HERE LIES THE BODY…

When I was a child, my father banned the reading of books, as being a possible influence in opposition to his own ideas. (This was not the reason he gave of course.) (This edict was completely ineffective: I could always obtain books by one means or another; I had stashes where I hid them, and read them in secret places.) There were a few honourable exceptions to this ban of course. The Bible and theological tracts were permitted as were any subjects of interest to him. I therefore have a surprising knowledge of completely unlikely subjects; bee-keeping, for example; wood-working tools, and the various breeds of sheep and cattle in the British isles. This book had pictures and was much studied by me. Far from being useless information as I thought at the time, this knowledge has proved to be of satisfying value in delivering put downs to arrogant farming types who have assumed I am an ignorant townie (which of course I really am, except that I inexplicably can talk about sheep and cattle.)

So when Leicester was mentioned, I visualised a heavy set, large headed, long haired ram, and when I looked it up, this was indeed the case (breed now very rare). This variety of sheep was taken to Australia so its descendants are there.

And Leicester has been mentioned a lot recently, what with the bones of Richard III being discovered ‘in a car park’ and with Leicester Football Team winning the League against all odds. I wanted to see what kind of a town this was.

Scots without relatives or business in England generally have a lamentably poor understanding of the country. They know the M6 and M1, and the Channel ports, and they will have visited London, and in my case certainly, that was it. Now I’ve turned into an effete Southerner who doesn’t like ‘weather’ I do know the Southern half of the country quite well, but I’m decidedly vague about the mysterious regions North of Oxford, and I irritate friends as I am unable to distinguish between the

Midlands and the North.

So we set off to explore Leicester. It’s just off the M1 and it must be pretty near the centre of England. It has no truly significant geographical features. It stands on a very slight incline – well you could hardly call it a hill – and the River Soar runs through it, but it makes no great impact on the city. It’s surrounded by flat, green, well wooded country. It’s larger than I expected and it has the depressing, rather messy suburbs that many English towns have. We can see our hotel, but we would never have gained access to it through the muddle of streets without Sat Nav and even with Sat Nav we have more than one pass at it. It’s traffic has no logic to its flow and parking is very difficult. First impressions are not favourable.

The natives are friendly however. Although it received 10,000 Ugandan refugees in the days of Idi Amin, it still retains enough of its original population to have a ‘look’. The men are sturdy and personable, and the women have pretty, squarish faces and both have charm. Famous sons of Leicester (there are many) include the brothers Attenburgh and Gary Lineker.

In the morning we are agreeably surprised. Only 15 minutes flat walking and we arrive at the ancient part of town. You realise that this has always been a rich town – famous for wool, and for manufacturing wool products, and for leather work. Presumably it didn’t suffer heavy bombing because so many of its ancient buildings are intact. We visit the Cathedral first. In itself it is interesting, being square in shape with chapels at each corner. It still holds the statues in its niches. (The town stood for Cromwell, so possibly it’s church buildings were not dealt with harshly.) It is a successful blend of ancient and modern. The Bishop’s chair is an extraordinary tall throne with a gigantic back in the shape of a leather cross,in garish colours. (The person showing us round alleged that the current Bishop did not like it.) The tomb of the king was behind the altar and was a large slab of marble with a cross cut deeply into it, his title, King Richard III cut into it in gold letters and a small coat of arms in precious metals. It is all in appropriate and quiet good taste, and surprisingly moving.

Directly opposite the cathedral and no more than 5 minutes walk away is the attractive modern building which houses the Visitor Centre which explains how his body was found. Although we all know he was ‘found in a car park’, originally a monastery stood there and Richard who had set off from Leicester Castle to do battle, was returned to their care when dead. He was buried, and found, in a coffin. In time the avaricious and predatory Henry VIII ravished the monastery and stole their wealth and awarded their lands to some creature of his, who created a garden there. Naturally he would not want to draw attention to the former king for the Tudors were always uneasy about him, so he just planted a stick to mark the burial place and that was lost over the years. Within that museum, under the floor under glass, is the actual place from which they removed the body. Interestingly, when they were about to dig the site, a lady came who had the equivalent powers of a water diviner, and she indicated where they should dig, and there indeed they found the body.

