Posted in Writing

Thank You for the Days

In my column for the April issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I was musing about changing the clocks for British Summer Time and comparing it to losing whole days when the world switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar – which, astonishingly, happened in different years in various countries around the world 

(Photo by DAVIDCOHEN on Unsplash)

If you begrudged losing an hour at the end of March, think yourself lucky. If you’d been alive in 1752, you’d have lost eleven days.

That’s when it became clear that the Julian calendar we’d been using since the days of Julius Caesar was an inaccurate measure of a solar year, ie how long it takes the earth to go round the sun. The only way to realign the calendar with astronomical events such as the spring equinox was to skip forward a number of days. The Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, provided a new system that we still use today.

How many days you sprang forward depended on how quickly your country switched to the new system.

Early adopters France, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain sacrificed 10 days of 1582, whereas countries leaving it until the twentieth century, such as Russia, Greece and Turkey, lost 13.

When England took the plunge in 1752, we missed 11 days, the government decreeing that Wednesday 2nd September would be followed by Thursday 14th September. You can’t help but feel sorry for the people born between 3rd and 13th, missing out on their birthdays that year.

The 11 abolished days also account for why the British tax year starts on 6 April. Historically, rents and debts fell due on the four quarter days of the Christian calendar:

  • Lady Day (25 March)
  • Midsummer Day (June 24)
  • Michaelmas (29 September)
  • Christmas Day (25 December)

Lady Day had always been the start of the tax year. When the government realised that switching to the Gregorian calendar would cost them 11 days of tax revenue, they simply extended the tax year, making it end on 5 April.

My new millefiori watch
And the time now is forget-me-not past daisy.

Sweden intended a more gradual approach to switching calendars, planning to simply cancel leap year days from 1700 to 1740. After errors prevented that happening in 1704 and 1708, they postponed their plan, designating 1712 a double leap year to restore the Julian calendar. This move created a one-off opportunity to be born or married on 30 February, thus never being able to celebrate your birthday or your wedding anniversary on the right day again. (They eventually went Gregorian in 1753.)

So while we may feel that we’ve missed out on many things during the last year due to Covid-19 restrictions, at least we still had the right number of days, even if it was often hard to tell them apart.

(With apologies to The Kinks and Kirsty McColl for the title,
inspired by their wonderful song).




Just 33 days to go (from the date of this blog post) until Murder Lost and Found is unleashed on the world – the seventh Sophie Sayers Village Mystery.

In this story, set in the school summer holidays, Sophie finds a dead body in the school lost property cupboard – but her plans to investigate are scuppered when it promptly disappears!

Join Sophie, Hector, Billy, Tommy and their fellow villagers – and meet some new characters too, including an irreverent trio of workmen building a new playground and a new member of staff at Hector’s House!

Murder Lost and Found was originally intended to complete the series of seven novels, seeing Sophie through her first year in the village, and running the course of a village year from one summer to the next. However, due to popular demand, there will be at least an eighth novel in the series, set in the Scottish Highlands, and further spin-offs, including more in the Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series of quick-read novelettes featuring Sophie and friends.


(Paperback will be available from launch date of 23rd May)

Posted in Self-publishing, Travel, Writing

A Visit to St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street

A report on my recent visit to St Bride’s Church in London
(unfortunately without a camera)

Photo of St Bride's spire
The famous “wedding cake” spire of St Bride’s Church, Fleet street (Photo by MykReeves at English Language Wikipedia)

I have a longstanding policy of whenever I’m going somewhere far from home on business, I try to squeeze in a touristy trip before or after the meeting. Continue reading “A Visit to St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street”

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

History is Relative

How long ago does something have to take place before you consider it to be history?

Netflix logo
Getting our fix on a Sunday night

Last night, my eleven-year-old daughter and I were watching Oliver and Company, an old Disney film on our newly-acquired Netflix. Based loosely (very loosely) on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, it was one that neither of us had seen before, most likely because it was made at a time when I was way too old to be following the studio’s output, and before Laura was even born. Continue reading “History is Relative”

Posted in Travel

The Ceremony of the (Bubble) Bath – Ancient and Modern

Illustration of chamber pot being emptied into medieval streetTo my mind, the best way for a History teacher to grab the children’s attention in a lesson is to tell them something memorably gross.  

If you “did” the Middle Ages in a British school, you will certainly remember learning about the medieval concept of emptying a chamber pot out of an upper floor window, with a cry of  “gardy-loo”. It’s corrupt old French for “look out for the water!” – a euphemism if ever there was one. The use of molten tar to stop an amputated limb from bleeding (talk about a sledgehammer to crack a nut!)  went down well in my Year 7 History class. Miss Edwards was not pleased that we kept going up to ask her about it individually, all wanting to hear the horrible description from her own lips for ourselves.

Need a great fact about the ancient Egyptians? Mummification techniques are always a good starting point: e.g. pulling the brain out through the nose with a gadget  resembling a crochet hook.  (There’s some cross-over for needlework lessons there, too.)

Studying the ancient Romans is always good for a few cries of “Ewww, miss!” with their unendearing habit of eating dormice (how much meat can there be on a dormouse?), as is scraping the previously oiled dirt off a bather’s skin with a tool called a stygil. Would this practice really make a person cleaner rather than dirtier? we wondered. The idea made my class very glad to go home to our suburban baths with our bottles of Matey bubbles.

