Travel Trales

A journey through time across United Kingdom & Ireland

Morris Dancing

Morris Dancing is closely associated with mummers’ plays which originated in Britain in the medieval times.  A troupe of actors normally visited homes or public houses to perform, and on the odd occasion would perform in the streets. Depending on the time of the year, the occasion and the type of local hero, the actors would dress up to represent characters such as Father Christmas, St George, Robin Hood, a man as a women and of course a jester.
Morris Dancing in Mells, Somerset

The original story told of St George in a fight with a Turkish knight.  One of them would die. A ‘doctor’ would administer a magic potion to the one who was killed.

Sadly no scripts remain from pre-1700, but these plays were the foundation for Morris dancing, first documented in the mid-1400s. The rhythmic folk dances include bells, sticks, swords, handkerchiefs and are performed by men and women.

A range of theories exist as to the name Morris dancing, but the most accepted is that it comes from Moorish dancing which may have derived from a celebratory dance after Isabel and Ferdinand expelled the Moors from the Iberian peninsular in 1492.  There are variations of the dance across the European Continent, and there are records of this type of dance being performed in the court of Henry VII, which may explain its birth in England.

Today the dances are performed across the British Isles and around the world by young and old, embracing medieval history of pageantry.

Welsh Introduction

Wales is Anglo Saxon for “foreigner” and has a population of just under 3 million. Two thirds of the population live in south Wales and ten percent of births are to mothers born outside her borders.

Flag_of_WalesThe country boasts a magical coastline of 1,200km which includes spectacular beaches and national parks. The Blue Flag award celebrates beach quality and Wales is proud to have numerous beaches fly this flag annually. Snowdonia National Park stretches over 2,000 square kilometres and Snowdon is the highest peak –  over 1,000m above sea level.

Celtic Britons began a long history of mining during the Iron Age, but the true Welsh identity only really developed after the Roman withdrawal in the fifth century.

Although Wales falls under English Law, there are aspects of the legal system that fall into the category of devolution which gives the Welsh some legal and political autonomy.

More than 20% of the country speak Welsh and many will agree that the “Land of Song” is a title well deserved. This and rugby form the symbol of modern Welsh identity and some of history’s most respected singers and rugby players were born and raised on Welsh soil.

And of course the changeable weather gives the incredible scenery a sense of history, intrigue and mystery…as the American actress Piper Perabo said, “In Wales, it’s eight different weathers in a day”.

“Bob’s Your Uncle”

Arthur Balfour
Arthur Balfour

Nobody is really sure where this expression came from, but it was first heard publicly in the 1880s.

Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, Robert Arthur Gascoyne-Cecil, noticed his impressive young nephew making his mark on the Conservative government. Arthur James Balfour showed great promise and Salisbury appointed him to a range of positions including Chief Secretary to Ireland, Secretary for Scotland, First Lord of the Treasury and leader of the House of Commons.

Balfour then replaced his uncle Robert as Prime Minister in 1902.

It seemed that Balfour was capable of almost anything and gained all sorts of positions. The ‘word on the street’ was that “nothing is a problem” when “Bob’s your uncle”.

Kings & Queens of Scotland

“Malcolm Two began the line.

Duncan, next, was doing fine

Till Macbeth seized bloody power.

Lulach lasted half an hour;

Malcolm Three in battle slain

(Four of his own sons would reigh).

Donald Three was told to stop;

Duncan Two received the chop;

Edgar, Alexander, Dave;

Malcolm Four, William the Brave;

Alexanders Two and Three;

Margaret, Queen in infancy.

John of Bllliol was next,

Crowned on England’s sly pretext;

Then came Robert’s House of Bruce.

David Two was not much use

In the procreative bed,

So the Stewarts reigned instead.

Roberts Two and Three, then James,

After which , no other names

Till the fifth one in succession

Left poor Mary in possession.

James the Sixth and last, her son,

Would be England’s No. 1!”

By James Muirden

Author of “A Rhyming History of Britain (55BC – AD1966)”

The Weather

“When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather”


Samuel Johnson

The English Pope

Nicholas Breakspear was elected the first (and only) English pope in 1154.

