Smorgasbord Book Reviews – #History #Reference – A Bit About Britain’s High Days and Holidays by Mike Biles


Today I am reviewing A Bit About Britain’s High Days and Holidays by Mike Biles, the second of Mike’s books that I have reviewed and enjoyed.

About the book

High Days and Holidays are special occasions, celebrations, or commemorations. They occur throughout the year, some wanted, some not, some remembered more than others. In days gone by, the passing year was marked by seasonal or religious feast days of one sort or another; in some respects, they still help define our calendar.

A Bit About Britain’s High Days and Holidays explores a baker’s dozen of Britain’s notable occasions and traditions, from New Year onward, the things we associate with them and the stories behind each one. If you’ve ever wondered who Valentine was, where Christmas crackers come from, or thought about the Easter bunny (and who hasn’t?), A Bit About Britain’s High Days and Holidays is for you. And, whilst this book is not just for Christmas, it does include an A-Z of the festive season. A couple of recipes have been thrown in for good measure too, as well as an agenda for your hosting your very own Burns’ Supper. Oh – and at the end is an extensive list of Britain’s Big Days and events that normally form part of Britain’s Year – through Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.

So, if you’ve ever been baffled as to why some Brits do some of the things they do, or have even questioned why you do them yourself, this little book might help. Occasionally lighthearted, fascinating and useful, once you’ve read it, keep it handy to refer to when needed.

My review for the book 23rd January 2021

This book is not only an entertaining and informative guide to the history of the high days and holidays we celebrate in Britain, but also an excellent reference book for authors and visitors to the country.

Mike Biles has a unique style of delivery that encourages absorption of the facts and myths surrounding days that we often celebrate without much thought behind their origins. Even our Patron Saints of the countries in Britain, have stories that are complicated by legends and embellishments by the ancient storytellers who brought their exploits to our shores.

Visitors from other parts of the world I am sure, find some of our traditions and celebrations bemusing, which is why I recommend this book as a guide to the oddities they might encounter. Also, with a calendar of events throughout the year with descriptions of the proceedings to hand, it makes it much easier to plan a tour to get in touch with the real British traditions.

Authors will find it a great resource when including references to religious, cultural or fixed holidays celebrated throughout the year in their writings. This includes Christmas which has a whole section dedicated to its traditions and foods in a comprehensive A-Z.

I found history pretty heavy going at school, as it always seemed to be date obsessed, with little time spent on the characters involved. In this book, and in A Bit About Britain’s History, It is a completely different story, and I have probably learnt more in a few hours than I did in seven years.

I highly recommend this book to add to your shelves.  You will find yourself dipping in and out of the various sections for a long time to come whenever you have a question about Britain’s history and high days and holidays.

Read the reviews and buy the book: Amazon UK – And: Amazon US

Also by Mike Biles

Read the reviews and buy the books: Amazon UK – And : Amazon US – Follow Mike on : Goodreads – Website: A Bit About Britain – Twitter@bitaboutbritain

Mike Biles has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book.

 

Thanks for visiting today and  I hope you have enjoyed the review and will explore Mike’s books in more detail.. thanks Sally.

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Guest Writer Mike Biles – A Bit About Britain – The A-Z of Christmas in Britain – The Finale –


Judging from the comments you have enjoyed the A – Z of Christmas series from  Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as much as I have. BTW: I can recommend the book as a great gift to any history buffs in the family both in the UK and abroad…and you here is my Review

In Part Three Mike shared the background to Christmas traditions from Holly and Ivy to Sprouts and this week is the grand finale..

The first Christmas card, devised by Sir Henry Cole, drawn by John Horsley

The A-Z of Christmas in Britain – Part Four – St. Boniface to ZZZZZ

St Boniface

St Boniface was born Wynfrid, in Devon, sometime in the late 7th century. By the early 8th century, he was working in Germany, converting the heathen volk to Christianity. The story goes that he came across a group of pagans who were just about to cheerfully celebrate the winter solstice by sacrificing a young man under Odin’s sacred oak. Furious, Boniface picked up an axe and cut down the mighty tree – which was instantly recognised as a divine act demonstrating the power of Boniface’s God over the other ones. The astonished pagans understandably wanted to know what they would do for solstice without their tree. Some say that a fir tree instantly grew where the oak had been, and Boniface urged all to take home one of those; other versions of the story say that a tiny fir tree was already there, a symbol of life growing in the roots of the oak. Thus, it is claimed that Boniface invented the Christmas tree.

Holly and the Ivy, Christmas, Britain

St Nicholas

St Nicholas (who morphed into Santa Claus) is the patron saint of children (as well as of sailors and pawnbrokers). He was a 4th century bishop of Myra in the Byzantine Empire, now in modern Turkey. He is reputed to have worn red robes and to have been renowned for his anonymous generosity. One story is that he had a habit of dropping gold down chimneys; naturally, the gold fell into stockings drying conveniently by the fire. St Nicholas’s feast day is 6 December. According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, it became the custom, on 5 December, for someone “to assume the costume of a bishop and distribute small gifts to good children.”

Stir-up Sunday

Stir-up Sunday is the Sunday before Advent. People who are more concerned with puddings than their souls believe this is when Christmas puddings and mince meat should be made – and everyone in the family should have a go at stirring in the ingredients. That might make good sense, but it actually comes from the service for the day in the  Book of Common Prayer, which says, “Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Turkey

Turkeys – the birds – are native to North America and Mexico. It is said they became popular at Christmas because they provided plenty of lean meat – and for Thanksgiving in the US because they were in plentiful supply. They got their name – allegedly – because we Brits confused them with guinea-fowl, which were imported through Turkey. It could have been worse; we could have called them after Galloping Bottom in Somerset. See Christmas dinner.

Twelfth night, Twelve Days of Christmas

There’s a bit of confusion about this. If Christmas Day is the first day of Christmas (which makes sense), then twelfth night is 5 January. But some maintain that the twelve days of Christmas begin on Boxing Day and end on 6 January, which is twelfth night. 6 January is the Christian festival of Epiphany, traditionally marking the arrival of the magi, or three kings, at Bethlehem. The Epiphany meant that the person of Christ was revealed, or manifested, to the magi; today, we use the word in the sense of meaning a great revelation.

Twelfth night used to mark the end of winter and be a time of very great celebration and feasting. It still is in some countries, but it has largely fallen into disuse in Britain and many of its traditions – like Christmas cake – have transferred to Christmas Day. A Twelfth Cake was eaten at a Twelfth night party and was originally an iced and decorated heavy fruit dough.

A variety of explanations are given for the origins of the song, ‘The Twelve days of Christmas’. It dates from at least the 18th century, it’s probable that some meaning was attached to each of the gifts – and there are different versions of these. Twelfth Night used to be a time for exchanging presents, so perhaps the song is a folk memory of this practice.

Perhaps most people remember twelfth night as the day when the decorations are meant to come down.

Wassailing

Wassail was (and still could be) a mulled ale made with a variety of ingredients, including curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and honey. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon wes hael, meaning ‘be in good health’ and the practice of drinking wassail from a special cup or bowl to mark the New Year is said to have begun in those pre-Conquest times. Over the centuries, it evolved into a tradition to go ‘wassailing’ – essentially, it seems, going from house to house, singing, and getting more and more drunk as the night wore on. Ridiculous. At some point It became a tradition particularly associated with Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night. These days, it’s called carol-singing.

Wenceslas

Who was Good King Wenceslas? Wenceslas was a 10th century Duke of Bohemia known as Vaclav the Good, who was martyred after being assassinated by his nasty pagan brother, Boleslaw the Bad. Wenceslas’s remains are interred in St Vitus’s cathedral in Prague and he is patron saint of the Czech Republic.

The carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ was written in Sackville College, East Grinstead, by its warden John Mason Neale (1818 – 1866) and first published in 1853. The tune is actually a spring hymn, Tempus Adest Floridum (it is time for flowering) published in Finland (at that time part of Sweden) in 1582.

Dreaming of a White Christmas

White Christmas

It’s all very well old Bing warbling on, as he does every year, about dreaming of a white Christmas; the chances of snow at Christmas in Britain are fairly remote. And that’s even allowing for the Met Office’s extremely broad definition “for one snowflake to be observed falling in the 24 hours of 25 December somewhere in the UK.” In Britain, snow is more likely in January or February. So what’s with all the business of snow, sleighs and all the other arctic paraphernalia? Well, it’s because two things came together. Firstly, from the mid 16th to the late 19th century, the whole world was colder than it is now; it was a period known as ‘the little Ice Age’. Secondly, this coincided with a revival of the Christmas feast – some might say even the creation of much of the Christmas we know – in the Victorian age. So writers like Dickens, and illustrators, would have been quite used to experiencing snow over Christmas – and therefore that was the way it was portrayed.

Will it be a white Christmas?The UK Met Office

Xmas

Xmas is simply an abbreviation for Christmas using the Greek letter chi (pronounced ‘kye’), which looks like an Χ and is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Khristos. The early church used the first two letters of Khristos in the Greek alphabet ‘chi‘ and ‘rho‘ to create a symbol representing the name of Christ, or Jesus.

It is not correct to say ‘Ex-mas’ – you should say ‘Christmas’.

Chi Rho symbol

Yule and the Yule log

Yule is an ancient celebration of the winter solstice, from late December to the New Year, and is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. The word is older than Christianity; it comes to us from the Anglo-Saxon géol and the Old Norse jól, but its ultimate origin is unknown. In modern Britain, Yule, or Yuletide, is still used as a term to describe the festive season.

