30 August, 2013

The Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof, by E.A. Dineley. Book review

Constable and Robinson, 2013. ISBN 978-1-78033-227-7. 584 pages. Review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

The Death of Lyndon Wilder is set in 1813-1814 among the country gentry of Wiltshire, England. All the main characters are fictional.

Lyndon Wilder, adored eldest son of Lord and Lady Charles Wilder, has been killed in Spain in the Napoleonic Wars. His death has left his parents, especially his mother, paralysed by grief. The once-prosperous estate is neglected, in debt and in danger of complete ruin. Into this unhappy household comes Anna Arbuthnot, the intelligent and well-educated daughter of a respectable clergyman, to work as governess to Lyndon Wilder’s orphaned daughter Lottie. Anna establishes a bond with her wayward young charge, but Lady Charles views her with snobbish suspicion. Soon after, Lyndon’s younger brother Major Thomas Wilder also arrives, summoned by his ineffectual father to set the estate to rights. Thomas is a successful artillery officer and has seen little of his parents for fifteen years. He is reluctant to exchange his active, satisfying profession for the stifling confines of his parents’ decaying estate, especially as his mother makes no secret of her extreme preference for Lyndon. The company of his little niece Lottie and the new governess Anna provide some compensation for Thomas, as does the challenge of restoring the neglected estate – until a shameful secret from the past threatens to destroy everything…

The title, and to some extent the jacket copy, ‘…Nothing is as it seems…’ initially made me think this was going to be a murder mystery.  It isn’t.  Instead it’s a sharply observed, well written and subtly characterised family drama, following the fortunes of a group of people as they interact with each other and their circumstances.

The characterisation was the best feature of the book, for me. All the main characters, and many of the minor ones, are fully rounded individuals with a mix of good and not-so-good qualities, their own history, and their own lives to lead, within the constraints imposed on them by social expectation and family duty. Tensions and conflicts are gradually revealed as the narrative progresses. Lord Charles is kind-hearted, but his inability to make decisions looks likely to inflict ruin on himself and all those who depend on him. Lady Charles is devastated by the loss of her favourite child Lyndon, whom she idolised as perfect in every way, and so self-centred that she imposes her misery on everyone around her, compounded by her obsession with maintaining her social standing. Thomas is honest and honourable, both of which conflict with his sense of family duty. And Lyndon, despite being dead, still influences his family’s lives from beyond the grave. It was his death that set events in motion, and his true character is slowly revealed as the narrative develops. Even the minor characters have lives of their own, from the enigmatic intelligence officer Captain Allington, who is on hand when his friend Thomas most needs him, to the housemaid who shrewdly manufactures an opportunity to get herself promoted to lady’s maid.

The plot itself is undramatic, more concerned with the subtly changing relationships between the characters than with action or adventure.

The book is beautifully written in an understated style that suits both the period and the subject matter.  It is narrated in third person with the viewpoint switching between the characters, so the reader gets to see people and their actions from their own and others’ point of view.  This is one reason why the family drama works so well.  It also produces some delightful moments on the small scale, such as the scene where one character is attempting to assess whether his family is at risk of blackmail, while the object of his attention, a charming but air-headed lady, is actually wondering if he admires the colour of her dress.

Beautifully written, subtly characterised family drama set among the English country gentry of the early nineteenth century.

25 August, 2013

Dunwich Heath

Dunwich Heath is one of the few areas of coastal lowland heath remaining in eastern England.  It lies on the Suffolk coast, between Dunwich village and the bird reserve at Minsmere.

Dunwich today is a pretty coastal village with an attractive shingle beach:

Dunwich beach


Dunwich is a possible candidate for the location of Dommoc, where St Felix established the bishopric of the Kingdom of East Anglia under the patronage of King Sigeberht in the 630s.

In the Middle Ages Dunwich was a major town and an international port, until a series of fierce storms in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century destroyed the harbour, silted up the river and swept large parts of the town into the sea.

