29 June, 2013

June recipe: Strawberry and lemon layer pudding

This is a lovely summer dessert.  The lemon mixture separates during cooking to form a lemon sauce with a light spongy layer on top.  The sharpness of the lemon brings out the flavour of summer berries.  You can use raspberries instead of strawberries if preferred. 

The lemon pudding can be made in advance, then the fruit added just before serving.

The quantity below serves 4-6 people.  It will keep for a day or two in the fridge, if it gets the chance.

Strawberry and lemon layer pudding

3 oz (approx 75 g) light brown soft sugar
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter
1 lemon
1 oz (approx 25 g) self-raising flour
0.5 teaspoon (2.5 ml spoon) ground nutmeg
4 fl oz (approx 120 ml) milk
2 eggs, separated

Approximately 1 lb (approx 450 g) fresh ripe strawberries

Grease a deep heatproof dish about 7 inches (approx 18 cm) diameter and about 3 inches (approx 8 cm) deep, preferably one with straight sides like a souffle dish. 

Cream the butter and sugar together until soft.

Beat in the egg yolks.

Beat in the nutmeg and flour.

Stir in the rind and juice of the lemon.

Gradually stir in the milk to make a thin batter.

Whisk the egg whites until they stand in soft peaks.

Using a metal spoon, fold the whisked egg whites into the lemon mixture.

Pour the mixture into the greased heatproof dish.

Put a roasting tin half full of water in the oven, and stand the heatproof dish in the tin of water.  Bake in a moderately hot oven at about 180 C for about 30-35 minutes until the pudding is set and the top is golden.

Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the dish.

Remove the leaves from the strawberries.  Halve the strawberries if they are large, or leave whole if small.

When the lemon pudding is completely cold, arrange the strawberries on top.

Serve with cream if liked.

18 June, 2013

The House At Old Vine, by Norah Lofts. Book review

First published 1961. Edition reviewed: The History Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7524-4868-8. 349 pages.

The House at Old Vine is set in 1496-1680, mainly in and around the fictional town of Baildon in Suffolk. Some historical events and figures appear in the background, such as the English Civil War. All the main characters are fictional.

The House at Old Vine follows on from The Town House (reviewed here earlier), and continues the tale of Martin Reed’s descendants and the other inhabitants of the house he built. Maude Reed, Martin’s grand-daughter, appears in The Town House and also in The House at Old Vine, and links the two novels.  Like its predecessor, The House at Old Vine consists of several separate but interlinked tales, each recounted by a different narrator.  Usually the narrators are a generation or two apart.  This gives the book more of the feel of a collection of linked short stories than a conventional novel.  The unusual structure works well, partly because the house itself is the main source of continuity.  The people come and go, some remembered by the generations who follow them and some forgotten, while the house endures through the centuries.  The structure also has the effect of showing some characters from different points of view, thus throwing new light on their actions and behaviour.

As in The Town House, The House at Old Vine conveys an authentic sense of how it might have been to live and work in a provincial English town during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most of the narrators are middle class, as they belong to a family that owns not only a substantial house but also a business based there, whether it is cloth manufacturing, a hostelry or a kindly but down-at-heel boarding school.  Sometimes the perspective is from lower down the social scale, as with Josiana’s description of the unrelenting toil of the medieval peasant’s life, or outside it altogether, as in Ethelreda’s vivid account of her childhood in the Fens before the traditional way of life was extinguished by landowners’ drainage schemes. The great events of politics and war happen in the background, and profoundly shape the lives and choices available to the characters.  From the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, when “…the beliefs for which Walter Rancon had died were now compulsory”, to the spies and plots of the Civil War, the inhabitants of the house experience and respond to the events of their times as well as to their personal concerns. Social changes shape the different generations of narrators too, as wool manufacture gives way to silk with changes in trade and fashion, or the demise of the monasteries leaves an unfilled need for hostelries that can accommodate respectable travellers, or the expansion of the East India Company (forerunner of Empire) creates a demand for boarding schools where the children of expatriate officials can be brought up and educated, or as new forms of entertainment such as plays and concerts become widely popular.  The house too changes with the times, evolving from private house to manufacturing enterprise to hotel to boarding school and back again.

