First Of The Summer Wine

Drink Drive

“Fermentation and civilisation are inseparable.” — John Ciardi

As a rule, I loathe clichés. I find the obvious to be tedious and the common inane.  And yet, there are some tropes that pervade our culture so deeply that they are inescapable. Boy meets girl, the dishonest politician and Italian food and wine. I hope we can all see which one I’ll be guilty of today.

Staying consistent with aversion to all things predictable, I steered well clear of Rome for my first visit to Italy. Instead, I braved the rugged hills of Tuscany. Where the tenacious olive groves roam and the elusive balsamic vinegar is said to live.

0001 A harsh and unforgiving beauty

Silliness aside, my arrival in and around Florence was timed to be just after the chill of winter had been driven out. It had been far too long since I could bask in the dry heat of properly…

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Origins of Halloween – pumpkins, demons and love matches


Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse, 1886. From the Tate collection.

It’s October, and everything’s orange and has bats on it. As with many things, I thought I knew all about Halloween – used to be a pagan holiday, was co-opted by the Catholic church into All Hallows’ Eve and now is a roving nightmare of rubber masks and German heavy metal. But what actually is All Hallows’ Eve and why are there people at my front door?! I’m watching Vikings, I don’t have time for this pagan nonsense!

Before we get into all that, let’s head back to the original Celtic festival of Samhain, held at the end of October or beginning of November to mark the arrival of winter. In old Irish mythology, this was a time of gathering tribes, feasting and games.

Bonfires were lit on hilltops, possibly as a cleansing ritual with people jumping over them or driving cattle between them. In some places the hearth in houses was left to die down and then relit using a brand from a communal bonfire.

It was also believed that this was when a doorway to the Otherworld opened and allowed the souls of the dead to pass across into this world. There are also stories of fairy mounds opening to allow the Sidhe (think of the fairies in a Midsummer Night’s Dream – more nature spirits or gods than Tinkerbell) or other great forces of nature or darkness to pass through, sometimes requiring a sacrifice to appease them. Trick or treating may have derived from the belief that fairies would disguise themselves as beggars and ask for food, and punish those who refused to share.

People dressed up as animals or wore animal skulls and made noise to scare spirits away. It was also a good time of year for magic and divination, with one example I found of telling fortunes by throwing marked stones into a bonfire. If your stone couldn’t be found again afterwards, it was believed that you would die the following year.

Influence of the Roman Empire

In a massive example of oversimplification, the Roman Empire ruled what is now England and Wales from 43AD to 410AD and brought with them their own festivals. Some think that Feralia, the feast day held at the end of a nine-day festival of the dead, was an influence on the modern Halloween as this was when evil spirits were sent away to the spirit world for another year. Failure to perform the rites correctly could leave these spirits remaining as ghosts.


Snap-Apple Night, painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833.

Apple bobbing is also thought to stem from this merging of Celtic and Roman beliefs. For the Celts, apples were used in divination and tied to evergreen branches. For Romans, the apple was the symbol of Pomona, the goddess of orchards. It is thought apple bobbing then developed as a way of divining love matches. One tale is that if a girl put the apple she had bobbed underneath her pillow she would dream of her future soul mate. However, how she managed to sleep whilst balanced on top of an apple isn’t explained. Another game from which bobbing might have developed is snap-apple where a stick has an apple tied on one end and a lit candle on the other. This is suspended from the ceiling and spun, so the game is to bite the apple and not get a face-full of candle. This is a great excerpt from a newspaper describing the game in 1850:

See that strong, young fellow: he is the best man in the country round at throwing the sledge, and yet he cannot for the life of him catch the apple from the cross though his great jaws open wide enough to encompass a pumpkin. There he goes again with a dash as if it were made of granite, but the apple has turned only the faster from him, and the avenging candle comes swift upon him, covering his chops with grease and smut, and singeing his whiskers, and so he retired from the vain pursuit, for the laugh is loud against him.

Just to show, you might be able to toss your sledge around, but it doesn’t mean you can escape the wrath of a candle spinning on a stick.

Christianity and All Hallows’ Eve

All Saint’s Day was a celebration of the saints held originally in May, Hallow being another name for a holy person, but this was officially moved to 1 November after a request by Pope Gregory VI. The day before therefore became All Hallows’ Eve and the day after, All Souls’ Day. This three day period was to remember the dead, with All Souls’ Day reserved for praying for those in purgatory. From the medieval period onwards, the poor went from house to house offering to pray for departed loved ones, in return for food. These were known as ‘soulers’ and were given spiced soul cakes, and could be another origin of trick or treating.

The word Halloween as a shortening of All Hallow’s Eve is said to have formed as far back as the 15th Century, and the Christian influence changed the old Celtic traditions of fairies into stories about the Devil and witches. One story is that people who had died with unfinished business could come back on that night, so people disguised themselves as a way of tricking the ghost. However, outside of the Celtic areas the holiday wasn’t particularly celebrated beyond fortune telling games using apples or nuts, instead being superseded in Protestant England by Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night on 5 November, remembering the Gunpower Plot of 1605.

