28 June, 2010

June recipe: Smoked salmon with cream and pasta

This is a simple and delicious dish for a warm summer day when you don’t want to do much cooking. It goes particularly well with early summer vegetables such as asparagus, mange-tout, peas or green beans. I like it either with hot-smoked salmon (the kind you flake) or cold-smoked salmon (the kind that comes in thin translucent pink slices) – they are slightly different, but both work well.

If you don’t like smoked salmon, you could also make it with chicken breast, thinly sliced and fried for 5-10 minutes or so along with the mushrooms.

Smoked salmon with cream and pasta (serves 2)

4 oz (approx 100 g) pasta
0.5 oz (approx 10 g) butter
3 oz (approx 75 g) mushrooms
4 oz (approx 100 g) smoked salmon
5 fl. oz (approx 140 ml) single cream
Fresh oregano (or herbs of your choice)

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water according to the instructions on the packet. Most shapes of pasta will work in this dish – spaghetti, tagliatelle, macaroni or the various pretty shapes such as shells, bows, twists etc.

Flake or chop the smoked salmon into small pieces. Chop the herbs.

Peel and slice the mushrooms.

Fry the mushrooms in the butter over a low to medium heat for 5 minutes or so until softened and starting to colour.

Pour in the single cream, then stir in the chopped salmon and chopped herbs. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Cook gently for 2-3 minutes or so until the cream bubbles.

Stir in the drained pasta.

Serve immediately with a green vegetable or salad of your choice.

23 June, 2010

The Dragon at Noonday, by Edith Pargeter. Book review

First published 1975. Edition reviewed: The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN 978-1402237607. This edition includes all four of the Brothers of Gwynedd novels in one binding. The Dragon at Noonday, 193 pages. Complete quartet, 782 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet covers the following four novels:

  • Sunrise in the West

  • The Dragon at Noonday

  • The Hounds of Sunset

  • Afterglow and Nightfall

The Dragon at Noonday is the second in Edith Pargeter’s series of four novels telling the story of Llewellyn ap Griffith, the last Prince of independent Wales, and his mercurial brother David ap Griffith in thirteenth-century Wales. The Dragon at Noonday follows Llewellyn from his achievement of a (more or less) united Wales in 1258 to the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267 in which England formally recognised Llewellyn as Prince of Wales. It also follows the closely linked story of the civil war between King Henry and a reforming party among the English barons led by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. Many of the major characters are historical figures, notably Llewellyn and David, their mother Lady Senena, King Henry III of England and his son Edward (later to be Edward I) and Simon de Montfort and his family. The narrator Samson, clerk and secretary to Llewellyn, is fictional, as is his lover Cristin and her husband Godred.

Scarcely a month after most of the Welsh lords and chiefs swore homage to him, one of them breaks his oath and Llewellyn has to take military action to punish him. Together with his youngest brother David, currently proving an able and active ally, Llewellyn successfully maintains order within Wales and defeats any attempts at external aggression. But when their mother Lady Senena dies, her dying words inflame the rivalry between the brothers all over again. When the reform party in England led by Earl Simon de Montfort asks for Llewellyn’s tacit support, David repudiates his promise to Llewellyn and goes to England to fight alongside his childhood friend Edward, son of King Henry III. As the bitter civil war between the English monarchy and Earl Simon’s reformers builds to its tragic climax at the bloody battle of Evesham, once again David and Llewellyn find themselves on opposing sides, and the growing conflict between them threatens Llewellyn’s dream of a united and independent Wales.

The Dragon at Noonday takes up within days of where Sunrise in the West (reviewed earlier) left off. As with Sunrise in the West, the characters of Llewellyn and David dominate the narrative, though Earl Simon is also a powerful, if temporary, presence. The remarkable complexity of David’s character and his contradictory feelings for Llewellyn, which started to emerge in Sunrise in the West, come fully to the fore in The Dragon at Noonday. David is so skilfully portrayed that the reader can understand and sympathise with him without necessarily condoning his actions. Llewellyn remains the hero he appeared in Sunrise in the West, honourable, generous and large-minded, always putting his country’s interests before himself. Earl Simon is another heroic figure, though perhaps cast in a more inflexible mould, prepared to fight and die for a principle. Whether these two were quite as heroic in history as they appear in the novel is a moot point, but even if their motivations are idealised it doesn’t detract from the compelling story as Earl Simon’s tragedy plays out.