The Yule log was a carefully selected log, or tree trunk, that was lit from the burnt stump of the previous year’s log – which had been carefully stored. So there was continuity from one year to the next. It was important to keep the Yule log burning for 12 days (the twelve days of Christmas?) through the shortest, dark, nights of winter. The custom is common, with variations and using different woods, throughout northern Europe.

However, today’s Yule log, more often than not, is a chocolate-covered sponge cake.

Zzzz

I can’t think of a particularly festive Z, but Zzzz is similar to the noise I often make while snoozing after Christmas dinner. Merry Christmas!

My thanks to Mike for sharing his A-Z of Christmas and you can find all these posts together on one page on his blog as a handy reference and to share: Bit about Britain – Christmas A – Z

About A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.

Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?

A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.

What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?

Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.

A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading

One of the recent reviews for the book

Brilliant comprehensive coverage of Britain’s past. Everything you learned at school and forgot and much more in a very readable entertaining form. Recommended for anyone interested in Britain’s fascinating history.

Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: Amazon UK

And on Amazon US: Amazon US

Follow Mike on : Goodreads

About Mike Biles

Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.

Connect to Mike Biles and explore his wonderful archives

Website home pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitterhttps://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinteresthttps://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/

Thank you for dropping in today and I know Mike would love your feedback – thanks Sally.

 

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Guest Writer Mike Biles – A Bit About Britain – The A-Z of Christmas in Britain – Part Three – Holly and Ivy to Sprouts


Delighted to welcome Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as a guest writer until the end of the year. And up to Christmas, Mike will be sharing the background some of the Christmas traditions we enjoy in Britain in his A – Z.

BTW: I can recommend the book as a great gift to any history buffs in the family both in the UK and abroad…and you here is my Review

In Part Two of the Christmas A – Z Mike shared the traditions behind Christmas Dinner to Figgy Pudding.

Christmas, Britain

The A-Z of Christmas in Britain – Part Three – Holly and Ivy to Sprouts

Holly and ivy

Here again we are reminded of the ancient rites we celebrate each Christmas. Holly was used by the Romans to decorate their homes during Saturnalia, and they would send sprigs to friends to wish them health and well-being. Ivy has been regarded as a symbol of everlasting life for centuries and was sacred to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, and Osiris, the Egyptian judge of the dead. Some associate holly with male and ivy with female; some with Jesus and Mary. Christians have also associated holly with the crown of thorns that Christ wore on the cross, with the bright red berries representing drops of blood.

Some believe that ivy should not be used inside the house for decoration – and I have certainly never seen it, though Christmas would not be the same without some holly about the place (not before Christmas Eve, though). The carol, ‘the Holly and the Ivy’, is an old folk hymn – and I have to say that it always sounds very ancient, almost pagan, to me; something about the rising of the sun and the running of the deer…

Merry Christmas

We can say ‘Happy Christmas’ or ‘Merry Christmas’ – but we don’t say ‘Merry Birthday’, or Merry Anniversary’ (etc). Does this suggest we don’t want people to be joyous on their birthdays? I haven’t found a satisfactory explanation for this – not one that doesn’t ramble, anyway. ‘Merry’ is an older word than ‘happy’ and used to mean ‘favourable, pleasant’. ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ (note the comma) is an old carol and the phrase means something like, ‘stay well, chaps’. Merry Christmas was used extensively in Victorian Britain – the first Christmas card said, ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.’ But by this time, the meaning of ‘merry’ had changed to ‘mirthful’ – and could also mean ‘slightly tipsy’. So the temperance brigade may have preferred to use ‘happy’. My own fudge on the subject is that it’s generally bad English to use the same adjective twice in the same sentence, so if you are wishing someone seasonal greetings for Christmas and the New Year you have to choose a different one for each; and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year sounds better than Happy Christmas and Merry New Year, even though either would be appropriate.

Mince Pies, Christmas, Britain

Mince pies

There’s a theory that eating a mince pie every day over the Christmas period is good for you.

Mince pies are small round pies with a sweet filling of mincemeat, not – as you may imagine – mincemeat. The mincemeat that goes into mince pies is a mixture of currants, raisins, candied peel, apple, spices, brandy, suet and sugar. The meat component was dropped a long time ago. Originally, mince pies were emblematical of the manger in which Jesus lay, and were shaped accordingly; they became round, allegedly, because the puritans disliked the symbolism.

Mistletoe

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on the branches of deciduous host trees, including oak, apple and birch. The European variety has pale green foliage, long, oval, leaves and clusters of milky-white berries. The Christmas tradition is to hang up a sprig or two and, should a woman stand underneath then a man may kiss her. The mistletoe must never touch the ground, for that brings bad luck. In days gone by, a berry had to be plucked for each kiss and, when no berries were left there could be no more kissing. In these less wasteful times, though, the berries are left on for as long as possible; a wonderful ice-breaker.

The Druids who practised their religion in these islands before the Romans came believed that mistletoe was sacred and had magical, healing, properties. Apparently, it really does – though, confusingly, the berries can be deadly poisonous, so do not eat them. There is, inevitably, an association with fertility; it has even been suggested that the berries were associated with semen. It’s anyone’s guess how the kissing started, though…

Legend has it that the god Balder, son of Odin and Frigg, was killed by a mistletoe arrow given to his blind brother, Hoder, by Loki, the god of mischief. Balder was restored to life but Frigg determined that mistletoe should never again be an instrument of evil, until it touched the earth.

The name mistletoe comes from the Anglo Saxon word for dung, mistel, and twig, tan, reflecting the observation that the plant is propagated by birds eating the berries and depositing their waste on the branches of trees.

Nativity plays

A Nativity play (from the Latin nātīvitas, meaning birth) tells the story of the birth of Jesus and is a common feature of any decent primary school’s Christmas calendar. It usually features the shepherds, wise men, the fully booked innkeeper and a cast of animals ranging from the donkey to sheep and cows. In the 2003 film, ‘Love Actually’, they even remembered the Christmas lobster and octopus, which some versions of the Gospels omit to mention. It’s a wonderful opportunity for kids to perform, and all to be involved, though competition for the parts of Joseph and Mary can be fierce. I remember being intensely jealous of the toe-rag that got to hold Mary’s hand and was only slightly mollified by winning the coveted role of 2nd Centurion.

Legend has it that the first Nativity play was performed by St Francis of Assisi, in a one-man show to bring the story to life for people who could not read or write.

Nine lessons and carols

The carol service we are most familiar with today, the ‘Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’, which tells the story of the Nativity interspersed with Christmas carols, was the creation of Edward White Benson (1829-1896), in 1880 when he was the first Bishop of Truro and Truro Cathedral was little more than a wooden shed. Benson went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury. The best-known form of that service was adapted by Eric Milner-White (1884-1963) at King’s College, Cambridge, and was first held on Christmas Eve in 1918. It is now broadcast around the world every Christmas. For more about this, see Kings and Carols

Kings College, Carols, Christmas Eve

Noël

Noël is simply French for Christmas, derived from the Latin natalis (dies) birth (day).

North Pole

We’re not really sure where Father Christmas (aka Santa Claus etc) lives, but a 19th century American cartoonist, Thomas Nast, suggested it might be the North Pole. No one knows where Thomas got his inside information from, but he possibly reached this conclusion from the knowledge that Santa’s reindeer lived somewhere northern and very cold, coupled with the fact that the North Pole is nicely remote and receives few visitors.

Pantomime

Pantomime is a uniquely British – some might even say English – form of seasonal entertainment. Based on a simple plot in which the goodies always win, such as a fairy story like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ or ‘Cinderella’, it relies on skilful ham acting, audience participation, bad – and often topical – jokes, a bit of slap-stick and some singing and dancing. There are a few other essential ingredients: firstly, a pantomime dame, always played by a man, and a principle boy, always played by a girl. Those who don’t know any better suggest this is cross-dressing; it is not; the dame is meant to be a parody of a woman and the boy normally looks exactly like a girl. There has to be an outrageous villain, who attracts boos and hisses whenever s/he enters the stage. A fairy godmother is always useful to have around and, if animals are involved (including horses and cows), they have to be played by humans. Though pantos are primarily aimed at children, good ones operate on two levels; we Brits love our double entendre.

Any town desirous of Christmas credibility will have a pantomime running over the festive period (to make up for Parliament being in recess?) and the cast often includes celebrities as well as classic actors. But you’ll come across amateur productions almost anywhere. Oh yes you will.

The history of pantomime can be traced back to a form of Roman theatre with mime, which evolved into Italian and French street theatre that involved stock characters: the heroine, Columbine, the old man, Pantalone, and the clown, Pierrot. Crossing the Channel, this became more outrageous and bawdy and then received an injection of British music hall.

Queen’s Speech

The Royal Christmas broadcast is an intrinsic part of Christmas for many in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. The first Royal Christmas broadcast was in 1932, when King George V spoke on the ‘wireless’ to the Empire from a small office at Sandringham. George VI carried on the practice, delivering a Christmas message every year from 1939, through the war years, until his death in 1951. Our current queen, Elizabeth II, has broadcast every year except 1969, and the broadcast has been televised since 1957. As well as reflecting on Christmas, the Queen mentions global, national and personal events which have affected her and her audience over the year. It’s usually at 3pm on Christmas Day, by the way.

Some foreign chappie wrote that some Brits – especially older ones – stand while this is going on and even remove their hats. Well, the things you learn about yourself and your country from the Internet…but I can’t stop to natter – I feel a genuflection coming on.