Dunwich Heath is south of the village, a wide open space of sandy soils covered in gorse, bracken and heather.  In the time of King Sigebehrt and St Felix, much of the Suffolk coast would have looked like this.  The heath is especially lovely in late summer, when the heather comes into bloom and carpets the landscape in purple flowers, alive with bees and other insects.

Dunwich Heath

Close-up of heather flowers

Peacock butterfly

21 August, 2013

August recipe: Plum bread

Most recipes for plum bread use dried fruit, usually raisins.  However, fresh plums work very well in plum cake, so I thought I would try fresh plums in plum bread.  Here’s the recipe.

Plum bread
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) sugar
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried baking yeast
12 oz (approx 350 g) strong white bread flour
1 oz (approx 25 g) light brown soft sugar
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) salt
Milk to mix
6 oz (approx 150 g) fresh plums, after removing the stones

Put about 25 ml of boiling water and 25 ml of cold water into a cup.  Stir in the half-teaspoon of sugar.  Sprinkle the dried yeast on top.  

Leave for 10-15 minutes for the yeast to froth up.

Mix the flour, light brown soft sugar and salt in a bowl.  Make a hollow in the centre.  Pour the yeast liquid into the hollow and mix well.  Gradually add milk until the mixture forms a soft dough.

Knead the dough for a minute or two.

Put the dough back in the bowl and leave for 45-60 min to rise.

Grease a baking sheet.

Remove the stones from the plums and chop roughly.  I usually halve the plums, then cut each half into quarters.

Knead the dough again for a minute or two.  Roll out the dough on a floured work surface to a rectangle about 7 inches (approximately 18 cm) wide and about twice as long.

Spread the chopped plums over two-thirds of the rectangle of dough. Fold the other one-third of the dough up over the plums.  Then fold again over the remaining third, so you end up with alternating layers of dough and plums.  Press the edges together along each side so the plums are fully enclosed.
Roll the layered dough again to make a square about 7-8 inches (approximately 18-20 cm) square.

Put the square of layered dough on the greased baking sheet. Mark into 3 x 3 squares.  Leave for another 45-60 minutes to rise again.

Bake for 25-30 min in a hot oven (approx 250 C) until the loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the base.

Cool on a wire rack.

When cool, cut along the marks to make 9 squares of plum bread.

02 August, 2013

Location of Rheged: the poetry

Rheged (also spelled Reged, Reget) was a kingdom in early medieval Britain.  Its most famous king, Urien, was active some time in the late sixth century.  He is recorded in Historia Brittonum and royal genealogies, and was lauded in the poetry attributed to Taliesin.  However, the name of the kingdom itself is known only from poetry; Historia Brittonum describes a military campaign by Urien against the kingdom of Bryneich (Bernicia) on the coast of what is now north-east England, but does not name or locate Urien’s kingdom.

In an earlier post, I discussed the location of other known kingdoms and the (limited) place name evidence, and came to the conclusion that Rheged was located somewhere in a large region on the west coast of Britain stretching roughly from Strathclyde to Lancashire.  Can the poetry narrow down the location any further?

Taliesin poetry

The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain

In the morning of Saturday there was a great battle,
From when the sun rose until it gained its height.
Flamdwyn hastened in four hosts
Godeu and Reged to overwhelm.
They extended from Argoed to Arvynyd.

--Book of Taliesin, The Affair of Argoed Llwyfain, available online

‘Argoed Llywfain’ translates approximately as ‘Near the elm wood’, which is not very helpful for specifying a location; there were a lot of elm woods in sixth-century Britain. The element ‘llwyf’, ‘elm’, is found in several modern place names spread over a wide area, including Ashton-under-Lyne (east of Manchester), Lympne (Kent), Leamington Spa (Warwickshire) and Lymington (Hampshire) (Room 1993).  ‘Elm’ names may not be quite as ubiquitous as ‘derwent’ (‘oak’) names, but they seem sufficiently widespread to be little help in identifying a specific location.