Among the other characters, Henry III is shown as a weak and rather spiteful man, distinctly not up to the job he was born into. His son Edward (later to be Edward I) is a more complex character. How anyone ever trusted Edward’s word for anything again after his double-dealing and oath-breaking to Earl Simon is beyond me, but although Edward’s cheating does him no credit he is not merely demonised as a tyrant and is capable of controlling his desire for vengeance when it makes good policy. Edward, David and Llewellyn are the chief actors in the remaining story of independent Wales, and in The Dragon at Noonday they all take their places on the stage.

As in Sunrise in the West, the use of Samson as a narrator allows complex political events in both England and Wales to be recounted with clarity. Samson stands slightly outside the conflicts, an observer rather than a driver of events, and as a fictional character he can be placed wherever the conflict – military or emotional – is sharpest. Thus he can witness Earl Simon’s campaign as well as the conflict between Llewellyn and David.

Samson’s own star-crossed love for the beautiful and noble-hearted Cristin, which was briefly introduced in Sunrise in the West, develops further in The Dragon at Noonday. In particular, Cristin’s husband Godred who in his brief appearance in Sunrise in the West seemed an inconsequential lightweight, emerges here as a snake, all malice and venom. With his characteristic charity Samson attempts to understand Godred and see his behaviour in a favourable light, but he has to look very hard to find anything resembling a redeeming feature.

The end of the novel is not really an end, more of a pause before the story moves on to its next phase, so any readers who aren’t reading an edition with all four books of the quartet in one volume would be well advised to have a copy of the next book, The Hounds of Sunset, to hand. A family tree at the beginning helps to keep the characters straight, though I found the text sufficiently clear that I never needed to refer to it, and a glossary of Welsh terms at the back may be helpful to readers unfamiliar with the period. Readers who like to trace the campaigns and journeys on a map may like to have an atlas to hand, as there is no map in the book (at least, not in the advance reading copy; there may be one in the final edition).

Second in a thoughtful and evocative quartet of novels telling the powerful story of Llewellyn ap Griffith, last prince of independent Wales, and Simon de Montfort’s attempt to establish political reform in England.

20 June, 2010

Robin chicks

June is the season for cute baby birds in the garden - in this case a speckled, fluffy robin chick.

11 June, 2010

Bellfield Hall, by Anna Dean. Book review

St Martin’s, 2010, ISBN 978-0-312-56294-6, 300 pages. Review copy kindly supplied by publisher. Published in the UK under the title A Moment of Silence.

Bellfield Hall is a historical mystery set among the country gentry of southern England in 1805. All the characters and events are fictional.

Miss Dido Kent is an unmarried lady of modest means, and thus a convenient source of on-tap unpaid domestic help to her assorted brothers and their families. When her niece Catherine begs her to come to Bellfield Hall, where her fiance has mysteriously released her from their engagement and disappeared, Dido obliges at once. She soon realises that there is something much deeper going on than Catherine’s broken engagement, for on the very day of Dido’s arrival an unknown young woman is found lying murdered in the shrubbery. Is the murder connected with the abrupt departure of Catherine’s fiance? Who is the young woman and how did she come by her death? Is there a murderer among the family, guests and servants at Bellfield Hall? Dido has to solve the mystery if her dear niece is to have any chance of marriage and happiness – but little does she know that her own heart may be imperilled in the process.

I have a great regard for Jane Austen’s novels, and a corresponding wariness of the assorted spin-offs, sequels and – heaven forfend – zombie mash-ups that have appeared since it became universally acknowledged that her work was not only popular but also easily marketable and long out of copyright. So I thought more than twice about reviewing Bellfield Hall, and only decided to give it a try after finding an excerpt on the publisher’s website and concluding that the writing looked promising. I’m glad I did, as Bellfield Hall turned out to be a very pleasant read.