Robins

Why do robins feature so much at Christmas? The short answer is we don’t know. The usual explanation is that the robin, Britain’s national bird and a bold little thing, is often seen during winter looking for food – and the red breast makes the cheeky chap stand out, particularly against the snow. Now, I’m no ornithologist, but as someone who has turned the odd spade in my time, I reckon robins are ubiquitous all year round.

Some will tell you that robins became associated with red-coated Victorian postmen (nicknamed ‘robins’), who brought the Christmas post. Robins were even depicted delivering Christmas cards. Others suggest that a robin protected the baby Jesus from the glowing fire in the stable (I didn’t know there was one, did you?) – thus gaining its red breast from the heat. Another tale is that as Christ was on the way to His crucifixion and was, mockingly, given a crown of thorns, a robin plucked one thorn that had bitten deeply into Christ’s head and, as it did so, a drop of Christ’s blood stained its breast. Or it could just be that red, along with green, is one of the colours of Christmas.

Christmas, Britain, a Christmas Carol

Scrooge

See ‘A Christmas Carol’. The name of Dickens’ main character in ‘A Christmas Carol’ is now in the dictionary, meaning someone who is tight with money, or miserly. It is thought the name may have came from an archaic verb, ‘scrouge’, meaning to squeeze or to press. But I think ‘Scrooge’ is almost onomatopoeic anyway.

Sprouts

The sprout – Brussels sprouts – seem to be an essential part of the British Christmas meal. They are really mini-cabbages. And, like Marmite, you either love ‘em or detest ‘em. I’m in the latter camp and can’t figure out why they are foisted upon us at what is otherwise a reasonably joyous time of year. They smell awful, taste worse and have predictably unpleasant side-effects. Unfortunately, they are very good for you; a single sprout contains more vitamin C than an orange. They originated in the Mediterranean, but are easily grown in northern Europe, became popular in the low countries (hence the name) and common in Britain in the 19th century, when people didn’t know any better. The only explanation I can find for the inclusion of this hideous vegetable in our Christmas feast (other than the plot to get me) is seasonal availability.

©Mike Biles 2019

My thanks to Mike for sharing his A-Z of Christmas and next week we will continue the series with more traditions, legends and food.

A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.

About the book

Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?

A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.

What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?

Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.

A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading

One of the recent reviews for the book

I took my time reading this one because I loved the way the author wove the facts into a highly enjoyable narrative. What amazed me was how the author could start at pre-historic times and carry the reader forward to present day in such a brief book, yet cover the essentials and connect the complicated factors behind so much of that history.

The touches of a Bill Bryson wit was just enough to amuse me while I pondered the reality of “One Damned War After Another” It was a book I looked forward to returning to each night.

I’m keeping this one on my kindle so I can refer to the amazing Timeline included at the end of the book.

Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: Amazon UK

And on Amazon US: Amazon US

Follow Mike on : Goodreads

About Mike Biles

Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.

Connect to Mike Biles and explore his wonderful archives

Website home pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitterhttps://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinteresthttps://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/

Thank you for dropping in today and I know Mike would love your feedback – More Christmas A-Z next Saturday – thanks Sally.

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Guest Writer Mike Biles – A Bit About Britain – The A-Z of Christmas in Britain Part Two – Christmas Dinner to Figgy Pudding


Delighted to welcome Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as a guest writer until the end of the year. And for the next four weeks, Mike will be sharing the background some of the Christmas traditions we enjoy in Britain in his A – Z.

BTW: I can recommend the book as a great gift to any history buffs in the family both in the UK and abroad…and you here is my Review

Last week in Part One Mike shared the traditions behind the advent calendar through to Christmas Decorations……

Christmas, Britain

The A-Z of Christmas in Britain Part Two – Christmas Dinner to Figgy Pudding

Christmas, Britain, Christmas dinner

Christmas dinner

There’s a fallacy, maybe two, regarding the British Christmas dinner. Firstly, it is often not eaten at dinner time, but during some period in the afternoon between lunch and dinner. That said, the timing is fairly relaxed, in my experience; and quite right too; who am I to remind cook that it’s long past the Queen’s Speech when she’s overdone the port and lemon? Secondly, you will see reference in restaurants and such to ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner ‘with all the trimmings’; this usually means roast turkey with stuffing, ham, bacon-wrapped cocktail sausages (pigs in blankets), cranberry sauce, bread sauce (maybe), boiled vegetables (typically Brussels sprouts and carrots), roast potatoes and parsnips and gravy. It is usually followed by Christmas pudding, served with cream, custard, or brandy butter. I suppose it depends on when something starts becoming ‘traditional’ – and I’m probably being picky – but the popularity of turkey at Christmas is relatively recent; I mean, the creature isn’t even native to these islands. I’m ambivalent about turkey myself; and, anyway, who likes ugly birds?

And another thing; while the origins of Christmas pudding are medieval, brandy butter seems to be a 20th century creation, though rum butter, originating in Cumbria, was around in Victorian times. I suppose you could argue – with some justification – that potatoes aren’t traditional, either; like the turkey (and cranberries and tobacco), they were brought back from the New World.

It’s a personal thing, but I think the only way to eat Christmas pudding is with custard or ice cream. While I’m about it, I would not expect to see Yorkshire pudding served with turkey, as you see advertised on some menus; in my view, it should only be served with roast beef, or on its own with gravy.

Interestingly, there is no ‘traditional’ starter (aka ‘entrée) on the British Christmas menu. In fact, there is no hard and fast rule about a British Christmas meal at all, really – though you’ll often find an alcohol-laden trifle offered as an alternative to the Christmas pudding.

The point is, of course, that traditionally Christmas was simply a time of feasting for those that could afford it. And those that could, would dine on a variety of dishes; peacock, swan and boar were all widely popular with the idle rich in medieval Britain. Henry VIII is reputed to be the first monarch to gobble turkey, but up to the Victorian era, and before the turkey take-over, the roast of choice was goose.

Christmas is coming,
The goose is getting fat;
Please put a penny
In the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t got a ha’penny
God bless you.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve is big news in some countries; less so in Britain, where it is simply the day before Christmas. For the healthily disorganised, it is a time for last-minute shopping and preparation – though many shops and businesses close early.

Even if the Christmas decorations have been completed long before, it is considered unlucky to bring greenery – like holly and mistletoe – into the house before Christmas Eve. My dad used to say that was because It meant that the berries stayed on longer and if I trod one into the carpet it would be very unlucky for me indeed.

Christmas Eve might be a time for carol singing for some and many, even if they are not regular church-goers, will attend midnight mass (which rarely starts at midnight). In recent years, since the 1960s, ‘Christingle’ services for children have become popular on Christmas Eve. This is an import from the Moravian church. The children make ‘Christingles’, which are decorated oranges, representing the world. A piece of red ribbon tied around the orange symbolises the blood of Jesus, four cocktail sticks stuck into the orange represent the four seasons and sweets skewered by the sticks represent the fruits of the earth. To round it all off, a small candle inserted into the top of the orange symbolises the light of Jesus. Yes, well.

Christmas Eve is also the time to put out stockings (or maybe pillow cases) just in case Father Christmas decides to drop in. He will only visit if there are good children in the house, and then he might climb down the chimney and leave a present or two. It’s a tad awkward if you don’t have a chimney. However, It helps things along no end if you leave a mince pie and a glass of whisky out for him (Father Christmas is not subject to drink-drive legislation). If you’re feeling especially kind, a carrot and a bowl of water will be appreciated by the reindeer.

Christmas fairy

The Christmas fairy is a mysterious figure, often represented by a doll on top of the Christmas tree – though some believe it’s really an angel. Most people in Britain probably don’t think about it much, but fairies are not always benevolent creatures, and are sometimes quite frightening – though we have become used to the idea of a good fairy granting wishes and being a generally helpful kind of soul. Angels, of course, are normally male figures – and also quite frightening; the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary and told her that she would give birth to the son of God. Somewhere along the way, fairies and angels have got mixed up, so you had better check yours carefully; angels don’t carry wands.

At one time, people used to put a figure representing baby Jesus on top of their tree. Maybe it’s better to put a star there, representing the light that guided the wise men.

Christmas jumpers, Christmas, BritainChristmas jumpers

To be fair, Britain has often flirted with dodgy pullovers. Think of those naff little short-sleeve things you see in photographs of the 40s and 50s, the dreadful ‘tank-tops’ of the 70s and the infiltration of Fair Isle in the 80s. A Bit About Britain is not the kind of place to come for a fashion consultation, but even we know it wouldn’t be fair to entirely blame fireside crooners, skiers and golfers for every piece of hideous knitwear you’ve ever seen.

Which brings us to the Christmas jumper. Always a favourite unwanted gift, the 21st century Christmas jumper is in a class of its own. Indeed, this woolly wonder has gone beyond discomforting geometric patterns and embraced kitsch to an extreme that only those who think it’s tasteful to festoon their houses with illuminated inflatable nativity scenes can aspire to. The difference, of course, is that the Christmas jumper is meant to be ironic. What some experts believe began in 2001 in the UK, when Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) met Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) sporting a large reindeer head on his roll-neck, has evolved to a really ridiculous degree in which garish vulgarity is the new cool at Yule. Attach a few bells and lights, and it is possible to compete with your friends for wearing the most over the top jumper at the Christmas party. With the addition of a compact power supply and a mobile application, who knows where it will end?