‘Arvynyd’ looks to me like a compound of ‘Ar’ (near, adjacent) and ‘Mynydd’ (mountain), in which case it would translate approximately as ‘Near the mountain’, also too general to be helpful (caveat that I am not a linguist and it may mean something quite different).  If it does mean ‘near the mountain’, the phrase may not refer to actual place names at all but may mean that the army being described was flanked on one side by woodland and on the other by high ground (quite a sensible position to take up before a battle).  Or it may be a poetic construct in the same vein as phrases like ‘from the mountains to the sea’, perhaps to indicate that the army was so large that it filled the whole plain, or something similar.

‘Godeu’ is bracketed with Rheged and was presumably another region or kingdom.  It could be an ally fighting alongside Rheged forces in the battle being described, or another target for Flamdwyn’s attacking army.  Tim Clarkson says that ‘Goddeu’ or ‘Godeu’ means ‘the trees’ or ‘the forest’ (Clarkson 2010 p. 35).  He suggests on linguistic grounds that it could have become Cadyow or Cadzow.  This was the previous name of the modern town of Hamilton on the River Clyde south of Glasgow (Clarkson 2010 p. 36-7), and survives in the name of nearby Cadzow Castle.  If correct, this may indicate that the Battle of Argoed Llwyfain was fought somewhere near this area; or that a kingdom in this area was allied with Rheged at the time; or that Flamdwyn was a threat to this area.  If it is a general topographical place name indicating a wooded area (caveat that I do not know how secure the translation is), it seems to me that there may also have been other places with the same name.

The Battle of Gwen Ystrad

The men of Catraeth arose with the dawn,
About the Guledig, of work a profitable merchant
This Urien
At Gwenystrad, continuously offerers of battle.
Hand on the cross they wail on the gravel bank of Garanwynyon.
I saw a brow covered with rage on Urien,
When he furiously attacked his foes at the white stone
Of Galystem. His rage was a blade;

--Book of Taliesin, The Battle of Gwen Ystrad, available online

‘Gwen Ystrad’ translates approximately as ‘white valley’. ‘Ystrad’ is cognate with the Scottish place name element ‘Strath’ and indicates a large, broad valley, rather than a narrow mountain glen.  The phrase immediately conjures up an image of the wide limestone dales of Yorkshire with their white or grey rock outcrops, but many other places could be equally well be described as a ‘white valley’.  ‘Garanwynyon’ is presumably a river name or a description of a river (and the river presumably had gravel banks), but if it has ever been identified I don’t know of it.  Similarly, if the ‘white stone of Galystem’ has ever been located I don’t know of it.

‘Catraeth’ is traditionally identified with Catterick in Yorkshire.  The identification is uncertain (I may come back to this question in another post).  If correct, it would be compatible with a location for Gwen Ystrad somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales, as Catterick is at the mouth of Swaledale and on an important Roman road.  However, it is worth noting that the poem refers to ‘the men of Catraeth’ fighting with Urien; it does not say that the battle of Gwen Ystrad was fought at Catraeth. In any case, early medieval armies were quite capable of fighting battles considerable distances from their home territories, so Catraeth (wherever it was) may not have been in Rheged at all.

A Song for Urien Rheged

To me has been extended.
The lofty Llwyvenydd,

--Book of Taliesin, A Song for Urien Rheged, available online

The Satisfaction of Urien

Urien will not refuse me
The lands of Llwyvenydd.

--Book of Taliesin, The Satisfaction of Urien, available online

The Spoils of Taliesin, a Song to Urien

Like a wave that governs Llwyvenydd.

--Book of Taliesin, The Spoils of Taliesin, a Song to Urien, available online

These poems imply that Llwyvenydd is an estate or territory controlled by Urien, where Taliesin is made welcome.  Llwyvenydd contains the same Brittonic place-name element ‘llwyf’ (elm) as Argoed Llwyfain.