Characterisation is lively and convincing.  All the narrators and many of the secondary characters are individuals with their own foibles and motivations, mostly neither good nor bad but something in between.  There seems to be a strange psychopathic trait that crops out occasionally in the descendants of Martin Reed – readers of The Town House will recognise its supposed origin – described by the perceptive Maude Reed as “The charm and the heartlessness […] Something not – not quite human, something wild and unaccountable”. For the most part the narrators are not the people with this characteristic, but the ones trying to deal with its consequences. 

There is no historical note or map, perhaps reflecting the original publication date (1961), or perhaps because all the main characters, places and events are fictional.

Sequel to The Town House, taking the story of Martin Reed’s house and his descendants into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

12 June, 2013

Durham Cathedral Cloister

Durham Cathedral was founded in 995 by a group of English monks looking for a secure site to establish a monastery to house the relics of St Cuthbert, having been driven out of the island monastery of Lindisfarne by Viking raids.  After a providential encounter with a milkmaid, they settled on a spectacular steep-sided peninsula above the River Wear (see earlier post on Durham Cathedral).

The English monastery was replaced by a Benedictine foundation after the Norman conquest, and a monastery remained on the site until the Dissolution in the mid-sixteenth century.

The heart of the medieval monastery was the cloister, which adjoins the south side of the cathedral.  The present cloister dates from the fifteenth century, although the layout dates back to the building of the Norman cathedral.  

View of the cloister courtyard.


Looking along one of the cloister ranges.  Originally the windows would have been glazed. The cloister would have been used for study and probably also as a scriptorium for manuscript copying.

The ceiling of the cloister has a wealth of intricately carved wooden bosses at each of the junctions…

…including this rather splendid Green Man

01 June, 2013

The battles of Urien Rheged

Urien (also spelled Urbgen or Uryen) was king of the territory of Rheged, somewhere in what is now north-west England and/or south-west Scotland, in the late sixth century. For more information, see my earlier post ‘Urien Rheged’. The surviving sources all portray him as a successful warrior and military leader.  What can we say about his military career?


Historia Brittonum

Adda, son of Ida, reigned eight years; Ethelric, son of Adda, reigned four years. Theodoric, son of Ida, reigned seven years. Freothwulf reigned six years. In whose time the kingdom of Kent, by the mission of Gregory, received baptism. Hussa reigned seven years. Against him fought four kings, Urien, and Ryderthen, and Gualllauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien. But at that time sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were defeated, and he shut them up three days and three nights in the island of Metcaut; and whilst he was on an expedition he was murdered, at the instance of Morcant, out of envy, because he possessed so much superiority over all the kings in military science.

 --Historia Brittonum, chapter 63, available online 

Metcaut is the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island), off the coast of what is now north-east England.

Taliesin poetry

The poems ‘The Battle of Gwen Ystrad’ and ‘The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain’ each describe a single battle. These may have been especially important battles in Urien’s career, since a whole poem is devoted to each (although, more prosaically, they could just be chance survivors of a larger number of poems describing Urien’s battles).

‘Argoed Llwyfain’ translates approximately as ‘By the Elm Wood’, and ‘Gwen Ystrad’ as ‘White Valley’, which are unfortunately rather too general to locate either battle precisely.  There were probably many places that could have been described as a ‘white valley’ (the limestone dales of northern England spring to mind), and many places that were ‘by an elm wood’.

One of the poems attributed to Taliesin gives a list of battles:

A battle in the ford of Alclud, a battle at the Inver.
The battle of Cellawr Brewyn. The battle of Hireurur.
A battle in the underwood of Cadleu, a battle in Aberioed.
He interposes with the steel loud (and) great.
The battle of Cludvein, the affair of the head of the wood.

--A Song for Urien Rheged (4), available online 

It also says:

Until Urien came in the day to Aeron.
He was not an aggressor, there appeared not
The uplifted front of Urien before Powys.