Dido Kent is by far the most strongly developed character. Shrewd, clever, compassionate and observant, Dido is accustomed to conjuring new dresses and roast dinners out of a small income and applies the same resourcefulness to mystery solving. She has a gift for winning confidences from the servants and for putting a lot of apparently inconsequential details together to make a whole. If the customs of her society permitted her to set up as a Ladies’ Detective Agency – which of course they don’t – she would undoubtedly have been an immediate success.

One of the features I admire in historical fiction is a story that is anchored in its particular time and place and can’t easily be shifted to another setting just by changing the props. Bellfield Hall achieves this admirably. The mystery and Dido’s solving of it depend on little details of contemporary society, such as mealtimes, correct forms of address, the quality of cloth and the precise details of women’s fashions. Dido misses very little about the people and the world around her, and has a fund of common sense and a broad understanding of human foibles to allow her to draw conclusions from what she sees. Not that she understands everything, though – a modern reader will have no difficulty in working out the aspects of Colonel Walborough’s behaviour that leave Dido completely mystified.

The tone and style of language and dialogue has the right sort of feel for the period, and there are one or two nice turns of phrases, e.g. “All the gentlemen were gone to the inquest and the ladies were left with nothing to do but settle the verdict among themselves without the inconvenience of considering any evidence.”

The mystery plot is neatly constructed with a suitably large collection of suspects, all of whom have their own secrets to hide, and plenty of red herrings to draw the reader away on false trails. Clues are cleverly laid in the text for the reader to find, but so subtly that I only picked up many of them on a second reading. Furthermore, Dido solves the mystery without stepping outside the bounds of behaviour acceptable for a nice respectable lady spinster among the gentry of Regency England. Maybe Dido is perhaps a little too lucky at always happening to be in the right place at the right time to talk to someone who can give her the next piece of the puzzle, and I have to admit I was a little baffled by the sub-plot involving the Misses Harris, which seemed a shade too ingenious to be effective, but it all ties up nicely in the end.

The ending provides a clear lead-in to a sequel, so I expect we shall meet Miss Dido Kent again. I for one will be happy to do so.

Charming light Regency mystery with authentic-feeling period detail and a resourceful and likeable heroine.

04 June, 2010

Early medieval armies: numbers

There are plenty of mentions of battles and skirmishes in surviving early medieval documentary sources, ranging from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History to Brittonic poetry such as Y Gododdin. Unfortunately, there are no detailed descriptions, and certainly no equivalent of accounting records or payment rolls that would show how many soldiers were involved. Can we make even an approximate estimate of the likely numbers involved?


Laws of Ine

Old English original:

Ðeofas we hatað oð .vii. men; from .vii. hloð oð .xxxv.; siððan bið here.
--Laws of Ine, available online

Modern English translation:
13. §1. We use the term "thieves" if the number of men does not exceed seven, "band of marauders" [or "war-band"] for a number between seven and thirty-five. Anything beyond this is an "army" [here]
--Regia Anglorum website

Ine was a king of the West Saxons. He succeeded to the throne in 688 when his predecessor Caedwalla abdicated and went on pilgrimage to Rome, and ruled for 37 years according to Bede (Ecclesiastical History Book V Ch. 7). Ine’s law code thus dates to the period between 688 and 725.

The Fight at Finnsburh

Never have sixty swordmen in a set fight
Borne themselves more bravely
--Translated in Alexander (1991)

The ‘sixty swordmen’ are followers of the Danish king Hnaef, attacked in a hall at night by their enemies. The date is uncertain (if indeed the incident is historical and not legendary). However, one of the participants is the (legendary?) warrior Hengest. If (a big if) he is to be equated with the Hengest who came to Britain at Vortigern’s invitation in the mid-fifth century, the date of the Fight at Finnsburh would be somewhat before Hengest’s removal to Britain.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