The River Lyvennet near Penrith has a name that looks as though it might be a modernised form of ‘Llwyvenydd’.  Tim Clarkson is of the opinion that the resemblance is no more than superficial (Clarkson 2010, p.73). I am not a linguist, so I have to take his word for that.  He does not suggest an alternative derivation for Lyvennet, so presumably it could be derived from ‘llwyf’. As discussed above, ‘elm’ place names are widespread, so the name element is too general to be much help with identification. However, although ‘elm’ place names are widespread, the name ‘Lyvennet’ itself is unusual; it is much closer to ‘Llwyvenydd’ than the ‘Lyne’ or ‘Lym’ forms of other ‘elm’ place names.  This is far from conclusive, but it is at least a straw to clutch. 

The Death-Song of Owain

The soul of Owain, son of Urien […]
There will not be found a match for the chief of the glittering west

--Book of Taliesin, The Death Song of Owain, available online

The lovely phrase ‘the glittering west’ immediately calls to mind the Lake District, or the coastlands of Cumbria and/or Galloway.  This is pure speculation on my part, and I do not know how reliable the translation is.

Other Taliesin poems

Other poems attributed to Taliesin give a list of battles and a description of what appears to be a sizeable cattle raid.  Not all of the places mentioned can be identified.  However, of those that are identifiable, all except Powys (in what is now mid-Wales) are in what is now northern England or southern Scotland, suggesting that this area was the focus of Urien’s activity. See earlier post ‘The battles of Urien Rheged’ for more details.


It seems clear that Rheged was located somewhere in the region bounded approximately by Strathclyde on the north, the Pennine chain on the east, Lancashire or possibly the Mersey area (depending where one places the kingdom of Craven) on the south, and the Irish Sea coast on the west.  This region was not the core territory of known early medieval kingdoms, but centres of high-status early medieval occupation have been identified by archaeology at Birdoswald and Trusty’s Hill. It seems a likely setting for the various un-located kings and kingdoms named in poetry and genealogies, including Rheged.

Urien’s military career was associated mainly with northern England and southern Scotland, as far as can be judged from the place names that are identifiable. His son Owain and (probable) great-grand-daughter Rhianmellt were also associated with the north of England and/or southern Scotland.  Given that early medieval armies could campaign over considerable distances (see earlier post on campaigning ranges), this is consistent with the broad geographical region described above, but does not necessarily narrow it down much.

Unfortunately, the names in the Taliesin poetry are also too general to definitively locate Rheged.  ‘Llwyvenydd’ and ‘the glittering west’ are clearly identified as places where Urien and Owain lived and ruled, as distinct from somewhere they fought battles, which makes them the most interesting for identifying Rheged’s core territory.  ‘The glittering west’ could apply to anywhere on the west coast if it refers to the gleaming sea (assuming the translation is accurate).  ‘Llwyvenydd’ contains the place-name element ‘llwyf’, ‘elm’, which occurs widely in place names. The resemblance of ‘Llwyvenydd’ to the modern name of the River Lyvennet near Penrith may be significant, or may be chance.  Even if Lyvennet is derived from ‘Llwyvenydd’, there may have been other places called ‘Llwyvenydd’ in the sixth century whose names have now been lost.