Christmas movies

There have been Christmas movies ever since there has been a movie industry. But, notwithstanding a few classics, it probably took the explosion of video and DVD to bring the genre into everybody’s home. Most Christmas movies are American (I was practically weaned on Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’), a reflection of Hollywood’s worldwide dominance; but we Brits have produced a few corkers – such as, ‘Scrooge’, ‘the Snowman’ and ‘Love Actually’. Personally, I’m a sucker for a good Christmas movie and I’d far rather watch a timeless classic than some of the rubbish that’s dished up on TV over the festering season. It just hasn’t been the same since they stopped doing the ‘Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show’. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is A Bit About Britain’s top ten favourite

Christmas movies:

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
  2. Scrooge (1951)
  3. Love Actually (2003)
  4. White Christmas (1954)
  5. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
  6. The Snowman (1982)
  7. Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)
  8. The Holiday (2006)
  9. Home Alone (1990)
  10. Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Christmas music

Music is huge part of Christmas – not just carols, but popular, festive, numbers too. These seem to drift, uninvited and unwelcome, into my consciousness sometime in October; personally, I think it should be illegal to play Christmas music before December. At one time, every major star, including Paul McCartney and Elton John, were scattering bells through their festive offerings and, even in this digital download age, there’s still tremendous competition for the Christmas No 1. Britain’s best-selling Christmas No 1 of all time (so far) is Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (1984). A Bit about Britain dusts off its collection about a fortnight before the Big Day and the top ten is:

  1. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland (1944)
  2. Fairytale of New York – the Pogues with Kirsty MacColl (1988)
  3. Happy Xmas (War is Over) – John & Yoko (1971)
  4. Merry Christmas Everybody – Slade (1973)
  5. The Christmas Song – Nat King Cole (1961)
  6. Christmas Wrapping – the Waitresses (1981)
  7. Santa Baby – Eartha Kit (1953)
  8. I Believe in Father Christmas – Greg Lake (1975)
  9. White Christmas – Bing Crosby (1942)
  10. Run Rudolph Run – Chuck Berry (1958)

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye courtesy of andrew67ist

Christmas presents

Received wisdom is that giving and receiving presents at Christmas reminds us of the presents given to Jesus by the wise men. Working in the UAE one year, I was tickled to bring back some frankincense and myrrh from the spice souk, which I boxed up, wrapped in gold paper and gave to the memsahib. In fact, the business of exchanging gifts on Christmas Day is a relatively recent phenomenon; traditionally, gifts of produce were given at New Year – and the Christmas Box (see Boxing Day) was distributed the day after Christmas. However, the practice of buying and exchanging Christmas presents really took off in industrial and Victorian Britain, particularly in the latter part of the 19th century with the development of department stores.

Despite what you may read, there is no established custom and practice in Britain regarding when Christmas gifts should be exchanged. Certainly, younger children are generally allowed to see if Father Christmas has visited as early as mum and dad will allow; but, beyond that, it really is a matter of family tradition and personal choice.

Christmas, Britain

Christmas pudding

Christmas pudding is served on Christmas Day. Its ingredients vary slightly from recipe to recipe, but generally include suet, flour, breadcrumbs, brown sugar, eggs, dried and fresh fruit, ginger, spices, treacle and brandy. It is boiled and keeps for months and months…

Once upon a time, people used to eat a kind of porridge, or pottage, (a sort of soup or stew simmered for a long time) on Christmas Eve. It was eaten to line the stomach after fasting for the day, which was customary on Christmas Eve – ‘the Vigil’ as it was once known. This pottage was called ‘frumenty’ and was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, plums (prunes), wines and spices. Over time, more ingredients were added – eggs and breadcrumbs, which made it more pudding-like – and ale, spirits and more dried fruit was put in to increase the flavour. By the late 16th – mid-17th century, it was a boiled Christmas dessert known as plum pudding – though the republican government of Oliver Cromwell decided it was not fit for God-fearing folk and it took George I to rediscover it. Somewhere along the way, the meat was dropped.

The first reference to Christmas pudding comes in the 1840s (Dickens mentions it in ‘Christmas Carol’). By this time, it was usual to roll all the ingredients into a large ball and wrap it in a hessian cloth to keep everything together while it was boiled. Hence, many early pictures of Christmas pudding show it as a round ball. Some Victorians, though, made their Christmas puddings in elaborate moulds. These days, most of them are pudding-basin shape.”

It is customary to put a sprig of holly on top of the Christmas pudding before serving, then drizzle some brandy over the top, light it, and carry the flaming pudding into the room. Another tradition is to place silver coins in the pudding mix (wrapped in greaseproof paper), which are considered lucky and kept by whoever receives them in their serving. In pre-decimal times, silver threepenny pieces were used, then sixpences; these days, the closest equivalent is a 5p piece.

Christmas tree

The Christmas tree is descended from the Scandinavian “Yggdrasil, the Tree of Time, whose roots penetrate to heaven, Niffheim and Ginnungagap (the gap of gaps). In Ginnungagap the frost giants dwell, in Niffheim is the great serpent Nidhögg; and under this root is Helheim, the home of the dead”. [Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable].

According to some, the use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolise eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Some trees were sacred to pre-Christian European peoples and survived the arrival of Christianity in the Germanic-Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens to scare away the Devil. It also reminded them of spring.

The modern Christmas tree is generally thought to have originated in western Germany – though, allegedly, the first documented Christmas tree was in 1440, in Tallinn, Estonia. Back to medieval Germany, where a popular play around Christmas was about Adam and Eve (Christmas Eve is regarded by some as Adam and Eve Day). A central prop to the performance was a fir tree hung with apples representing the Garden of Eden, and known as a ‘paradise tree’. This began appearing in people’s homes, where it would be decorated.

Most people think that the idea of the Christmas tree was brought to Britain by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert (of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha). He certainly helped to popularise it, but the first tree in Britain was ordered by George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte (of Mecklenburg-Strelitz) in the 1790s.

Christmas in Britain

Father Christmas

Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, Kris Kringle, or whatever you want to call him, is the personification of Christmas for many people. He is an intriguing figure and a fusion of fact and faction.

St Nicholas, who became ‘Santa Claus’, was a real person. He was a 4th century bishop of Myra in the Byzantine Empire (now in modern Turkey), is reputed to have worn red robes and renowned for his anonymous generosity. One story has him dropping coins down chimneys, where they popped into stockings drying by the fire. In pagan times, a ‘King Winter’ figure would have had a central role in festivities; and then there was the Norman red-robed ‘Lord of Misrule’, whose job was to ensure the Christmas party went with a swing. In Reformation Britain, saints were not universally popular and the less Catholic figure of Father Christmas evolved. He, in turn, was deemed too ‘Popish’ during the years of the Republic Commonwealth (1649-1660) – though joy made a come-back after the restoration of the monarchy. Father Christmas has had a variety of robes too – sometimes green, sometimes tan. However, many believe that our 21st century perception of Santa Claus, complete with reindeer and an arrival on Christmas Eve, derives from the poem ‘A Visit From St Nicholas’ (‘T’was the night before Christmas’) published as recently as 1823 and generally attributed to the American Clement Clarke Moore.

The Yule Swain is a kind of Santa Claus in Lapland. He rides a goat, is eleven feet high, appears on St Thomas’s Day (the Winter Solstice) and disappears on Christmas Eve. No one knows where he comes from, or where he goes.

Feast of Stephen

St Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death in around 34 AD and his feast day is 26 December.

Figgy pudding

Figgy pudding is a Christmas pudding made with figs. Surprise, surpise. It is a discrete recipe, though, which any householder will find in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861.

©Mike Biles 2019

My thanks to Mike for sharing his A-Z of Christmas and next week we will continue the series with more traditions, trivia and food.

A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.

About the book

Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?

A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.

What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?

Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.

A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading

One of the recent reviews for the book

I took my time reading this one because I loved the way the author wove the facts into a highly enjoyable narrative. What amazed me was how the author could start at pre-historic times and carry the reader forward to present day in such a brief book, yet cover the essentials and connect the complicated factors behind so much of that history.

The touches of a Bill Bryson wit was just enough to amuse me while I pondered the reality of “One Damned War After Another” It was a book I looked forward to returning to each night.

I’m keeping this one on my kindle so I can refer to the amazing Timeline included at the end of the book.

Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: Amazon UK

And on Amazon US: Amazon US

Follow Mike on : Goodreads

About Mike Biles

Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.

Connect to Mike Biles and explore his wonderful archives

Website home pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitterhttps://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinteresthttps://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/

Thank you for dropping in today and I know Mike would love your feedback – More Christmas A-Z next Saturday – thanks Sally.

 

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Guest Writer Mike Biles – A Bit About Britain – The A-Z of Christmas in Britain Part One


Delighted to welcome Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as a guest writer until the end of the year. And for the next four weeks, Mike will be sharing the background some of the Christmas traditions we enjoy in Britain in his A – Z.

BTW: I can recommend the book as a great gift to any history buffs in the family both in the UK and abroad…and you here is my Review

Christmas, Britain

The A-Z of Christmas in Britain Part One

Of course, Christmas is Christmas and the basics are ubiquitous in any country with a Christian tradition. That said, everybody celebrates it, if they celebrate it at all, in their own way. Each family seems to have its own traditions, which change over time and as people come and go. Each country has its own unique foibles as well; and, like it or not, Christmas is an ever-changing feast (it always has been). Anyway, this brief guide will help you understand the basics of Christmas in Britain – if you’re visiting or if, like me, you’ve lived here all your life and are still confused.

