Today is the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the great writer, Sir Walter Scott, The Wizard of the North. This is something I wrote a few years ago concerning the mutual admiration the two greatest novelists of the day had for each other’s work. The Wizard of the North.
Category Archives: Historical tales
This is written in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, December 17, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features stilettos. Who will wear them and why? Go where the prompt leads!
Rather than the footwear, I thought of the blade – and recalled a very unusual parasol handle I once saw in a museum, from there it was a simple step to involve the remarkable Miss Fluart, the eighteenth-century character who has inspired several tales of mine. In one tale she and her friend outwit some men who have been assaulting women at a theatre – leaving one with crushed and broken fingers, now read on.
“So Miss, do you know who I am?”
Miss Fluart looked down at his twisted fingers.
“I think you are the man who liked assaulting women.”
“Harmless, until you took a hand. Now for some fun. No one will hear you scream.”
She looked round the empty Park, stepped back and took a grip on her parasol. He laughed and moved closer to her.
There was a click as she twisted the handle, and withdrew a twelve-inch blade.
He looked into her unblinking eyes, as she held the stiletto to his throat.
“Will anybody hear you scream?” She replied.
The old singer watched as the happy crowd left the cathedral. The Bishop came over to him and shook his hand.
“I didn’t think it would be like this, it was just an old tradition.”
“Yes, but a wonderful one, you would go round the town singing carols and using them to tell the Christmas story. I just brought it inside.”
“But it was wonderful, will you do it next year?”
“And the next, and others will do it as well, soon there will be carol services everywhere. It was once your family tradition, now it will be everybody’s.”
In 1880 Edward Benson organised the first service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Truro Cathedral. Partly based on a local tradition of singing various carols around the city on Christmas Eve, it is considered the predecessor of the carol services now held and enjoyed throughout the world.
This is written in response to the Carrot Ranch December 3, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes family traditions. Go where the prompt leads! I have, of course, gone back in time to the creation of many family traditions,
The Rev. Octavius Pickard-Cambridge walked briskly through the stooked wheat sheaves on his way to his tiny church of Winterborne Tomson. As the service commenced he saw a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly fluttering at the window, during his sermon it settled on one of the beams over his head, folded its wings and seemed to fall asleep. He smiled to himself at the idea that his sermons could even make butterflies sleep.
The following week the corn had been carted away, and his path ran through stubble. As he climbed into his pulpit he glanced up, and noticed in surprise that the butterfly was still there. It had settled by a small knot in the wood, so he could tell it hadn’t moved since the previous week.
The following Sunday it was still there, and the next. Outside the church the seasons changed, leaves browned and fell. The first frost covered the ground, and made patterns on the church windows.
But the butterfly slept on.
Christmas came, the singers packed into the West Gallery roared out the ancient Christmas Carols.
But the butterfly slept on.
Snow came, and it was hard to trudge to the church on a Sunday, the water froze in the font so a baby had to be christened with water brought in a kettle from the Manor House.
But the butterfly slept on.
The snow melted and February lived up to its country name of ‘fill-dyke’, water puddled on the church floor.
But the butterfly slept on.
Until finally the seasons turned, flowers poked their heads through the brown leaves, blossom began to turn the hedges white. As the church door was opened the butterfly finally awoke, and during his sermon the vicar saw it find its way out of the door.
That evening the Rev. Octavius Pickard-Cambridge settled down and wrote an account of what he had seen, the first time anybody had watched a hibernating insect continuously throughout the winter.
Our village orchard was planted some fifteen years ago, by children from the local school. At the base of each tree there is a little label giving the variety and who planted it. At this time of year there is a regular stream of villagers collecting apples to eat or cook.
A few days ago I went to pick a basket of the lovely Beauty of Bath, a classic eating apple. The adjacent tree had large pale green fruit, and looked like a cooker, curious I picked some and read the label ‘Wormesley Pippin’. The name fascinated me and I looked it up in a very old apple book, and so discovered the tale of the apple and the remarkable Thomas Andrew Knight.
Thomas Knight was worried, the revolting French might have spread revolution and war across half a continent, but this was much more serious, his new orchard had canker. He knew the disease usually affected older trees, but all of these had been planted in the past three years. He enquired of neighbouring farmers, all told the same story, new trees often got canker.