Roman Baths Aquae Sulis   9

Although my own  school education has itself receded into ancient history, those lessons  “doing” the Romans come back to me vividly on a visit to the wonderful Roman Baths Museum in the ancient city of Bath. In the cool, dark room alongside the series of small plunge pools, I stand reading a notice on the wall: the procedure for taking an ancient Roman-style bath. You disrobe and step into a series of successively hotter baths, before the old oil massage/stygil service is provided by an obliging slave. The final rinse and shine is provided by an optional leap into a cold plunge pool (eek!) To me, it reads like a refresher course: I’ve never forgotten that old school history lesson.

Dozens of overeas tourists pass this notice by unread, but with their audioguide at their ear, they hear the litany of the bath repeated in French, German, Japanese, Dutch.   No-one speaks: the museum is too awesome and this dim and shady atmosphere acts as a further damper on conversation. Unusually, the Roman Baths were also a temple, and the reverential atmosphere of a holy place still hangs over the gently steaming green waters. There’s also a sense of intruding on people’s privacy: images of “real” living Romans going about their bath ritual are projected onto the ancient walls of the place. More than once, I see one out of the corner of my eye and believe a real person is about to plunge into the pools.

Bottle of Matey Bubble Bath (modern packaging)And then I’m struck with a sense of the bizarre. What would the average bathing Roman think if he could see the multi-million,  high-technology tourist attraction that his daily bath venue has now become? I try to think of an equivalent that might remain from 21st century life a thousand years down the line. Certainly not the single, small bath of modern times, generally taken alone. It simply does not measure up, even for the biggest bath addict who plans their ablutions with military precision: entering the bathroom armed with a book to prop up on the bath rack, perfumed bubble bath, scented candle, glass of wine and bar of chocolate. (Or is that just me?) There’s nothing in there to gladden the heart of 22nd century children, no gross rituals to send a ripple of excitement around the History classroom.

Nor is it the socially unifying force of the ancient Romans. The closest thing we have to the Roman Bath House is probably the modern gym. Will the modern obsession for joining a gym in pursuit of physical fitness stand the test of time? (It’s never worked for me, even now.) I suppose it could make an interesting tour:

  • visit the self-torture machines and try to detect what each one is for
  • try to work out why so many people joined the gym each January and never went in other months of the year
  • list gym etiquette tips, such as bringing your own small towel to wipe your sweat off each piece of equipment after use (ok, so that one is slightly gross)
A head of Minerva found in ruins of Roman bath...
The goddess Minerva, found in ruins of Roman baths in Bath, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The lost property book would make no less interesting reading that the tiny scraps of lead that have been fished out of the spring in Bath. These listed the items stolen from people while they bathed and were sued to solicit vengeful curses from the goddess Minerva. This makes for an endearing display, reminding us that these ancient Roman bathers were ordinary people, just like us.

Another interesting exhibit would be the curious snacks and drinks containers obtained from vending machines – and a collection of coins and coin-like tokens found stuck inside them. I can hear the future’s children now: “Did they really drink that bright blue stuff? Did Powerade give them superpowers?”

But sadly there’s nothing there to truly compete with the allure of the ancient Roman baths. I say, bring back the stygil!

If you enjoyed this post, you might like the previous one inspired by the same visit:

New Beginnings and Old Friends in Ancient Cities

Posted in Family, Personal life

And So This is Christmas…

Image via Wikipedia

It’s as if the whole world is on fast forward.  Sitting down to write this month’s column, I can’t help feeling it’s only a week since I sent in the last one.  Getting my daughter ready for her weekly tapdancing class on Tuesday, I had the impression that I’d done the same the day before.   I still have to concentrate when writing a cheque to ensure I don’t date it 2009.

When I was 14 my history teacher, Ms Trebst, explained to the class that one’s concept of time changes with age.  A five year old has to wait 20% of her life from one Christmas to the next, she told us, while for a 50 year old, the interval is just 2%.

We were sceptical.  Ms Trebst had a reputation for getting things wrong.  For a whole lesson, she’d talked to us about “Visgoths” before we pointed out that as it was spelt Visigoths it must be pronounced Vizzy Goths.  “What, like Fuzzy Bear?” she gasped in disbelief, as if this tribe of barbarians couldn’t possibly be called something that sounded a bit cuddly.

Ms Trebst was also renowned for debauched habits. To mark multiple-choice tests , she’d use her cigarette to burn holes in a sheet of A4, making a template for where the right answers should appear on the test paper.  She offered extra marks if we stapled chocolate to our homework.  But at least she marked it properly.  Another teacher failed to spot a cake recipe that my friend had embedded in her essay to test her theory that he graded your homework according to how much he liked you.  She got an A.

But time was on Ms Trebst’s side.  I’ve been around long enough now to know from first-hand experience that  she was right.  I perceive everything to be happening 7 times faster than my daughter does, because the ratio of our ages is currently 1:7.  It must be tough being a new-born baby.  That first day in the big wide world, it must seem literally like a life time between the first feed and the next.  No wonder babies cry so much.

Oh well, better sign off and email this column off before the deadline – then sit down tomorrow to write the next one.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  Of course, it will be over all too quickly, but don’t worry, there’ll be another one along before you know it.

(This post was originally published in the December 2010 edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News.)