If you do not like Christmas, do not waste your time reading any further…

A Christmas Carol

‘A Christmas Carol’ is a short tale, a novella, written by Charles Dickens (1812-70). It was first published in December 1843 and only took the author about six weeks to produce. The story introduces us to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter, anti-Christmas, miser, who one Christmas Eve is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley’s Ghost tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits. Much to Scrooge’s dismay, the spirits – in turn, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to come – do pay a visit. As a result, Scrooge is transformed into a kind benefactor. It is a wonderfully uplifting tale that, personally, I never tire of hearing. There have been numerous film and TV versions, many of them excruciatingly awful; but the very best of all has to be the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim.

Advent calendar

Advent is the period before Christmas in the Christian calendar, commencing on the 4th Sunday before Christmas. An advent calendar simply counts down 24 days to Christmas, often in the form of a festive scene printed on cardboard, and with a little numbered door to be opened each day to reveal a chocolate and appropriate illustration beneath. Advent candles are fairly common too, with rings numbered 1 to 24. Advent calendars are not unique to Britain and originated in Germany, where Protestants counted down the days to Weihnachten by leaving chalk marks on walls, burning candles or, later, by hanging up little symbols or images each day. The first-known advent calendars as we would recognise them were carved of wood in the 19th century; by the 20th century they were printed on card; the doors arrived in the 1920s and chocolates in the 1950s. When I was growing up, hundreds of years ago, we had a beautiful advent calendar made of cardboard that would be unpacked and re-used every year; every day, a door would be opened to reveal a little biblical scene beneath.

Bah! Humbug!

This, normally ironic, expression of disgust comes to us courtesy of Ebenezer Scrooge who trots it out when his nephew wishes him “Merry Christmas”. ‘Bah!’, an expression of contempt, is thought to be French in origin. I once experienced a French mechanic who did a magnificent ‘Pah!’ of disgust at the intricacies of my old Saab. The origin of ‘Humbug’, a noun meaning fraud, sham, deception or imposter, is unknown, but dates from the 18th century. One theory is that it derives from the Italian uomo bugiardo, a lying man. See ‘A Christmas Carol’

Boxing Day

Boxing Day is the day after Christmas Day and a public holiday. In days long gone, boxes were placed in churches to collect money for the poor and needy. Heads of houses would give small sums to their underlings to put in the box. The boxes were opened by priests on Christmas Day and the contents distributed next day. It was called the ‘dole of the Christmas box’, or the ‘box money’. Later, apprentices would carry a box round to their masters’ customers to gather gratuities and it became a tradition to give ‘a Christmas box’ – what would now be simply called ‘a tip’ – to those who provided a regular service over the year, such as postmen, dustmen, milkmen, newspaper boys, corrupt politicians and so on. Some people referred to Christmas presents as ‘the Christmas box’ well into the late 20th century.

Candles

Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without the festive fragrance of paraffin, mingled with cheap, sweet, chemicals, in a scented candle. Lanterns or candles were used in ancient winter solstice celebrations as a reminder of light in the darkness and the coming spring, as well as by Christians. Romans gave gifts of white candles as part of their celebration of Saturnalia. Jesus described himself as ‘the Light of the World’ (for example, John 8:12 “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”). He is also quoted using the expression elsewhere.

Candles of course were a main source of light in pre-electric homes and small candles were used to decorate Christmas trees, despite the risk of fire.

Charles Dickens

We often speak of a ‘Dickensian’, or ‘Victorian’, Christmas. Much of our Christmas iconography – cute, snow-covered streets with comfortable looking bow windows, a group of Victorian-clad carol-singers, whiskered gents in top hats, ice-skaters – belongs to this period. We owe some of this to Charles John Huffam Dickens, not just through ‘A Christmas Carol’, but his other writings too. The Victorians helped revive a flagging Christmas, at a time when few were in a position to have a particularly happy one. Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 at Landport, Portsmouth, Hampshire and died on 9 June 1870 at his home, Gad’s Hill Place, in Higham, Kent. Places associated with him, like the Dickens Museum in London, and Portsmouth, often stage Dickens themed festive events.

Sally here: Portsmouth is my home town and the Historic Dockyard is fantastic all year round, but especially during their Victorian Christmas Festival.. and here is a short video featuring Scrooge…courtesy of PortsHistDockyard

Christmas bells

It’s impossible to avoid bells at Christmas – and who wants to, anyway? Church bells ring out, hand-bells are rung by choirs or in market-places – and, of course, sleigh bells jingle enticingly, but elusively, in the night sky. The song, Jingle-Bells, was written by American James Lord Pierpont and originally published in 1857 as a song for Thanksgiving entitled ‘One Horse Open Sleigh’.

Christmas, Britain, Christmas cake

Christmas Cake

A British Christmas cake is normally a fairly heavy, moist, spiced fruit cake, covered in marzipan, then iced and decorated. It should be made about six weeks in advance and regularly ‘fed’ with a spirit – usually brandy – to add flavour and keep it moist. The marzipan coating comes later and, in my experience, it’s often not iced and decorated until Christmas Eve. The decorations often include little model figures – Father Christmas, a robin, snowman, Christmas tree; maybe even a penguin. What?! – you’ve never heard of the Christmas penguin??

There are regional variations – Welsh, Scottish and English Christmas cakes are all slightly different. In Yorkshire, and to some extent Lancashire, it’s considered quite normal to eat Christmas cake with cheese.

Christmas cake and Christmas pudding share a common origin, a kind of fruity porridge called frumenty, eaten on Christmas Eves long ago. By the 16th century, it became popular to take out the oatmeal, add flour and eggs, and boil the mixture for a cake to be eaten at Easter. The story goes that dried fruit and spices from the east were added to make a special cake to be eaten on Twelfth Night, a traditional time of feasting. Only larger house with ovens baked cakes, though; elsewhere, they would be boiled. Twelfth Night Cake became Christmas Cake as the traditions changed. In some great houses, it was common to bake a dried pea or bean into the cake and whoever got it became King of the Revels.

The first Christmas card, devised by Sir Henry Cole, drawn by John Horsley

Christmas cards

Even in these digital days, we spend millions of pounds every year on Christmas cards. The first commercial Christmas card is credited to Sir Henry Cole in 1843. Cole (1808-82) was a bit of a Victorian superstar, who helped organise the Public Record Office, assisted Rowland Hill in introducing the penny post in 1840, went on to manage the Great Exhibition of 1851, and was instrumental in the profits from this being used for, among other things, founding the Victoria and Albert Museum, the V&A. Cole thought that sending a generic, printed, Christmas greeting to his many friends would be a lot less laborious than writing individual letters, so he asked a chum, John Callcott Horsley to design one for him. About 1,000 sold for a shilling each (5p now) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Read a bit more about Christmas cards.

Christmas carols

According to the Oxford dictionary, a carol is simply a joyous song. However, it was originally an improvised ring dance, to which the dancers added singing, with roots in medieval France, or perhaps ancient times. The tradition of singing at festivals is surely as old as Man – and certainly not unique to Christianity. Carols could be performed at any time of year – at Easter, perhaps, or harvest-time; so remember, a carol isn’t just for Christmas. Equally, hymns are sung all year round; a Christmas carol could be described as a Christmas hymn.

In medieval Europe, hymns were mostly in Latin and it is St Francis of Assisi who is usually credited as developing Nativity hymns written and sung in the vernacular, in the 13th century. However, it seems that many carols were not particularly religious and were actually folk songs, sometimes bawdy, associated with wassailing (see ‘wassailing’!) and with words that were adapted to suit circumstances.

Christmas Carols as we know them became popular in the 19th century, partly through the efforts of Davies Gilbert (1767-1839) who published ‘A Collection of Ancient Christmas Carols, with the tunes to which they were formerly sung in the West of England’ in 1822 and William Sandys (1792-1874) with his ‘Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern’ of 1833 – which between them contain many of today’s favourites. Many carols have intriguing origins.

See more at Kings College and Carols

Here is In The Bleak Midwinter from Kings College courtesy of drwestbury

Christmas crackers

Christmas crackers are short tubes of cardboard covered with coloured paper, twisted at both ends, which typically contain some sort of novelty, a joke or wise saying and a paper hat. Two people hold the cracker at each end and pull it apart. A ‘snap’ runs through the cracker so that a small ‘crack’ is heard when this happens. The contents then fall out and are kept by one of the pullers. Crackers are normally found decorating dining tables and are pulled before or after the meal; etiquette – including who gets to keep the goodies – vary; though everyone should wear a hat.

It is generally accepted that crackers were the creation of a London confectioner, Tom Smith, in 1846. Smith was inspired by seeing bonbons (sweets) wrapped in tissue in Paris. He took the idea to England, later adding little mottos, novelties, more extravagant packaging, and the ‘snap’.

For a bit more, see The custom and history of Christmas Crackers.

Christmas Day

Although Christmas Day celebrates the birth of Christ, we don’t actually know when Christ was born. There are many theories why 25 December was chosen to mark the event, possibly by the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, sometime in the 4th century AD.

Among other things, 25 December was dies natalis solis invicti, to the Romans, ‘the birthday of the unconquered sun’ – part of the feast of Saturnalia. In Britain, 6 January is sometimes referred to as ‘Old Christmas Day’. The calendar changed in Britain in 1752, from the Julian calendar to the more accurate Gregorian. This required a shift of 11 days; so 6 January would have been 25 December in the old calendar.
Christmas magic and sparkle

Christmas decorations

Until fairly recently, Christmas decorations were relatively modest, with coloured paper garlands and chains hanging from ceilings and homemade tree ornaments. It was unashamedly tacky. Nowadays, increased wealth has allowed tastelessness to flourish beyond imagination, in an apparent desire to light up entire neighbourhoods and outshine everyone else. That said, festive bling can be beautiful and elegant as well.