Whilst Queen Victoria presided over a torch lit procession and effigy burning at Balmoral in 1876, for more modest households the matchmaking side of Halloween apparently continued to dominate in the Victorian era, with a lot of party games revolving around finding out the initial or character of the man a young lady would marry. One such parlour game involved the pouring of molten lead through the handle of a key into a pan of water, with the shape of the dribbled lead forming signs as to who they may be. Another was to eat an apple whilst looking in a mirror, and you may see the reflection of your intended, though in true Victorian disdain for health and safety or practical common sense, a variation was to look in the mirror whilst walking backwards down the cellar steps.

Current Halloween traditions


A turnip Jack-O’-Lantern. By Rannpháirtí anaithnid at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

During the 1880s whilst the English were busy staring into mirrors, Scottish and Irish emigrants took their traditions with them across the Atlantic. One such tradition was the carving of Jack-O-Lanterns.

Originally turnips were used, with one idea being that this came from the story of Stingy Jack who invited the Devil to drink with him, but didn’t want to pay for the drink. He tricked the Devil to turn himself into a coin, and then kept the coin in his pocket next to a silver cross to trap him in that form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, with the promise that Jack would be left alone for a year and that the Devil would not get his soul when he died. After a year had gone the Devil appeared, but once again Jack tricked him into climbing a tree and picking a piece of fruit. Once the Devil was in the tree, Jack carved a cross on the trunk and extracted another promise from the Devil that he wouldn’t come after Jack for another ten years. After Jack died, God refused him entry into heaven and the Devil couldn’t take his soul, so instead condemned Jack to walk the Earth with a burning coal. Jack put the coal inside a hollowed-out turnip and roams at night, so people scared him off by carving faces into potatoes and turnips and placing them in windows or near doors.


Van Gogh’s Starry Night carved into a pumpkin by the Maniac Pumpkin Carvers. Credit: MARC EVAN/AP PHOTO/MANIAC PUMPKIN CARVERS.

As anybody who has tried to cut up a turnip knows, they’re a pain in the arse, so when they reached America after escaping the potato famine and came across pumpkins, which were more plentiful and easier to carve, the tradition evolved into carving this fruit instead.

Trick or treating also became a more widespread concept in America, albeit later on in the early 1900s. Thought to have developed from the Celtic traditions of dressing as demons to hide from spirits crossing over and the poor begging for soul cakes, the first reference to ‘trick or treat’ was in 1927 in the Alberta Canada Herald, which reported youths going around houses and demanding treats. It seems to have taken a while to become mainstream however, with ‘A Mother’ writing a letter to The Fresno Bee in 1941 saying:

As a mother of two children I wish to register indignation at the “trick or treat” racket imposed on residents on Hallowe’en night by the youngsters of this city.… This is pure and simple blackmail and it is a sad state of affairs when parents encourage their youngsters to participate in events of this kind.

In the intervening years however, Halloween has become a huge holiday in the US. Last year it was estimated that Americans spent $8.4 billion on the celebration, expected to increase to $9.1 million this year. The UK has taken longer to warm to the idea, with a 2013 YouGov survey showing that 70% of responders would prefer it if trick or treaters didn’t come to their house, but spending is increasing (£310 million last year) and 40% of people now say that they would be celebrating Halloween.

One final cautionary note though if you are trick or treating this year; you might not always get what you expect. One woman in Long Island was convicted in 1964 of giving out packages of ant poison, steel wool and dog biscuits to children she thought were too old to beg for sweets. Maybe stick to dressing up your dog as a pumpkin instead.

Up at the O2

20140711_161148The Millennium Dome – once the Great White Elephant of London and now renamed the O2 Arena; revamped to host overpriced stadium events and a branch of every high street food and drink chain imaginable – has clearly been wondering how to get people down to North Greenwich if they’re not going to an event. This isn’t an easy task because North Greenwich is essentially a building site which is a long way away. However, somebody’s had a plan, and that plan involves being tethered to a steel cable and walking up the side of it.

It’s a brilliant idea. And a really fun afternoon out. You book a time slot – they run a group up every 15 minutes from about 10am to 8.15pm this time of year – get put in your group, sign a form saying that if you fall off it’s your own fault, have a safety talk where a very overexcitable man chews the scenery for 10 minutes about how awesome it is, and then you get your gear on and head up a staircase to the start of the climb. 

The walkway itself is suspended above the roof of the dome and is made of a tent-like material that gives a bit under your feet so it feels like you’re walking on the surface, which is a nice touch. A steel cable runs along the centre of the walkway and this is what you are tethered to with a huge gear thing which you have to drag with you, but which also locks and stops you from skidding off the edge. We were in a large party so it was a slow shuffle up the steepest section at the beginning, with lots of photos being taken that can be yours for £15 at the other end if you so wish, but a steady pace was picked up as we moved up to the platform in the centre.