One of the poems describing Urien’s battle exploits says that he ‘came in the day to Aeron' and could imply that he was not an aggressor there (see earlier post on the battles of Urien Rheged). Aeron may be a reference to the region around modern Ayr. The mention of Godeu in ‘The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain’ may refer to the area around modern Hamilton. These may indicate that Rheged had some association with these areas, which may suggest a location in what is now south-west Scotland, perhaps on the southern border of Strathclyde.  Such a location would be consistent with battles fought at Dumbarton Rock, Bremenium (High Rochester), Stirling and Lindisfarne. As the poem says that Urien ‘came in the day’ to Aeron, it may be an indication that Aeron was somewhere that he travelled to, rather than his home territory, and the mention of ‘Godeu and Rheged’ side by side suggests that they were considered separate areas.  If so, this may indicate that Godeu and Aeron were regions in their own right, not considered part of Rheged, and that Urien’s home territory of Rheged lay elsewhere. It is unlikely to have been to the west, since Ayr is on the west coast, or to the north, since it seems unlikely that there was enough space for a substantial kingdom between Ayr and the territory of Strathclyde.  It could have been to the east, in the upland area around Selkirk and Galashiels, or to the south nearer to the Solway Firth. Both these locations would be reasonably consistent with the identifiable locations of Urien’s battles.  Selkirk is perhaps a better fit with the battles than Solway (although it is worth bearing in mind that there are other battles that have not been identified). Furthermore, someone raised a memorial stone with a Latin inscription in the Yarrow Valley near Selkirk some time in the sixth century. Unfortunately, the names on the stone bear no resemblance to the names in the Rheged genealogies (otherwise the mystery of Rheged’s location would be conclusively solved!), but it indicates that someone important was associated with the region at about the right time. Conversely, Solway is a better fit with the phrase ‘lord of the glittering west’, and the River Lyvennet is an obvious candidate for the Llwyvenydd place name.

So, although there are a few more clues in the poetry, they still do not give a conclusive answer. Rheged could have been anywhere on the western side of Britain from Strathclyde to Lancashire.  Its position within this region, its size, its boundaries, and any changes over time, are all open to interpretation. The two strongest candidates are perhaps the area around Selkirk (which fits well with the locations of Urien’s battles), and the area around the Solway Firth, which fits with Llwyvenydd if this later became the River Lyvennet, and with the ‘glittering west’. But a case could be made for almost anywhere, as Tim Clarkson says (Clarkson 2010 p.74-5).

Personally, I like the idea that Rheged was located around the head of the Solway Firth, including at least the northern part of the Lake District, the Eden valley, and part of the north shore of the Solway. This forms a reasonably coherent region with Carlisle at its hub, potentially controlling access to the coast on both sides of the Solway, the Eden valley radiating to the south, Annandale and Nithsdale radiating to the north, and the Roman roads across the Pennines along Hadrian’s Wall or to Catterick.  Water transport could also have connected both shores of the estuary. 

The high ground of the Pennine spine forms a natural barrier to the east.  The high ground of the Southern Uplands forms a similar natural barrier to the north. The ridge west of Nithsdale or the ridge of Cairnsmore of Fleet could form another natural barrier part way along the north shore of the Solway.  To the south, the high ground of the central Lake District and Mallerstang at the head of the Eden valley could form another natural barrier. It may (or may not!) be significant that the historic county boundary between Lancashire and Cumberland ran through the middle of the Lake District, across the high ground of the central fells. 

The many lakes and tarns of the Lake District and the gleaming sea and sands of the Solway could happily be described as ‘the glittering west’.  The Lyvennet valley, a tributary of the Eden, is in this area and close to the Roman road over the Pennines to Catterick. Birdoswald is in the middle of this area.  Trusty’s Hill might be within it, depending on the location chosen for the hypothetical western boundary.

The early medieval period was a time of flux, and kingdoms may not have stayed stable for long.  Bernicia and Deira certainly combined, separated and recombined more than once before they eventually merged into a more or less united Northumbria, and kings fought and conquered each other regularly.  Other kingdoms may have done the same.  This suggested area for Rheged may have been divided into smaller units at times, or may have extended further at other times, especially under particularly successful kings.

As ever, other interpretations are possible.

Map links

Book of Taliesin, available online
Room A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, 1993. ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.
Clarkson T. The Men of the North. Birlinn, 2010. ISBN 978-1-906566-18-0.