The practice of festive decoration goes back to at least the great Roman feast of Saturnalia, when temples would be decorated with greenery and little ornaments would sometimes be hung amongst it. The use of branches of evergreen trees reminding our ancestors of everlasting life in the depth of winter, and warding off evil spirits, probably dates back even farther. In Isaiah 60:13, which possibly dates from the 8th century BC, it says: “The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary.”

The evolution of Christmas decoration is uncertain ground and much of what is written refers to the Christmas tree – a subject in its own right (see ‘Christmas tree’). Most sources suggest that trees were decorated with apples in 16th century Germany and that wafers and pastries were then added, with glass baubles and beads first being produced in the Thuringian town of Lauscha in the 1590s. The Germans invented tinsel (lametta), too – originally made of real silver.

My thanks to Mike for sharing his A-Z of Christmas and next week we will continue the series with Christmas Dinner…

©Mike Biles Images.2019

A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.

About the book

Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?

A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.

What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?

Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.

A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading

One of the recent reviews for the book

I took my time reading this one because I loved the way the author wove the facts into a highly enjoyable narrative. What amazed me was how the author could start at pre-historic times and carry the reader forward to present day in such a brief book, yet cover the essentials and connect the complicated factors behind so much of that history.

The touches of a Bill Bryson wit was just enough to amuse me while I pondered the reality of “One Damned War After Another” It was a book I looked forward to returning to each night.

I’m keeping this one on my kindle so I can refer to the amazing Timeline included at the end of the book.

Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: Amazon UK

And on Amazon US: Amazon US

Follow Mike on : Goodreads

About Mike Biles

Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.

Connect to Mike Biles and explore his wonderful archives

Website home pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitterhttps://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinteresthttps://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/

Thank you for dropping in today and I know Mike would love your feedback thanks Sally.

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Guest Writer Mike Biles – A Bit About Britain -#Oxford – Aslan and Gandalf go for a pint by Mike Biles


Delighted to welcome Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as a guest writer until the end of the year.

Aslan and Gandalf go for a pint

Eagle, Child, pub, Oxford, Tolkien, Lewis

How often do you walk into a pub mentally dwelling on things like wizards and talking lions? Be honest now. If you need help with this, try stepping over the threshold of Oxford’s Eagle and Child, because it was a favourite watering-hole of close friends JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

Eagle and Child, name origin, Earl of Derby

Disappointingly, there’s nothing obviously magical about the Eagle and Child – though it does offer a captivating pint of local Brakspear’s for a paranormally reasonable price, and the barmaid is enchanting. It has been a pub since 1650 and, before that, had a role in the Civil War (1642-49), when Oxford was the Royalist capital of England and the building was either used as a pay-house or a playhouse, depending on the source of your typo. Its name comes from the arms of the Earl of Derby, the Stanley family, who I assume had some connection with it back in the foggy mists of time. The Eagle and Child’s long history has, however, been subordinated to the lure of its more recent fantastic literary connections.

Eagle and Child, Oxford pubs, literary connections

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) and Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) were the two better-known members of the Inklings, an informal group of British literary buffs, most of them academics. The Inklings – a nicely ambiguous moniker, I think – met to discuss their works and ideas, normally in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College, most Thursday evenings from the late 1930s until the 1950s. On Tuesday lunchtimes, they gathered in the Rabbit Room, the landlord’s former sitting room, at the Eagle and Child – a tradition apparently maintained until the early 1960s. Presumably, they did what all enlightened men have done since time out of mind; they quaffed ale and solved problems, real and imagined. Lewis recalled, “Many a golden session in front of a blazing fire, with a pint close to hand.” During the Second World War, when thirsty American troops occasionally resulted in the beer running out, the Inklings would take themselves off to other hostelries, such as the King’s Arms or the Mitre. When the Eagle and Child was refurbished in 1962, the Inklings apparently switched allegiance to the Lamb and Flag across the road. Both the Lamb and Flag and the Eagle and Child (which the Inklings nicknamed, the Bird and Baby), are owned by St. John’s College

Rabbit Room, Eagle and Child, Oxford, Tolkien, Lewis, the Inklings

The Rabbit Room used to be at the back of the pub – there’s an extension now, so the room is more or less in the middle, with two, cosy, panelled rooms at the front. I sat there, supping my Brakspear, trying to picture these giants of the written word sitting across the table nattering away about their books and beliefs. Occasionally, one would briefly display unscholarly passion to make a particular point. I wondered what, if any, inspiration they got from the pub – or the beer. I read that Tollers, as his friends called him, was once so inebriated that he imagined goblins were trying to steal his wedding ring; but that sounds too good to be true. Was Tolkien in the Bird and Baby when he dreamt up the massive eagles of Middle Earth who, amongst other things, rescued the good guys in the nick of time? Did he see Hobbits on the way home? I was pretty sure I did. Was Gandalf modelled on a colleague at Merton?

I couldn’t see anything of Narnia in the bustle around me but, peering into my beer, found myself back at primary school on a dark, wet, winter’s day with Mrs McGillivray reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to a spellbound class. The images of Lantern Waste and Mr Tumnus’ shocking disappearance are powerful, even after all those years. Wonderful, wonderful stories.

Probably, of course, the Bird and Baby was simply exactly what we said at the start; a favourite watering-hole for close friends. There is something undeniably cosy, conversational and blokeish about the place; I liked it very much. Over at the next table, two young men were earnestly, very audibly, mellifluously and without any apparent embarrassment, discussing their sex lives.

“Well, I’d like to go back this summer. There’s this girl I met.”
“Oh; did you, er..?”
“No. Oh, no. We were both with other people, so it was a bit awkward. But we text and I think we probably…”

I happily dragged myself back to reality.

Pippin: “What’s that?”
Merry: “This, my friend, is a pint.”
Pippin: “It comes in pints? I’m getting one.”

By the way, it was not unknown for Inspector Morse, creator of Colin Dexter (or maybe it was the other way round) to partake of a pint at the Eagle and Child as well.

Lamb and Flag, Oxford, Tolkien, Lewis, Thomas Hardy

Lamb and Flag, Oxford, Tolkien, Lewis, Thomas Hardy

Given the close proximity of the Lamb and Flag across the road, it seemed rude not to pop over and sup a pint or two there, while I was in the neighbourhood. The Lamb and Flag appears to be a relatively modern establishment, having been an alehouse only since about 1695. It is named for the emblems of St John the Baptist, the patron saint of tailors and the Merchant Taylors’ Company of London, whose Master, Sir Thomas White, founded St John’s College in 1555. The pub’s profits help fund DPhil scholarships at the College, which made me feel much better about ordering more beer.

Lamb and Flag, Oxford, CAMRA

Palmers' ale, Lamb and Flag, Oxford, Thomas Hardy

If anything, the Lamb and Flag seemed to be more of a drinker’s pub than the Eagle and Child. It served a wonderful pint of Palmer’s (a Bridport brewer) and in 2016 was voted the best pub in Oxford by members of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale). Tolkien, Lewis & Co would have been in good literary company, because the story goes that Thomas Hardy largely wrote his last novel, Jude the Obscure, there. This is not a book I know, though based on the synopsis I have just read it strikes me as being a thoroughly depressing yarn; enough to turn a chap to drink.

St Johns College, Oxford, Eagle and Child, Lamb and Flag

Lamb and Flag, St John the Baptist, Merchant Taylors Company, St John's College, Oxford

©Mike Biles Images.2019

A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.

About the book

Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?

A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.

What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?

Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.

A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading

One of the recent reviews for the book

I took my time reading this one because I loved the way the author wove the facts into a highly enjoyable narrative. What amazed me was how the author could start at pre-historic times and carry the reader forward to present day in such a brief book, yet cover the essentials and connect the complicated factors behind so much of that history.

The touches of a Bill Bryson wit was just enough to amuse me while I pondered the reality of “One Damned War After Another” It was a book I looked forward to returning to each night.

I’m keeping this one on my kindle so I can refer to the amazing Timeline included at the end of the book.

Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: Amazon UK

And on Amazon US: Amazon US

Follow Mike on : Goodreads

About Mike Biles

Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.

Connect to Mike Biles and explore his wonderful archives

Website home pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitterhttps://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinteresthttps://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/

What a wonderful way to absorb the atmosphere created over the centuries by literary giants chatting amongst themselves. That beer does look good.. thanks to Mike for another wonderful glimpse into Britain’s history.

Join Mike again next week for another glimpse into the history, people and places in Britain.

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Guest Writer Mike Biles – A Bit About Britain – Give us a song, Caedmon – England’s first known #poet by Mike Biles


Delighted to welcome Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as a guest writer until the end of the year.  This week Mike shares the story of England’s first known poet.

Give us a song, Caedmon

This is the story of England’s first known poet.

Caedmon's Cross, Whitby, North Yorkshire

Caedmon’s Cross, Whitby, North Yorkshire

Once upon a time, many many years ago, there was a good herdsman who lived on a cliff top called Streaneshalch. The herdsman’s name was Caedmon; he was no spring chicken and was actually quite shy. Nearby on the cliff top was a great Abbey, ruled by a kind and gentle Abbess called Hild, where they sometimes held sumptuous feasts. Now in those days it was customary at feasts, as the wine flowed and everyone ate jelly and ice cream, for each guest to entertain the happy throng with a song. Yes. But Caedmon had a terrible voice and couldn’t play the harp for toffee. So when he could see his turn approaching he would slink outside and go home, or hide in a barn.