Once you get to th20140711_161807e circular viewing platform they untether you and you can take as many selfies as you wish. The guide told us of a bunch of women busy taking photos of themselves rather than the views and when asked why, the reply was that they could go on Google Earth and look at that any time 🙂 Don’t go up there and take selfies – it isn’t the most stunning view you’ll ever see admittedly, but on a clear day the O2 says you can see for 15 miles across Greenwich, Canary Warf and the Olympic Park. The website says the guide will tell you about stuff around you but ours didn’t, so I imagine it depends on the guide, and they’ll answer questions if you have any.

Finally you gingerly shuffle your way down the other side, which is a steeper section and requires more concentration, especially if it’s a bit wet.

Overall it was a great experience and not as arduous as I thought it might have been. A top tip is to get somebody with an O2 phone and book through the Priority Moments app as this gives you 15% off the full price of £26. There’s also an Up At The O2 app (free) though I haven’t used it, which gives you a labelled view of the skyline and info on the climb. It took about an hour and a half altogether, and there are also opportunities for a walk up at sunset. Getting there, it’s on the Jubilee line so easy enough to get to, or there’s a Thames Clipper pier on the river for a more scenic arrival.

There is a weight20140711_161520 limit and a thigh-circumference limit as you have to wear a harness, but within these I’d recommend it to anybody who fancied doing something a bit different.The only issue we came across was that a woman had turned up for our slot with eight 14-year-olds who were having a birthday celebration and she’d called the helpdesk that morning to check she was okay being the only adult with them. Whoever it was had said yes that’s fine, but when she turned up at the arena, the guy behind the desk said there was an absolute rule that one adult could only look after two children under 16 because they are liable for their safety. He was very unhelpful to somebody who had clearly spent a lot of money, and who was faced with a failed birthday party and I felt that the situation could have been handled better as the assumption was that she was lying, rather than she’d been given the wrong information. We stepped in and took charge of two kids each so everybody did get to go up in the end, but clearly there’s a problem somewhere with regards to the information being handed out, but also with the way problems are dealt with on site. There’s also no point in taking your fancy camera along – you can take a phone or a small compact with you up there and that’s it.


Building the list(s)

I’ve been adding events to the listing, arranged by date so go take a look at that, and I’ve also launched a new page of alternative things to do in and around London, which includes everything from kayaking down the Thames to dressing up as a Victorian time traveler and helping prevent an awful mishap. This is still at an early stage so more stuff will be added to it and I’ll also be playing around with the appearance of the blog to make it look more interesting and to make the listings easier to use.

Plenty of stuff is happening this summer so go have a look!


Tudor music and dancing at the Epping Forest Festival


I’m back! Now with added jousting

Hello! It’s been over a year since I wrote anything and I’ve been trying to decide what to do with this blog as I write reviews for and that has taken over that side of things. For I while I was wondering whether to start some sort of challenge where I do something a bit different each week and then write about it, but that is a pretty large scale project to take on. Instead, I’ve decided to set up a new events page where I put up interesting events in and around London that I’ve come across and sound interesting to me. This is extremely subjective as it’s essentially just an extension of what I spend a lot of my time doing anyway, which is looking for something to do at weekends which isn’t going to the pub (make no mistake – I am very much in favour of pubs, but living in London it’s a pretty expensive pastime), so the events I choose will all be ones that I like the sound of.

I wanted to put this together as currently I don’t think there is a listing which really matches what I’m looking for. Time Out can occasionally have something interesting taking place but I find it a difficult website to use because there’s so much information and so much stuff cluttering it up which I have no interest in. Therefore, if you’re looking for a jousting event to go to, or rookie banger racing, or a sci fi festival hopefully this will be of use to you. I will be putting more work into populating the listing in coming weeks with what I come across and I’ll also be creating a page of more unusual things to do in London which are available all year round rather than for a specific event.

As well as the listing, I’ll be aiming to go to some of these events as that’s the whole point in me trawling the internet in the first place! I’ll then review them and get some pics up so you can see what was going on and whether I thought it worked or not.

If you’ve come across an event that sounds good or went to one and think people should keep an eye out for it in future let me know. As I get more material up on here hopefully it’ll become a useful guide for people like me who enjoy history, arts and crafts, literature, food, sci fi / fantasy / horror and just having an interesting trip out.

Losing Hamish


It is with some difficulty that I am writing this post, because thinking about losing Hamish still moves me to tears.

Hamish was a Gordon Setter – a big, beautiful black and tan dog with a heart like a marshmallow and a passion for tennis balls that passed all understanding. It was just under two months ago, on Friday 9th of May – my beloved father’s birthday – that he passed away, on a warm spring day with the bluebells and rhododendrons in full, glorious bloom. He would have been ten in September.

On that Monday he had been happy, healthy, splashing about in Llyn Brenig with his friend Lexie. On Tuesday evening he ate his turkey but didn’t seem interested in his biscuits. I wasn’t unduly concerned, but on Wednesday my instincts told me he just wasn’t well, so I phoned the vet. I could see that the inside of his eyelids –…

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