There are plaster casts of his skeleton and skull. His skull is recognisably like the portraits of him. He was not a tall person, and although he did have a pronounced scoliosis of the spine it was in his lower back, and he had, carefully dressed, looked quite normal. The Visitor Centre invites you to consider whether he was in fact the murderer of the princes in the tower, but leaves you to draw your own conclusion. In my opinion a much more likely candidate was Henry Tudor (VII). Richard III had a strong claim on the throne in his own right, whereas Henry Tudor was from an illegitimate descendant of a king, and had no legal claim whatever (except, as with William the Conqueror, by right of conquest). Henry Tudor found himself with three other claimants, the two princes, and their sister Elizabeth, whom he married. We’ll never know; so you can take your pick.

It was surprising and moving to see how the crowds turned out to watch his cortege pass through the villages of Leicestershire on its way to the reburial. The guides to the cathedral said visitors to the city had increased 10 fold since Richard was reburied.

We had gone to see how they had won the football league (causing one of their most famous sons to be obliged to present Match of the Day clad only in his underpants) but looking at their town, I could understand how they had managed it. The Midlands and the North are different kinds of England. They can stand their ground. It cannot have been easy for Leicester to hold on to Richard’s body and to raise the money to so swiftly built such an appropriate and attractive Visitor Centre. They didn’t lose their nerve there, and they didn’t lose it at the football. They can grasp an opportunity when they see one.

I was wholly impressed by Leicester. We didn’t see the half of it and I would like to return one day.

That Leicester ram knows a green field when it sees one and it knows how to hold on to it.

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A HARRIS TWEED SKIRT

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I’ve been sewing this week.

I made a dress for my grand-daughter Erin, from two navy dresses of my own, cutting the bodice from plain navy and using the buttonholes and buttons, with a full skirt embroidered in navy on white cotton, trimmed with a red ribbon and a red ribbon belt.

But my main effort this week has been the production of a pale grey Harris Tweed skirt.

When John and I were on the island of Harris this summer, we came across a small shop selling beautiful knitted jackets and cardigans. I like to have a nice, comfortable, luxurious knitted jacket/cardigan to travel in, and my old faithful which I bought in Lake Taupo, New Zealand, of black possum merino trimmed with a camel patteRn and with a hood had given up the ghost. So I looked with interest at their jackets. Made of a mixture of Harris wool and cashmere these were by no means cheap (the one I bought cost £240) and I was trying them on under duress prepared to reject them, when I chanced upon one (the sales lady was very good at her job) which really suited me. It was a silver grey with black flecks, came to mid thigh, edged all round with a circular edge cable finish. While I was trying these on, a German woman came in and commandeered my sales lady, saying, I only want to ask one question, and then proceeded to ask seven. She was surprisingly put out when I pointed this out to her! But the sales lady promptly returned her attention to the sale in hand. So I bought it. I then wore it in the car every day until we returned to the beautiful (and warmer) south.

I always like to buy some Harris tweed when I am on Lewis/Harris . I looked at the outlets in Harris but nothing took my fancy. In Stornoway, Sheena and I had a ‘favourite shop’ – which she had found – where a vast stock lurked in extreme disorder in the shadowy recesses of the establishment and probably had been forgotten there since 1928. The owner greeted us like old friends – asked after our relatives, and we bought some black and white herringbone to make a waistcoat for John and some cream and brown houndstooth to make something for me. But later, in a proper ladies shop with beautiful Harris Tweed suits in it which looked however like you had been summoned to Balmoral, I found a plain tweed in the same silvery grey as the jacket. I bought a metre and a half of it.