One evening, after just such an occasion, he was lying on some straw feeling pretty sorry for himself. He very much wanted to join in with everyone else. Then he had a dream. A man bathed in a heavenly light stood beside him and said, “Caedmon, sing me a song.” “I don’t know how to sing,” replied Caedmon miserably. “That’s why I’m here while everyone else is having fun and eating jelly.” “You shall sing to me”, commanded the man, firmly but gently. “Sing about the creation of all things.”

And Caedmon, who in addition to having a rotten voice had previously shown about as much imagination as a sledgehammer, found himself making up words and singing like a nightingale. The tune escapes me, but the words went something like this:

“Praise we the Fashioner now of Heaven’s fabric,
The majesty of His might and His mind’s wisdom,
Work of the world-warden, worker of all wonders,
How He the Lord of Glory everlasting,
Wrought first for the race of men Heaven as a rooftree,
Then made He Middle Earth to be their mansion.”

Caedmon's Cross, Whitby, North Yorkshire

Caedmon’s Cross, Whitby, North Yorkshire

Caedmon woke up and dashed off to tell the kindly Abbess what had happened. Hild summoned some other wise people so that Caedmon could sing to them. He repeated the song from his dream and they all agreed this was a Gift From God. Indeed, they asked him to put a particular piece of writing to verse, if he could, and were delighted with the result when he returned with it the following morning. Hild had him inducted into the monastic life, so that he could learn all the stories of the scriptures. And Caedmon spent the remainder of his days turning dry text into melodious verse, and singing of the works of God and stories from the scriptures. He had a premonition of his own death and passed away peacefully in 680AD. As his songs spread, so did the Christian message. Clever, eh?

And that, more or less, is Caedmon’s story. I lied about the jelly and ice cream and the tale itself of course might be complete fiction. But Caedmon is famous for being the first known English poet and is sometimes called ‘the Father of English song’; and you thought it would be someone like George Harrison or David Bowie, didn’t you?

On 21st September 1898 a huge crowd gathered in St Mary’s churchyard on Streaneshalch in Whitby to see a cross in honour of Caedmon unveiled by the then Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin. The cross was the brainchild of Canon H D Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust. It cost £350 – an enormous sum of money in those days – and is an echo of an Anglo-Saxon cross, made from Northumbrian sandstone. It stands 20 feet high and is richly carved with Christian iconography, including rather fetching representations of Hild and Caedmon. The cross stands at the top of the 199 steps overlooking Whitby, and in the shadow of the ruined medieval Abbey Church.

It is said that, at dawn on old Christmas Day (6th January), the distant sound of a choir singing in an ancient Northumbrian dialect can be heard echoing faintly around the ruins of the Abbey.
Whitby Harbour

Parish Church of St Mary's, Whitby

© Images Mike Biles 2019

A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.

About the book

Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?

A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.

What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?

Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.

A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading

One of the recent reviews for the book

I first came across the author when I stumbled upon his excellent web site ‘A Bit About Britain’ and so it was a natural progression to then purchase this wonderfully readable book. This is no ordinary, factual and humourless journey through our history that most of us remember from the classroom, but an enthralling account of the events from Roman Britain to the present day, that have shaped our unique identity.

There is a humour and lightheartedness to be found amongst these pages without detracting from the genuine historical content that is essential in any publication of this kind. The author injects a quirky insight into events that we all thought we knew about but then realise that actually we didn’t at all. The number of times I have said to myself ‘gosh, I never knew that’ says much about the attention to detail and exhaustive research that has made it so readable. I particularly enjoyed the first half of the book, containing stories of so many richly diverse characters with fantastical names, and bizarre lives, and whilst stories of this early period in our history are based upon legend and a few known facts, the authors inimitable style brings life to an otherwise rather dark period in our past.

This is a book that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and I would recommend it to anyone who possesses even the slightest curiosity about how Britain came to be.
I can’t wait for his account of Brexit!

Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: Amazon UK

And on Amazon US: Amazon US

Follow Mike on : Goodreads

About Mike Biles

Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.

Connect to Mike Biles and explore his wonderful archives

Website home pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitterhttps://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinteresthttps://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/

My thanks to Mike for the fable about Caedmon who earned his place in British history..

Join Mike again next week for another glimpse into the history, people and places in Britain.

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Guest Writer Mike Biles – A Bit About Britain – The dastardly shooting of Lorna (Doone) #History


Delighted to welcome Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as a guest writer until the end of the year.  This week Mike lifts the lid and reveals the truth about one of my favourite books and television series as a child..Lorna Doone…

The dastardly shooting of Lorna (Doone)

St Mary's Church, Oare, Exmoor, Somerset

The Victorian novel, “Lorna Doone – a Romance of Exmoor”, is generally assumed to be a work of fiction, set in a stunning location on the borders of Devon and Somerset and against the turbulent historical backdrop of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. Yet some believe that the author, R D Blackmore, drew upon illusive tales of real people who once lived, fought, loved and died in his beloved Exmoor. The book is seen through the eyes of honest young farmer John Ridd, and tells the story of his love for the beautiful and mysterious Lorna, whom everyone believes to be the granddaughter of Sir Ensor Doone. The Doones are a vicious, brutal, gang who terrorise the neighbourhood, robbing, murdering and extorting. John – or ‘Jan’ in West Country dialect – after many adventures eventually defeats the Doones and wins his bride. But the menacing and jealous Carver Doone is still on the loose. Seeking revenge, he makes his way to Oare church on the happy couple’s wedding day – and shoots Lorna.

Lorna Doone, Oare Church, Somerset

“It is impossible for any who have not loved as I have to conceive my joy and pride, when after ring and all was done, and the parson had blessed us, Lorna turned to look at me with her glances of subtle fun subdued by this great act.

Her eyes, which none on earth may ever equal, or compare with, told me such a depth of comfort, yet awaiting further commune, that I was almost amazed, thoroughly as I knew them. Darling eyes, the sweetest eyes, the loveliest, the most loving eyes – the sound of a shot rang through the church and those eyes were filled with death.

Lorna fell across my knees when I was going to kiss her, as the bridegroom is allowed to do, and encouraged, if he needs it; a flood of blood came out upon the yellow wood of the altar steps, and at my feet lay Lorna, trying to tell me some last message out of her faithful eyes. I lifted her up, and petted her, and coaxed her, but it was no good; the only sign of life remaining was a spirt of bright red blood.”

Oare Church, Somerset, Lorna Doone

So you can’t possibly visit Exmoor without going to St Mary’s in Oare, where this terrible and dramatic act is supposed to have happened (in the book). We were staying with our friend Paul, who generously undertook all the driving as we rattled along slender lanes at the bottom of deep combes, a couple of miles inland somewhere between Bagworthy and Countisbury. Fortunately, there was no other traffic. A red doe (a deer, a female deer…) leapt in front of us and scrabbled in panic up the wooded slope on the other side of the track. Stupidly, we’d left the decent map behind and I was trying to see where we were on an inadequate small-scale road atlas, whilst simultaneously playfully head-butting Paul’s roof. Then we were on it, an ancient diminutive stone affair on a bank above a sunken lane with a distinctive, whitewashed, porch.

Oare Church, Exmoor, Somerset

House martins had built their nest inside the ridge of the porch roof and looked down nervously as we creaked open the door. It is a peaceful, simple, church, lined with box pews. The nave is believed to be 15th century, the tower and the chancel added in the 19th century. Tiny now, at the time in which the novel was set it would have been even smaller, perhaps only accommodating a dozen or so worshippers. The window through which Carver Doone is meant to have fired his gun would have been unglazed in the 17th century. There’s a memorial to Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900) on the north wall; he is buried in Teddington. Outside, the setting was overcast, but just wonderful – and totally silent.

Oare Church on Exmoor, Lorna Doone

When we got home, I took down an old copy of “Lorna Doone”. It was amongst a collection of books that have been in the family for years, a lovely, small, red-bound thing with gilt lettering on the spine, published by Collins and with illustrations by Wilmot Lunt. There’s no date in it; I should imagine it was printed sometime in the 1920s or 30s, and doubt whether it had been opened for at least half a century. Intriguingly, there’s an unknown woman’s name written in the front – perhaps someone’s old girlfriend, long gone. In any event, not having ever read the full version, I thought I better had – particularly having visited Oare church. Besides, I wanted to know what happened – don’t you?

Lorna Doone a Romance of Exmoor, R D Blackmore, London & Glasgow, Collins clear type press

My copy of “Lorna Doone – a Romance of Exmoor” is charming. But it is also 640 pages of some of the most tortuous Victorian prose I have ever come across; RD Blackmore was certainly no Bernard Cornwell. I found myself getting incredibly frustrated on occasions with our hero, Jan Ridd, who not only seemed incapable of saying anything in one word when he had twenty at his disposal and, in so doing, in a round about kind of way, without wishing to prevaricate or obfuscate, and certainly not to overly use subordinate clauses, if you get my drift, often took a heck of a long time to get to the point. It also saddens me to say that Jan, for all his undoubted virtues, could sometimes be ponderously thick. That said, it is a great story – full of adventure, romance (of course), not without humour – and deservedly a classic. Though it’s been both filmed and televised numerous times, I don’t understand why there hasn’t been a more memorable or successful movie version. David Lean could have done something with it, but now I’m thinking it’s more Spielberg – or possibly Ron Howard or Tom Hanks; definitely not Tarantino. Will you contact them, or shall I?

