to make quite complex items.

It is also possible to find items in a substance called “French Jet” but they are not true jet and easy to tell from the real thing. French jet is actually a form of black glass and is much denser than true jet and feels cold to the touch. More difficult to identify are the various other forms of coal that have been used as jet substitutes. Cannel coal and bog oak are very similar to jet but neither has the deep black colour or the sheen that jet has.

Although the History Anorak  has a taste for jet jewellery, has some knowledge of the material and owns a few pieces (see the photo) most of the history on this page has been confirmed by reference to a Shire Publication called Jet Jewellery and Ornaments by Helen Muller.  J M Cronyn’s Elements of Archaeological Conservation has also been consulted.