A.D. 784. This year Cyneheard slew King Cynewulf, and was slain
himself, and eighty-four men with him.
--Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online

An earlier entry in the Chronicle for the year 755 refers to the same incident (there positioned at the beginning of King Cynewulf’s reign, whereas here it is in its more or less* correct chronological position at the end of his reign). Unlike the Chronicle’s usual laconic entries, the 755 entry reads like a condensed form of a saga. Cyneheard, who was a kinsman of King Cynewulf and had some grievance against him, had killed Cynewulf and made a bid to become King of the West Saxons himself. The 755 entry makes it clear that all Cyneheard’s followers chose to fight and die with him, indicating that 84 men was the size of Cyneheard’s army.

Welsh Triads

Three Faithful War Bands
The War-Band of Cadwallawn, when they were fettered; and the War-Band of Gafran son of Aeddan, at the time of his complete disappearance; and the War-Band of Gwenddolau son of Ceidiaw at Ar(f)derydd, who continued the battle for a fortnight and a month after their lord was slain. The number of each one of the War-Bands was twenty-one hundred men
--Red Book of Hergest, available online

Y Gododdin

Three hundred gold-torqued men
Three hundred spirited horses
That charged with them
The thirty and the three hundred
Alas! They did not return
--Y Gododdin, stanza B1.9, translated by Koch (1997)

Historia Brittonum

The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 56, available online


It seems fairly clear that early medieval armies were not large, numbering a few dozen or a few hundred. All the early English sources give figures of less than 100:

  • 35 or more (Ine’s law code, approximately 688-725)

  • 60 (Fight at Finnsburh, date uncertain, maybe mid-fifth century)

  • 84 (Cyneheard’s army in his attempt to seize the throne of Wessex, approximately 786)

These are broadly consistent with the sort of numbers that might have constituted one or a few ship’s crews of the period. The large Sutton Hoo ship buried in Mound 1 had between 20 and 40 oars – as the tholes had only survived in places along the gunwale the exact number is unknown - and Martin Carver suggests the most likely number is 28, seven pairs each fore and aft of the mast (Carver 1998 p.171). As there would presumably have been people on board who did not row (e.g. the helmsman) the total crew would be more than the number of oarsmen. A ship’s crew is a natural unit for a warband; in Beowulf, the hero and his followers sail in a single ship to Denmark to fight the monster Grendel. Taking Martin Carver’s estimate of 28 rowers for the Sutton Hoo ship and adding on a few non-rowers would come to something resembling the 35-man upper limit for a warband in Ine’s law code. A smaller ship would be consistent with a smaller warband. More than one ship, or a big ship carrying a significant number of extra warriors, would qualify as an army.

If warbands were typically 35 men or fewer, this does not preclude engagements involving larger numbers. Larger armies could have been assembled from multiple warbands, co-operating (to a greater or lesser degree) under a chief leader. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History gives several hints that could be consistent with this type of ‘modular’ organisation. For example, at the Battle of Winwaed in 655, Bede describes Penda’s army as thirty times greater than the army of Oswy and Alchfrid of Northumbria and “...comprised of thirty battle-hardened legions under famous commanders” (Book III Ch. 24). This is consistent with the idea that Oswy and his son Alchfrid between them commanded a single warband, presumably the royal retainers, while Penda had assembled a group of thirty warbands each of similar size. At the Battle of Degsastan in 603 Aethelferth of Bernicia defeated Aidan of Dal Riada, but “...Aethelferth’s brother Theodbald and all his following were killed” (Book I Ch.34). This is consistent with Theodbald leading an independent or semi-independent unit, whose fortune in the battle differed from that of the unit(s) under Aethelferth’s command.

The Brittonic sources suggest somewhat larger numbers, at 300 and 2100, respectively. Both are multiples of 300, which may indicate that they owe as much to poetic convention as to a muster roll. Nevertheless, they presumably give an idea of the sort of numbers that sounded reasonable to the intended audience. Y Gododdin presents elegies to fallen heroes from a variety of kingdoms, which would be consistent with a ‘modular’ alliance made up of multiple independent warbands under joint leadership, as suggested above. The Three Faithful Warbands triad claims that 2100 men comprised a single warband, a far larger number than any of the other sources. However, the Triads survive in a medieval manuscript which may have had numbers mis-copied over the years, or the numbers may have been increased to reflect medieval poets’ ideas about the expected size for an army.