It was believed that he was born around 1100 AD in Langley near St. Albans,  Hertfordshire. His father Robert, was a priest and became a part of the diocese of Bath, leaving his son to fend for himself.  Nicholas was very keen to join the church from a young age, but the abbot told him to “wait to go on with his schooling so that he might be considered more suitable”.

Nicholas was not a patient young man, so he headed off to Paris and later became a canon regular at St Rufus monastery near Arles in the south of France.  His style of leadership was not admired, and there are records that described a feeling of hatred towards him within the monastery.  There were also complaints sent to Rome and so Nicholas was sent to Scandinavia, where he really impressed the church authorities.

Pope Adrian IVHe was so highly praised that it was not long after he was recalled to Rome, that he was elected successor of St. Peter and took the name of Pope Adrian IV.

As was the case earlier in his career, his controversial style was questioned and his involvement in Italian and European politics was not appreciated.  At one stage the Romans even drove him from Rome and he spent over a year in a form of ‘exile’ from the Vatican City.

In England, Henry II had his eye on Ireland and there are many stories as to his invasion of the Emerald Isle, but one of the stories says that Henry requested permission from Pope Adrian to invade and rule Ireland. Some say there was opposition to this request from within the royal court, and some say the pope refused to give him this permission.  Another suggestion is that Adrian gave him the permission as long as the pope remained the overlord.  Henry refused this compromised and decided that absolute rule would come from invasion and not from papal consent.

When Henry was later challenged about this invasion, he apparently said Pope Adrian had issued a Papal Bull giving him the permission. Historians are still unclear as to the specifics of Henry’s Irish takeover.

Adrian remained in the papal office for five years until his death in 1159.  Witnesses claim that he died when he choked on a fly while enjoying a goblet of wine, but historian believe he may have died from a complication of tonsillitis called quinsy. He would’ve had a build up of pus in his throat, a high temperature, he would have been drooling, had difficulty speaking and may have had a swollen throat. Not a pleasant condition!

John of Salisbury, a churchman and scholar, wrote about Adrian and of his many tough times in the church, especially as a young man in France:

“The office of Pope, he assured me, was a thorny one, beset on all sides with sharp pricks. He wished indeed that he had never left England, his native land, or at least had lived his life quietly in the cloister of Sts. Rufus rather than have entered on such difficult paths, but he dared not refuse, since it was the Lord’s bidding.”

One wonders if Pope Emeritus, formally Benedict XVI, feels the same…

Queen Victoria’s Leopold

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert wanted their sons to be the new European order of chivalry and wanted to rid themselves of the reputation of the House of Hanover.  This they believed was to be the monarchy’s success and so they depended on their four sons.

Prince Leopold was the youngest and 12 years younger than Bertie.  He was the most intellectually curious of all the children, and this Victoria recognised:

“His mind and head are far most like his dear father.”

Even though he was a lot like her beloved Albert, Victoria did not warm to him. As with Bertie, she focused on Leopold’s appearance:

“A very common looking child – very plain in the face…clever, but an oddity and not an engaging child. The ugliest and least pleasing of the whole family.”

Sadly, at age 6, Leopold was diagnosed with haemophilia, which he inherited from his mother, although she was not a sufferer. Through her children, haemophilia flowed into the royal bloodlines across Europe and as far as Russia. Leopold’s diagnosis was very hard for Victoria to accept and she punished herself and Leopold for his illness. He became her figure of the ‘saintly suffering invalid’ – a sentiment many understood from reading Charles Dickens, as he had so many of these characters in his stories.

But Leopold was far from the suffering invalid.  He was feisty, quick tempered and determined to overcome his illness. When his father died he was almost 9 years old and returned from Europe to a house of mourning.  He was informed, by his tutor, that his mother wanted no noise or excitement on his return, and slowly this house became his prison.

Becoming a single mother of 9 children filled Victoria with dread. There were aspects of especially raising her boys that frightened her most and sex, for example was difficult for her to discuss with her sons.

Prince LeopoldIn 1870 Leopold approached his mother about going to university in Oxford as he was desperate to be in an environment where he felt he fitted in.  Victoria was furious and did not speak to him for 7 months. He persisted and eventually, begrudgingly, she gave in and he was allowed to go as long as it was for “study and not for amusement”.  She insisted he stay in a house in north Oxford with  handpicked minders. He was only allowed male visitors, and only if they were of good standing.  She really did not want him to enjoy himself.