He had been sent to University with the vague idea of his becoming a clergyman, but he hadn’t enjoyed it, apart from the Botanic Garden, here he learnt of the new discoveries of men such as Stephen Hale and Carl Linnaeus, who had shown how plants actually worked. Now Thomas Knight was to use their methods to solve the problem of apple canker.
He knew that apples never bred true, a pip would grow into an apple unlike its parent tree, and to spread a variety trees had to be grafted. He had learnt to graft when he was a child, attaching a small piece of the desired tree onto a rootstock so it would grow into a prefect replica of the original. Then it struck him, a branch of the original tree! He remembered a sermon he had heard in Oxford, ‘a child carries the seeds of its own death’, the sermon had been a splendidly cheery one, on how as soon as a child is born it should prepare for death. But Thomas Knight wondered, perhaps it could be true in another way. Everything had a natural lifespan, trees certainly lived longer than people, but what about an apple tree? The new trees were essentially parts of the original tree, his orchard might be only a few years old but some of the varieties were centuries old, the new trees weren’t in fact new, they were very old and dying of old age. (He was fortunately very wrong)
He thought he knew the problem, but what was the answer. All the farmers talked of ‘chance-come’ apples or pippins, apples that grew from pips that had good characteristics, but he knew that for a thousand pips sown perhaps one might make a good apple. But he knew something that the local farmers didn’t, Linnaeus had discovered exactly how plants reproduced (he described it in such detail that some people regarded his works as pornographic). He was going to use this new knowledge to selectively breed apples!
Spring came and he begun, developing ways to hand fertilise apples, carefully collecting the fruit and planting the seeds. There were many failures, but enough success to make it worthwhile. As the long French war waged on, as enemy troops landed not too far away, only to surrender to formidable red cloaked Welsh Women, Thomas Knight began to see his new varieties spread.
His fame spread too, Sir Joseph Banks heard of his work, persuaded him to come to London where he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and became the President of the Royal Horticultural Society. But he never enjoyed London, and as soon as he could he returned to Herefordshire, he still corresponded with the society, his work on selective breeding in plants was used by Charles Darwin, his notes on peas inspired Gregor Mendel and his experiments on the effects of gravity on seedlings directly influenced experiments carried out on the International Space Station.
But that was in the future, now as Napoleon was advancing into Russia, Thomas Knight cut an apple from a new grown tree and tried it for the first time. It was an eater as well as a cooker, he was delighted and later declared it ‘My favourite apple, the best I ever produced.”
And that was the Wormesley Pippin that began this story. (Incidentally it makes excellent Dorset Apple cake)
This week’s prompt from Charli at the Carrot Ranch is; August 13, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a first flight. It can be anything or anyone that flies. What is significant about the first? Go where the prompt leads!
As readers of my blog will realise, I am fascinated by the early history of flight, so could hardly pass on this prompt. So here is the story of what was probably the first serious attempt to fly, certainly in Europe.
He stood on the edge of the tower, checked his linen covered wings, took a deep breath and jumped.
They worked! He glided for nearly two hundred yards before the gust hit him, he struggled as he dropped, his wings broke his fall.
He awoke in the infirmary with a broken leg. The Abbot beside the bed.
“Brother Elimer, my old friend, there must be no more flying. I don’t wish to bury you next time.”
“But if I had a bigger tail I could fly”
“Not now.” The Abbot was firm, “One day perhaps.”
The year was 1005.
All true, the story is recorded by the historian William of Malmesbury, who was a monk at Malmesbury Abbey just like Elimer. He almost certainly knew people who had known Elimer in old age.
He looked in amazement at the little fern, growing in the sealed jar. According to Dr Ward it had been growing there for three years.
“But what nourishes it?”
“Sunlight.” He replied, “Water evaporates, and condenses in the jar. Minerals feed the leaves, and return to the soil, all it needs is light.”
“Is it of any use?”
“Use! Glass boxes filled with plants, on a ships deck, will carry them safely around the world. We will move useful plants wherever we want. This could end famines, create industries and beautify gardens, it could change the world.”
Unpacking a Wardian Case at Kew in the 1920’s photo from Kew Gardens
In 1829 Dr Nathanial Ward tried to hatch out a moth chrysalis, it died, but a tiny fern seedling growing in the jar continued to grow although Dr Ward did nothing. Realising what this might mean he experimented and a decade later had a successful box for transporting pants around the world. Properly named the Wardian Case, after its inventor, it was used to transport medicinal, food and commercial crops around the globe. It really did change the world.