This being the most Northernly point of our journey we turned our faces for home. In the Tourist Office in Tarbert I bought another vastly expensive wool/cashmere scarf in greys and beiges which matched the knitted jacket.

I’ve a close friend of many decades duration who has begun dress- making in her 70s, and I’ve been talking to her about the pitfalls of skirt making. So this week I went to Burgess Hill (our local haberdashery having closed) and bought for about £10 some pale grey lining, an 8” zip, and some grey thread. Buttons and interlining I already had. I used a pattern I’d drafted earlier for myself, for a straight skirt, l frontspiece, 2 backs, with waistband and back zip and pleat. This time I zigzagged right round the edges of all the pieces first. Then I tacked the back seam, and inserted the zip, and finished the pleat. I put in the darts, then sewed front to back. I cut an inch off the lining and sewed the parts together but did not sew the darts but simply gathered the lining and tacked it to the skirt inside, with the right side visible. I then attached the waistband and sewed the buttonhole ‘by hand’ with the machine – ie not automatically. All that was left to do was sew the hemline.

I saw that I had some material left so I made a simple tote bag in grey wool, lined with black cotton and trimmed with a grey black and rust coloured ribbon and an ‘A’ in black velvet. The two handles are made of the grey wool and black cotton.

I can wear this outfit with black leather boots, gloves and a bag I already have, and with a black polo neck and trousers, topped off with a black fur hat. It has cost me about £300, but as I shall wear it a great deal, I think the cost per wearing will be very low.

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A SCOTTISH WEAKNESS

A SCOTTISH WEAKNESS

It is a well-known source of jokes that the Scots ‘enjoy’ a very unhealthy diet, full of such delights as macaroon (not the dainty French variety, but a sweet made originally it is said from potatoes and sugar); deep fried Mars bars; Tunnocks tea cakes, meals never sullied by vegetables, and all liberally washed down with whisky and Irn Bru(a kind of brown lemonade, advertised as Made in Scotland, from girders.) Whereas there is very good food to be found in Scotland, there is as always a grain of truth behind these exaggerations. We do tend to have a very sweet tooth.

A Scottish delicacy, not available commercially and therefore highly sought after at school fetes and other fund raising events, is Scottish Tablet. This is a kind of hard fudge, not as soft as fudge. It should be crisp and dry as you bite into it, and then dissolve in your mouth. It is highly addictive, almost pure sugar, and extremely bad for you. It is also difficult to make. My mother made it occasionally. She had very few failures.

You need sugar, condensed milk, full cream milk, butter and vanilla essence. There are many variations on the recipe, but generally you heat the milk, sugar and butter. Then you add the condensed milk and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring all the time. You then take it off the heat and add the vanilla essence, when it boils up dangerously in the pan, and then you beat it for 20 minutes.

In addition to being time consuming and tiring, the potential for it going wrong is infinite.

It can be cooked too fast, and just taste and have the texture of boiled sugar. It can very easily burn. It can fail to set sufficiently, in any number of degrees from being a viscous gloop that you can put your finger in and suck, to being set and tasting OK but being too ‘wet’ and not crisp enough.

Once in a blue moon, (perhaps every few years) I get overcome by sugar lust and decide to make some. I have long since ceased to be able to beat for 20 minutes, so I have not attempted any batches since there were children at home to help with the beating. (They were always more than willing.)

But now I have the thermomix. Would it make tablet, I wondered. I looked it up on the internet and to my surprise, found several (quite different) recipes there. I picked one that vaguely resembled what I recalled of my mother’s and gingerly began. There were some additional hazards with the thermomix. If it boiled over when I added the vanilla, it would jam the works. If it set too fast, it would be like a concrete mixer where the contents have set in it.

In the event none of these disasters happened. It took almost 2 hours by thermomix. It tasted good. It set, and the pieces could be marked out. But it was one degree as it were off being crisp enough. Probably I should get a sugar thermometer. I think I should have cooked it for longer and to a higher temperature.

We ate the last pieces yesterday. As I said, it’s very bad for you.