Oh – you still don’t know what happened, do you? If you don’t want to know the result – look away now…

For the rest of you – Jan tracked wicked Carver Doone down to the moors where they fought. Carver was beat and then got accidentally sucked into the black bog, never to be seen again. Exhausted, Jan made his way home to find that, miraculously, Lorna had survived. And everyone lived happily ever after.

Statue, Lorna Doone, DulvertonOare Church, piscina, Exmoor
© Images Mike Biles 2019

A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.

About the book

Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?

A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.

What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?

Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.

A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading

One of the recent reviews for the book on Goodreads

Sep 24, 2019 Susan Swiderski rated it four stars

Like most Americans, I had a rather rudimentary education about British history, so this book seemed the perfect antidote for that particular affliction. Indeed, it did fill in some gaps nicely, and what’s more, it did so with some delightful dollops of humor, (ahem… humour…) as well.

Do you have to be a history nerd to enjoy this book? No, of course not. (But it helps.) I particularly enjoyed reading the parts about more recent history… like from WWI on. It was interesting to get a fresh perspective (i.e. Brit point of view) on parts of history I was already fairly familiar with.

I must, however, confess that I skimmed over (i.e. skipped) the lengthy time line at the end of the book. I appreciate how much research and effort the author put into compiling it, but I chose not to read it. For me, it was kinda like skipping the “begats” in the Bible, ya know? (Something tells me I probably missed out on some really good chuckles by skipping it, though…

Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mike-Biles/e/B07W928W23

And on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Mike-Biles/e/B07W928W23

Follow Mike on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/19553725.Mike_Biles

About Mike Biles

Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.

Connect to Mike Biles and explore his wonderful archives

Website home pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitterhttps://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinteresthttps://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/

My thanks to Mike for sharing the background and the location for this wonderful story, and I must have read an abridged version in the 1960s where Jan was given a better script…and a new film version would be wonderful..

Join Mike again next week for another glimpse into the history, people and places in Britain.

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Guest Writer Mike Biles – A Bit About Britain- The George Inn at Borough #Southwark #History


Delighted to welcome Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as a guest writer until the end of the year. This week Mike shares the history of The George Inn at Borough the only surviving galleried coaching inn to be found in London.The original pub served customers in the reign of King Henry VIII.

George Inn, Southwark, Borough, SE1, coaching inn

I wonder how many pints of ale have been supped here? Let me see: if just twenty people drank a modest 4 pints every night, that would be, er, 29,200 pints a year – 2,920,000 for every century. But the revenue generated by that amount of beer would not be enough to make the place viable. So given that there has been an inn on the present site of the George Inn since medieval times, the mind boggles at how much alcohol and food has been consumed within its precincts over the centuries.

George Inn, old London pubs, Southwark

You can play this game at hundreds of pubs throughout Britain of course. Unlike several, the George does not claim to be the oldest pub in the land, but it is the only surviving galleried coaching inn to be found in London and therefore deserves a little respect. You’ll find it in Southwark, tucked away off Borough High Street and just a few minutes from London Bridge station. During the reign of Henry VIII it was called the St George – I idly wonder if this was anything to do with the parish of St George the Martyr nearby – and was probably known to, if not frequented by, William Shakespeare. The inn was badly damaged by fire in 1669 and then destroyed in the great fire that engulfed much of this part of Southwark in 1676. It was rebuilt, apparently on the same footprint, in 1677. Coaching inns of yesteryear provided so much more than merely food and drink for the weary traveller and, at one time, the George must have been huge, a building occupying three sides of a long galleried rectangle with a central courtyard where plays were performed and a gated frontage off the High Street.

Greene King, Abbot, George, London pubs

Southwark was once well-stocked with inns and hostelries of all sorts. Until 1729, London Bridge was the only bridge across the Thames east of Kingston. Travellers from the south up the old Roman Stane and Watling Streets converged in Southwark, and if they arrived at nightfall after curfew they needed somewhere to stay before entering London the following day. Merchants heading south would cross London Bridge before curfew, to avoid morning rush-hour, sleep over in Southwark and make an early start.

Dickens wrote in The Pickwick Papers (1836):

“In the Borough especially, there still remain some half dozen old inns, which have preserved their external features unchanged, and which have escaped alike the rage for public improvement, and the encroachments of private speculation. Great, rambling, queer, old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any, and that the world should exist long enough to exhaust the innumerable veracious legends connected with old London Bridge, and its adjacent neighbourhood on the Surrey side.”

Dickens was about to introduce his readers to the celebrated White Hart Inn, which once stood immediately to the north of the George and which was demolished in 1881. The White Hart was allegedly used as a headquarters by the 15th century rebel leader Jack Cade. Immediately to the south of the George Inn stood an even more famous inn, the Tabard, which was allegedly doing business in the early 14th century. It was from here that Chaucer’s pilgrims gathered before setting off on their journey in the 1380s:

Bifil that in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay,
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght were come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne-and-twenty in a compaignye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.
The chambers and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So had I spoken with hem everychon,
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey, ther as I yow devyse.

Now it happened in that season one day,
In Southwark at the Tabard where I lay,
All ready to be on my way
To Canterbury with a very devout heart,
That there had come into that hostelry
At night some twenty-nine, a company
Of various people who by chance fell
Into fellowship, and they were all pilgrims
Who intended to ride to Canterbury.
The bedrooms and the stables were spacious
And were well accommodated in the best way.
And by the time the sun had gone to rest
I had so spoken to every one of them
That I was soon in their fellowship,
And we agreed to rise early
To make our way, as I will tell you.

The Tabard was renamed the Talbot and was demolished in 1873. Talbot Yard is next to the George Inn.

Many of the inns that once lined Borough High Street were rendered redundant by the arrival of the railway. Indeed, the Great Northern Railway Company demolished the north and east wings of the George in 1889, to make way for warehouses. Now, what remains of the place is safe in the ownership of the National Trust, who lease it out. At my last visit it served a rather pleasant Abbot Ale – I’m quite partial to Greene King – and there wasn’t a TV or slot machine in sight; perfect! So, tarry awhile amongst the wood panelling in this surviving relic of London’s past and contemplate all who have supped before you. Dickens certainly did – he mentions the George in Little Dorrit.

George Inn, Borough, historic pubs, London

I have discovered there’s a book about The George at Borough – “Shakespeare’s Local: Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub” – looks like it could be a fascinating read and is available from Amazon. It’s by Pete Brown

© Images Mike Biles 2019

A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.

About the book

Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?

A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.

What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?

Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.

A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading

My review for the book on October 31st

A wonderfully succinct but rich timeline of British History.I loved history at school and more recently I explored our own family history as part of the Oxford Gene project in 2001 and then with Ancestry DNA. Not half as interesting or entertaining as A Bit About Britain’s History. Mike Biles has succeeded in bringing every major event from the formation of the land through to the present day in an easy to read and absorb timeline. And at the back of the book you will find a very useful section summarizing those key dates and events that have forged the ethnicity, culture, religion and alliances of modern day Britain.

Clearly painstakingly researched and compiled, there is nothing dry and dusty about this book as it brings hundreds of thousands of years of history to life. There were more than a few ‘I did not know that’ moments’, and two of those were the reasons behind the name ‘Redcoats’ for British soldiers and how the Coldstream Guards got their name.

Even if history has not been one of your passions, I do recommend that you read this book as it has all the elements of a murder mystery, political thriller and action packed historical novel. Add in some humour and it will both inform and entertain you.

Whether you are British, or one of the millions around the world with British roots, this book will give you a sense of pride, in both your origins, and the incredible challenges your ancestors had to survive in order for you to be here today.

Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mike-Biles/e/B07W928W23

And on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Mike-Biles/e/B07W928W23

Follow Mike on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/19553725.Mike_Biles

About Mike Biles

Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.

Connect to Mike Biles

Website home pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitterhttps://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinteresthttps://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/

 My thanks to Mike for sharing the history of this ancient watering hole..

Join Mike again next week for another glimpse into the history, people and places in Britain.

Smorgasbord Book Reviews – A Bit About Britain’s History by Mike Biles.


Delighted to review the new release from Mike Biles – A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.

About the book

Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?

A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.

What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?

Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.

A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading

My review for the book

A wonderfully succinct but rich timeline of British History.

I loved history at school and more recently I explored our own family history as part of the Oxford Gene project in 2001 and then with Ancestry DNA. Not half as interesting or entertaining as A Bit About Britain’s History. Mike Biles has succeeded in bringing every major event from the formation of the land through to the present day in an easy to read and absorb timeline. And at the back of the book you will find a very useful section summarizing those key dates and events that have forged the ethnicity, culture, religion and alliances of modern day Britain.

Clearly painstakingly researched and compiled, there is nothing dry and dusty about this book as it brings hundreds of thousands of years of history to life. There were more than a few ‘I did not know that’ moments’, and two of those were the reasons behind the name ‘Redcoats’ for British soldiers and how the Coldstream Guards got their name.

Even if history has not been one of your passions, I do recommend that you read this book as it has all the elements of a murder mystery, political thriller and action packed historical novel. Add in some humour and it will both inform and entertain you.

Whether you are British, or one of the millions around the world with British roots, this book will give you a sense of pride, in both your origins, and the incredible challenges your ancestors had to survive in order for you to be here today.

Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mike-Biles/e/B07W928W23

And on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Mike-Biles/e/B07W928W23

Follow Mike on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/19553725.Mike_Biles

About Mike Biles

Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.

Connect to Mike Biles

Website home pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog pagehttp://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitterhttps://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinteresthttps://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/

Thank you for dropping in today and  I hope you have enjoyed the review and will head over to buy and read yourself.  Thanks Sally.