--A Song for Urien Rheged (4), available online 

Another describes what seems to be a sizeable cattle raid:

Purposing the affair of Mynaw.
And more harmony,
Advantage flowing about his hand.
Eight score of one colour
Of calves and cows.
Much cows and oxen.

--A Song for Urien Rheged (3), available online 


Lindisfarne (Holy Island) is off the coast of what is now north-east England.

Some of the names in the Taliesin poetry are identifiable.  Alclud is ‘The Rock of Clyde’ and refers to Dumbarton Rock on the Clyde estuary. Presumably the ‘ford of Alclud’ was a crossing-place nearby. 

‘Cellawr Brewyn’ means ‘the huts of Brewyn’.  Brewyn could refer to the Roman fort of Bremenium at modern Rochester in Northumberland, on the major Roman road of Dere Street. 

‘Inver’ is the Gaelic equivalent of Welsh ‘Aber’, meaning ‘mouth’ or ‘confluence’.  The name is too general for the location to be identified.  It presumably refers to a location at or near a river-mouth or river confluence in a Gaelic-speaking area, which could be almost anywhere – perhaps in Ireland, or the kingdom of Dal Riada in the south-west Highlands (roughly modern Argyll), or possibly a Gaelic-speaking area on the Irish Sea coast of modern Cumbria or Galloway. (Edit: My thanks to Beth (see comment thread) for pointing out that 'Inver' is a doubtful translation and may not be a place name at all).

Mynaw (Manau) could refer to either the Isle of Man or the area around Stirling. Stirling is perhaps a more likely location for a cattle-raid, as retrieving a large number of cattle from an island might be a troublesome business.  Conversely, the Isle of Man is not that far from the coast of north-west England/south-west Scotland, and not necessarily inaccessible if Rheged was a maritime power with access to shipping. 

Powys was a kingdom in what is now north-east and mid-Wales, and may also have extended into the lowland areas that are now Shropshire and Cheshire (see earlier article on ‘Early medieval Powys’ for more detail). Aeron may refer to the area around Ayr in south-west Scotland.  The poem seems to indicate that Urien’s presence in these areas was not hostile, since it says ‘he was not an aggressor’ (caveat that I do not know whether alternative translations are possible; some of the Taliesin poems are problematic and translations vary).  This could perhaps indicate that Urien was considered the rightful ruler, defending his territory.  However, Powys had its own royal dynasty, recorded in genealogies and with some of the kings mentioned in sources such as Annales Cambriae, so it is difficult to see how Urien could have been considered the rightful ruler of Powys (unless perhaps as some sort of over-king). If he was not an aggressor, perhaps the suggestion is that he was present as an ally of the local king.  If so, this would fit with the interpretation of the ‘four kings’ who fought Theodric in Historia Brittonum as an alliance, and may suggest that Urien was also capable of operating in alliances elsewhere.


Of the names that are identifiable, all except Powys are in what is now northern England or southern Scotland, suggesting that this area was the focus of Urien’s activity (caveat that the unidentified names could be in different areas). 

The names cover a wide area, from Dumbarton Rock on the west coast to Lindisfarne on the east coast and from Stirling (if Manau is Stirling) in the north to Powys in the south.  If they represent the locations of battles or campaigns in which Urien fought, they suggest that Urien was capable of campaigning over considerable distances.  If Manau is the Isle of Man, it may indicate that he had campaigned by sea as well as by land. This is consistent with Urien having had a long and successful military career.

Interestingly, all the places except Powys are north of Hadrian’s Wall. This may indicate that the core of Urien’s territory was also north of Hadrian’s Wall.  Alternatively, if the battles were mainly fought against rivals and neighbouring kingdoms outside his home territory, their locations may indicate that Urien’s core territory was elsewhere, perhaps south of Hadrian’s Wall.


Taliesin, A Song for Urien Rheged (4), available online 
Taliesin, A Song for Urien Rheged (3), available online
Historia Brittonum, available online  

Map links