But Leopold did!  He thrived in Oxford, loved university life and was intellectually stimulated. Here he had freedom. It was here too that he met Alice Liddel, a young lady, who as a child, had provided the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Alice was the second daughter of Carroll’s dean at Oxford College and it was rumoured that Leopold had fallen in love with her and even considered marriage.

On leaving university as 23, Leopold wanted to find a useful role as far away from mother as possible.  Even at his wedding to Princess Helene Friederike of Germany, Victoria stated how embarrassed she was that he was walking with the aid of a stick.  As soon as they produced a child, Leopold put himself forward to be governor of Victoria in Australia.  He could not get further away from her than the Antipodes.

The queen firmly blocked the request, saying, “His first duty is to me, which he never understood. Sad and suffering as I am, I was made ill by this new and totally unexpected shock”.

But Leopold pleaded, “My brothers have been given appointment after appointment. And though the many sad disappointments of my life have not led me to expect much, it would indeed be bitter to lose this, the last thing I will ever beg of you.”

It is believed that this clash with his mother impacted on his health, and to gain his strength, he went to the south of France to recuperate.

In 1884 he bumped his knee while climbs stairs at the yacht club in Cannes. This caused severe internal bleeding and he had to be carried back to his hotel.  It was here that he wrote his last letter to his wife, ending off with an explanation of how the pain prevented him from writing more, and even his signature tailed off.  He died that night.

Leopold was only 30 years old, and although Victoria mourned him, she was still frustrated that he had not accepted his life as an invalid.  He had been the son she believed most resembled her ‘saintly’ late husband, Albert and this was indeed a terrible loss for the queen.

‘Two Pounder’ – the Romeo Ram

Most of the hundred million sheep in Australia and the 30 million in New Zealand are of British heritage and the chances are that they can be traced back to one special ‘father’. Known for being a bit of a Romeo this famous ram was called ‘Two Pounder’.  He was part of a new breed called the New Leicestershire which was created by Robert Bakewell at end of the 18th century.  He was the first farmer to inbreed sheep to enhance their traits of meat and wool quality.

‘Two Pounder’ had a bit of a celebrity status too.  One summer he was leased out for 400 guineas to help a farmer improve his stock.  This was of course a very large amount of money in those days. But ‘Two Pounder’ did lead the ‘life of Riley’ as he got to spend a lot of time with many, many lady sheep and kept the purity of the Leicestershire breed going until after the death of Bakewell.

The artists of the day were commissioned to paint sheep and cattle to advertise their value – a bit like the Facebook of the day. Their painting style was deliberate. The farmer got the artists to exaggerate the animal’s best features – a straight back, thick wool and a meaty body. And the most famous painting of ‘Two Pounder’ was by Digby Curtis in 1790 and this portrait is currently at the Royal Agricultural College:

Click to see a picture of 'Two Pounder'.
Click to see a picture of ‘Two Pounder’.

What a handsome ram he is!

Irish Polio Epidemic

In 1956  polio broke out in the city of Cork. There was great panic as the first case was reported in June.  By early July six more cases made the news and the reports used the word ‘epidemic’ for the first time, but stressed that there was ‘no occasion for alarm’.

This understatement increased fear, even though the people of Cork were assured this was only a ‘mild outbreak’.  By the middle of July four people per day were being admitted into the fever hospital in Cork, and the the authorities issued orders to curtail the spread of the disease.  These orders included threatening people swimming in the River Lee, which runs through Cork, with prosecution.

Polio in IrelandA month into the epidemic many were convinced that the outbreak had been deliberatly suppressed in Cork which was the main cause for polio spreading to Dublin, where people were dying in ‘like flies’ in their fever hospital.

Fortunately this outbreak was one of the last in Western Europe.  A polio vaccine had been approved the year before and when the oral vaccine became available in 1960, mass vaccination programmes where employed in all developed countries. The number of cases dropped to nearly zero where the programmes were deployed and the fear and memory of polio rapidly faded away.

But polio wasn’t gone – it was just not visible in rich countries and it sadly became a ‘disease of poverty’.

The good news is that only three countries in the world now have polio – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, and every effort is being made to eradicate this silent disease from the world over the next few years, which includes vast funding from the Bill and Miranda Gates Foundation.

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