Arthur’s (legendary?) battle at Badon has by far the largest number in any of the sources, at 960 casualties, implying that unless the casualty rate was 100% – surely an impossible feat even for the (legendary?) King Arthur – the number of participants was presumably considerably higher. The number itself may reflect poetic convention, miscopying or plain exaggeration. However, it is roughly three times the number of the doomed company of Y Gododdin, which would be consistent with Badon being regarded (in poetic convention and popular culture at least) as a battle of unusual size and importance. There is no indication of the size of the Arthurian force that inflicted the 960 casualties – assuming that Arthur had an army with him, and was not a superhero who despatched them all single-handed.

The limited documentary evidence available appears consistent with fairly small numbers for armies in the early medieval period, of the order of magnitude of a few dozen or a few hundred, perhaps organised as independent or semi-independent warbands which could be assembled into a larger army under a common leader as occasion demanded.


Alexander M (translator). The earliest English poems. Penguin Classics, 1991, ISBN 978-0-140-44594-7.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Historia Brittonum ch. 56, available online
Koch JT. The Gododdin of Aneirin. Text and context from Dark-Age North Britain. University of Wales Press, 1997. ISBN 0-7083-1374-4
Laws of Ine, available online in Old English
Red Book of Hergest, available online

*’More or less’ because the 755 entry says that Cynewulf reigned 31 winters, which would place the fatal fight in 786 rather than 784.

01 June, 2010

Stob Ban, in the Mamores

The Mamores is the name of a range of hills in the western Highlands of Scotland, running roughly east to west and located south of Fort William and north of the fjord-like sea loch of Loch Leven. The Mamores contain some of the finest hills in Scotland (which is saying something), and the various peaks can be climbed separately or linked together in a variety of ways to make circuits and horseshoes. Kinlochleven, a village at the head of the loch, makes an excellent base. See the map link on Streetmap here for the location - you can move about and zoom in and out as you see fit.

Stob Ban (Gaelic: White Peak) is the second most westerly hill in the range. With its bright white quartzite cap and the steep crags on its north-eastern face, it has a dramatic profile:

Stob Ban seen from the summit of Sgurr an Iubhair, the neighbouring peak to the east

There are various ways up Stob Ban, the most usual routes starting in Glen Nevis to the north. We climbed it from the Kinlochleven side by crossing Sgurr an Iubhair first, then climbing Stob Ban by its east ridge from the col between Stob Ban and Sgorr an Iubhair. If you start from Glen Nevis using the path up Coire a Mhusgain, you arrive at this same col from the north.

Looking up the east ridge of Stob Ban from the col between Stob Ban and Sgurr an Iubhair. The route goes more or less up the crest of the ridge, above the crags of the north-east face.

Looking up the east ridge of Stob Ban from part way up (roughly, from just above the first rocky patch in the first photo of the ridge). It doesn't look so intimidating close to, and you can see the path weaving its way among the outcrops.

Looking down the east ridge back to the col from the summit shoulder of Stob Ban.

Close up view of the vertiginous crags on the edge of the east ridge. You can pick out the path as a pinkish line in the quartzite, mostly keeping its distance back from the edge.

View from the summit of Stob Ban looking west to the most westerly of the Mamores range, Mullach nan Coirean (Gaelic: rounded hill of the corries) with the distant hills of Ardgour in the background. Mullach nan Coirean makes a splendid walk in its own right, especially when combined with Stob Ban in a circuit from Glen Nevis. The contrast between the red granite of the Mullach and the white quartzite on Stob Ban is striking; the junction is in the col connecting the two, and presumably reflects some geological faultline.

View from the summit of Stob Ban looking east along the rest of the Mamores range - waiting to be climbed on another day.