Written in response to this week’s carrotranch prompt
May 7, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story to nourish. The characters can nourish or be nourished. What else can be nourished? A tree? A setting? Does the sunset nourish the soul? Go where the prompt leads!
A brick smashed through the window, glass fell on the praying sisters.
“Why do we stay, Mother?” Asked one of the newly founded Anglican Order of Sisters. “No one seems to want us.”
Then – Cholera.
No one knew how it spread, people fled and the rest died alone, no one helped – until the sisters took charge.
They cared for the dying, comforted the living, and became beloved by the people of Plymouth.
A little later a small women came and asked.
“Can you help me? I desperately need nurses.”
The Mother Superior smiled “Of course we can – Miss Nightingale.”
A terrible, wonderful and true tale.
In the 1840’s a High Anglican order of nuns faced massive abuse, encouraged by Evangelical Anglicans, when they established a house in Plymouth. Until there was an outbreak of cholera, in which hundreds died. There was little help for the poor, apart from the nursing care of the sisters. After this they were understandably regarded as heroines.
A few years after this Florence Nightingale asked the nursing sisters to join her in the Crimea, where they formed the core of the nurses in her hospital at Scutari.
This in response to this weeks Flash Fiction Challenge from the Carrot Ranch
Night had fallen as the mail coach pulled up in front of the Inn, the ostlers ran out to change the horses, postbags were exchanged, and mugs of ale were passed to the driver and guard.
The lead horse screamed, in the gloom the driver saw that something had leapt onto the horses neck. He could see blood flowing, but what was it? The terrified ostler swung his lantern round, and they could see. Now it was for the men to scream, it was impossible!
In Wiltshire, in 1816, the Exeter Mail had been attacked by a Lion!
This completely true tale, it happened on the 20th October 1816, is written in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, January 30, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a postal carrier in an extreme situation. I think a lion attack is pretty extreme.
Miss Sophia Stocks looked over the side of the gondola and took a deep breath, it was good to breathe easily again. She knew she could breathe in the thin air at twenty thousand feet, and almost certainly higher, but it was certainly easier at this height. She thought they must have crossed the French coast in cloud, now she was looking down on the rolling French countryside from about eight thousand feet, and heading slightly east of south. If she had been on her own, or even with two frightened Post Office officials, it would have been perfect. But instead she had been lumbered with two unwanted men.
She bent and checked the Bow Street Runner, a proper colour had returned to his face and he was breathing easily.
“Sleep on Mr Policeman.” She said gently, tucking the blanket round him, then she turned to the Duke. He was sleeping too, “Still alive then, pity. Anyway as soon as we land it’s prison for you. There is French mail in these bags, as well as British, and the French as just as protective of their mail as we are.”
She stood up again, she dropped a couple of handfuls of ballast to maintain their altitude then checked her map. There was a noise from her passengers, she looked down, Henry Goddard was awake and with a struggle got to his feet. He saw the land beneath them.
“How long was I asleep? And where are we?”
She looked at her watch, “You were insensible for nearly three hours, and we are over France.” She pointed to the north east.
“If I am right, and I think I am, Amiens lies about twenty miles that way. We are heading in the direction of Paris. If all goes well, and we keep on this course, in a couple of hours’ time I will look for somewhere to land.” She handed him a flask.
“Drink this, it will make you feel better.”
“He took a mouthful of the red liquid. It was very strong and very sweet.”
He coughed, passing it back to Miss Stocks, she wiped the neck of the flask and took a sip herself.
“Cherry brandy, we aeronauts all have our favourite drink, generally spirits, this is mine.”
“Thank you miss.”
He was silent and leant over the side, watching the countryside pass beneath them, it was incredibly peaceful.
Flying over France
It was an hour later that Sophia broke into his reverie.
“Time to go down, the sun will be setting in about an hour and there are woodlands on the horizon, I don’t want to fly in the dark, and landing in trees is a nightmare.”
“What can I do Miss,” He asked.
“Just keep out of my way.” She began, “No – check he is safe.” She pointed at the Duke.
She turned her back to strap her instruments in their case, as Henry Goddard bent over the recumbent man. He rolled the man over, and was hit in the face. He fell back, the Duke sprang to his feet.
“Arrest me would you. Lie there, don’t move.”
The Runner lay stunned, Sophia turned in horror as the Duke scrambled into the rigging and grabbed the gas release cord. He pulled it hard, there was a crack from above, then a loud hissing. The balloon began to shake.
“No”, she screamed, and made a grab for the cord, the Duke laughed and pulled it again, this time she was able to grab it, and gave it a gentle tug that should have closed it, there was no response, the valve was broken, and open. Air rushed past them, they were falling, and falling fast.
The Runner scrambled to his feet, Sophia snapped at him.
“Throw everything overboard, apart from my barometer and the mail bags, if you want to, throw him over board as well.” She pointed at the Duke who was sitting on the side of the basket, laughing. She shut her eyes, “Not again!” she thought, remembering her first, terrible, flight. She knew how lucky she had been then, there was little chance for them now.
Unless – suddenly she laughed, and picked up a knife. The Runner who had been struggling with the last sandbag turned, now she was the one who looked mad. Rapidly she scrambled up into the rigging and began to slash at the neck ropes. He went to grab her.
“Don’t,” She shouted, “This is the only way to save us.” Stunned by her vehemence he stepped back as she cut through the thin ropes holding the bottom of the balloon in place, until only one was left, by the Duke. As she went to grab it he went to stop her, then saw her face, and quailed. She sliced through the rope and jumped down into the basket.
“Hold on.” She shouted, “It’s going to be rough.”
They looked up and saw the fabric of the balloon fold upwards, filling the net and seemingly spreading out above them. There was a jerk and the rate of descent slowed, then the basket started to sway from side to side.
“What did you do?” Goddard shouted.
“Turned the balloon into a parachute, this happened by accident to an American a few years ago when his balloon burst. I wondered at the time if this might have saved Mr Harris on my first flight.”
They swayed from side to side as they descended, but slower now. Sophia looked at the men.
“Sit down on the bottom of the basket, and hold on tight.” She ordered, “We will be dragged along the ground when we land, and will be safe as long as we stay in the basket. Don’t try to get out until I tell you.”
Mr Goddard did as he was told, however the Duke just laughed and climbed onto the edge of the basket. Sophia ignored him, and watched the approaching ground, just before they landed she dropped into the bottom of the basket and grabbed tight hold. Above her the Duke shouted.
“You won’t catch me!” and jumped.
The balloon gave a perceptible jerk and the descent was slowed. As the basket hit the ground it tipped on one edge, they just held on tight as it scraped along the ground. The noise and bumping seemed to go on for ages. He had been in a carriage accident once, but this was worse, the Runner just held on tight and prayed. Miss Stocks also held on tight, she was more worried than she had been at twenty thousand feet, she had no idea what was in front of them, if there were rocks or water ahead then they would be in real trouble. But she could do nothing, just hold on, then, suddenly, they stopped.
Henry Goddard just lay there, looking up at the sky, then he slowly realised, he was on the ground, he was alive, he ached all over but, he was safe. Slowly he tried to rise.
“Stay still.” A voice ordered, he turned to see Miss Stocks climbing up to look over the side of the basket. The balloon had completely collapsed, it lay in a tangled mess safe on the ground. She looked down into the basket and said.
“Come on, Mr Policeman, it’s safe to get out.”
“Mr Goddard, please. Can you stop calling me Policeman?” Now they were on the ground, he was irritated and no longer wanted to take orders from this young woman.
“Certainly, Mr Policeman. Now Mr Goddard, do you want to see what has happened to your mad friend?”
He suddenly realised he had forgotten about the Duke. She pointed, a few hundred yards away a group of people seemed to be standing around something. Others were running towards them.
“Go to him, I will deal with these people.” She paused and added smiling, “Mr Goddard.”
He turned, he realised that there was no point in arguing about it, she was still in charge.
“Monsieur, your balloon?” One of the men asked. In his broken French he replied.
“Not my balloon, it is her balloon, she is the aeronaut.”
The men looked surprised, then one said. “I see, like Madam Blanchard.” And they turned towards Sophia.
Crowds around a fallen balloon
Sophia was having problems keeping the men from touching the balloon, she was trying to make sure that they didn’t damage it any further when a man rode up.
“Mademoiselle, can I be of assistance. I am the mayor of Clermont.” He pointed to a few roofs visible over the trees in the distance.
“Thank you sir, can you please ask these men not to touch my balloon. They don’t know how to fold it up.”
“Of course.” He called to the men, “And can you tell me how to find the local postmaster?” she added.
“I am also the postmaster.” He added in surprise.
“Excellent.” She ducked into the tangled mess of the basket and came out with the mailbags. She opened a flap and handed him the letter from the French post office. As he read it his eyes widened.
“Of course Mademoiselle, we will help as much as we can.”
A young man who had just ridden up looked sourly at them.
“Why father? She is English.”
His father began to tell him, Sophia just smiled at him.
“It is a race to see who can get mail to Paris the fastest, a balloon or a steamship.”
“So?” He was unconcerned.
“A race between a balloon, a French invention, and a steamship, a British invention.”
The mayor laughed, “Pierre, will you take on the challenge, carry this mail on to Paris.”
“Of course,” he replied, “Vive la France.”
The mayor, and Sophia, laughed.
After he had been given directions, and ridden off to fetch a chaise to carry him and his companion to Paris, the mayor now asked about the men. Sophia had forgotten them, then she saw Mr Goddard heading back towards the balloon.
“Talk to Mr Goddard, I would like to get my balloon packed up before it gets dark.”
Returning with a Balloon
An hour or so later they were all sat in the parlour of the Mayor’s house. His wife was very flustered, she was sure her guests were distinguished, the man she could understand, he was a senior policeman, something like her husband, but the woman? She was a complete mystery, she was polite and had been clearly been brought up to be a lady, but when she talked of her balloon and flying, she was something else, a femme du ciel perhaps.
The Woman of the Sky, Miss Sophia Stocks sat by the French Mayor’s fire and relaxed, she had carried the mail safely across the channel, she had flown higher than she had ever done before, and Resurgam was safely packed away in a barn. Oh, and as for the duke. She turned to Henry Goddard.
“So your prisoner survived his fall then?”
“He’s not my prisoner, my warrant doesn’t run here, but he is alive with two broken legs. And he will never return to Britain, he would be thrown into prison as soon as he set foot on British soil. I am afraid he is the French government’s problem now.” He nodded to the Mayor.
“Yes,” he sounded unconcerned, “I will write to Paris tomorrow. Perhaps they will want him sent there when he has recovered, or perhaps they will leave him where he is.”
Sophia was puzzled.
“But you said he had been sent to a local monastery where the monks care for the sick.”
“Yes, they care for the sick. It is where I would send my son if he broke his leg, they will care for that well there. But they also care for the sick in the mind.”
“A madhouse.” Added Henry Goddard.
“Perfect.” Said Miss Sophia Stocks.
And now for the facts behind the story
1 – There were attempts to carry mail by balloon, none succeeded because of the problems Sophia outlined at the beginning of the story.
2 – The career of the former Duke of Brunswick was more or less as described.
He came to England hoping to get help regain his Duchy and was soundly rebuffed.
King William IV loathed him and thought him mad.
He did fly with Mrs Graham and his stupidity led to a crash as a result of which she miscarried.
He tried to bring an action against a newspaper and was counter-sued, lost and fled owing £5000
He fled to France in a balloon (this was actually hired)
He ended his days in an asylum in Geneva, completely mad.
3 Henry Goddard was the Bow Street Runner charged with keeping a watch on the Duke. From his memoirs he was a very down to earth man, whom I doubt would have enjoyed flying.
4 The early aeronauts seem to have readily acclimatised to flying high, an experienced pilot like Sophia Stocks would have no trouble working at 20,000 feet, indeed Henry Coxwell experienced few difficulties until his balloon went above 30,000.
5 Collapsing a balloon to create a parachute was first done deliberately by Henry Coxwell in 1847, later balloonists designed the rigging of their balloons so that cutting a single line could cause a deflated balloon canopy to turn into a parachute.
As for the future career of Miss Sophia Stocks, with her balloon Resurgam (Latin for ‘I shall rise again’) will she try for the altitude record, then standing at 23,900 feet, or will her experiences with the collapsed balloon forming a parachute lead her to experiment with that device. Perhaps I might have her work with other female aeronauts, the real and unlucky Elizabeth Graham or the semi-fictional Amelia Wren.