Saturday 28 November 2020

Ocelot Press #SALE!

Black Friday has already been and gone for 2020!

However, at Ocelot Press we decided to keep our reductions in place till... you've probably guessed it...Cyber Monday!

That means a few more days to take advantage of the 99p/c purchases from our growing selection. You'll find that roughly half of the fantastic Ocelot titles are at 99p/c. 

Since 3 of my own titles are reduced for this SALE, you'll find that means lots of choices from my books are offered at 99p.

Hop on over to Amazon using this link and see just how many of mine can be snapped up at this mega-bargain price. HERE

Do a search for Ocelot Press on Amazon to find the reduced titles from the other Ocelot Press authors who are participating: Sue Barnard; Vanessa Couchman; Cathie Dunn; Yvonne Marjot and  Jennifer C. Wilson.

Enjoy the excellent reads, which I can heartily recommend since I've read them all. 


Monday 9 November 2020

Late #Regency or #Victorian decorating?

Monday musings! 

It's definitely a murky grey morning, the famous Aberdeenshire haar (mist) blanketing far inland. When I was growing up in Glasgow we might have called it a 'Pea Sooper' (soup), except in the 1950s and 1960s the stench of sooty coal-smoke added to the general fug, making it even more dense. 

However, the haar means it's atmospheric enough for me to wonder about the Georgian era walls in the room I'm currently renovating. The dining room, a sizeable room, doubles as my study when not used for feeding guests. Since the Covid 19 situation prevents even family gatherings (we're presently not allowed to visit anyone else's house), I could say it's an opportune time to do renovations. 

This story started with my need to improve the energy efficiency in my largely 200-year-old house. The house has an interesting history, and was the home and workplace of the village doctor (s) for generations up until the 1970s. I haven't yet found out who the very first doctor was who inhabited the house, but it was a definitely a doctor who built a purpose-built granite-walled extension as a surgery in approximately 1900. A further addition was made around the 1960s (?) as a dedicated patient waiting area with a toilet, but that was a fairly short-lived use of the room. The surgery became surplus to requirements in 1973 when a large health centre was created in the nearby market town, and the incumbent doctor took himself off to be based there rather than working from home. 

My house doesn't follow typical Aberdeenshire granite house proportions since the downstairs reception rooms range around 26-30 square metres, probably double the size of the rooms of a traditional average Aberdeenshire two-up, two-down granite house. The walls are typically three-feet thick granite blocks which means, though sturdy, the house is a challenge to heat and to make energy efficient! 

Two open fires burning coal or logs were only used occasionally, the central heating being the prime heating source. This meant that although the chimneys were a source of air flow, they could also be draughty and the expensive energy used to heat the rooms blithely went up the chimneys. The other problem was that being uncapped, the chimneys pots were a fine place for the local crows and blackbirds to nest-build, and it wasn't too unusual to have to get a live bird out of the lounge or dining room when it had fallen down the chimney.

I debated long and hard about changing to multi-fuel burners but eventually decided that it was time to go electric since the fires are likely to be only decorative and occasionally used, rather than daily-functional. I hate destroying history but energy saving had to be a priority. It was time to get rid of the 1930s built fireplace which was an ugly piece that I'd grown used to. You can decide for yourself if you think it handsome! 

I'm not sure which doctor would have been in situ when the green-mottled, sort-of Art Deco fireplace design was chosen but it probably replaced a larger Victorian mantel if the re-plastering shadows around the chimney breast are anything to go by. 

But back to the chimneys and specifically to the very decorative square chimney pots that remain undated. They are not at all typical of Aberdeenshire styles and have probably been imported (maybe from England) at some point. When investigated by the chimney sweep, they were found to be cracked and most of the six matching pots needed replacing. That may sound easy enough, but it proved not to be the case. They appear to be pretty unique around here and, though we tried, we could find no matching ones via the usual sources for recycled chimney pots across the United Kingdom. No current manufacturer makes the same style either, so if I had bought new ones they would not have been exact matches. An option might have been to spend literally thousands of pounds on having them created to my specific design. 

I hate to destroy history, and I really love the chimney pot design, but since the pots and chimney were going to become redundant anyway spending a small fortune was neither practical, nor sensible. My chimney stacks now have 6 new round ones that don't look too much out of place - they're less decorative but at least they all match. And...I'm incredibly glad the old ones have been replaced because I watched the slater remove the first one. All it took was for him to rock it back and forward a couple of times and he then lifted it right out of its slot, even though they are incredibly heavy. Since we've had some fierce storms lately, watching the very weighty chimney pot being removed so easily gave me some very scary moments.

A reclamation yard might take the sound ones but the others are destined to become garden planters which I'll be delighted to place in situ and then never move them again! 

My new simple-styled hearth is of different proportions from the previous one, so there is a bit of plastering work ongoing and I now need a joiner to replace the now-too-short, moulded, early Victorian era (?) skirting. My joinery and plastering skills are zilch but what I can do is the redecorating. i.e. wallpapering and painting. I've already made a start on painting the ceiling panels. This will be a slow process since I'll be doing some contrasting paintwork on the decorative ceiling cornices. Since the walls are 2.4 metres high, it means a lot of ladder climbing as I'm only 5 feet 2. (approx. 1.56m). 

When I stripped the walls of two top layers of paint and at least two of wallpaper, it has revealed some earlier design work. Since the house is believed to date to the early 1820s, it was constructed during the reign of George IV. The period style of that time is sometimes referred to as late Regency since George IV only acceded properly to the throne after his father, George III, died in 1820. From then George IV's full reign is sometimes termed late Georgian till he died in 1830. Victoria didn't become queen till 1837 after the death of William IV, George IV's younger brother. I have no way of knowing what the room originally looked like and Aberdeenshire house decoration may, of course, have reflected something quite different from what was typical elsewhere across the UK. 

The walls have three lines painted in dark-red durable paint very high up the walls. The painted lines  (an early oil paint?) are possibly original decoration separators with the rest of the walls whitewashed, or distempered when that type of paint became available. Or the painted lines may have been guide lines for the joiner to add the wooden architrave rails which were used to hang pictures or paintings from, in Victorian style decor rather than the original late Regency or late Georgian style. What I need to do now is do a little bit of research to see if my theories are anything like reasonable.

My main questions would be at what point were the guidelines created? Would it have been early on during its Regency era beginnings, or later on during the Victorian era?

The typical architrave 'dado' rails were set at the relatively low height of the top of a dining chair, the intention being to prevent the chair denting the plaster if the wood collided with the wall when being vacated. There are some plastered over holes around the room at this level which may indicate there was a dado rail in situ at some point but not enough to be sure. Of course, I have presently no evidence of how long the room has been used as a dining room, except knowing it has been used for dining since the early 1980s -  the owner we bought it from having used it as a dining room. 

One corner near the 'box' bay window shows signs of the entry door to the room having originally been at that location. The plaster there is different, according to the plasterer who has tidied up the area around my new fireplace, and he reckons that the lathe and plaster wall at that end above the radiator has a different 'sound' to it when he tapped it. The skirting board has also been extended below the 1970s radiator and there is a vertical line of dark-red paint which may have been a border edge around the door frame, which would back up the idea that for a while there may only have been a painted-on picture rail for some time. 

Behind the radiator was the Regency striped wallpaper you see below, but at a guess it was 1960s or 1970s wallpaper and not original Regency! 

Living in an old house means lots of that lovely research that I love to do! 

Much work has yet to be done in what will be my new study so till next time...


Tuesday 3 November 2020

#Vindolanda Roman Fort

Happy Tuesday!

What follows is more of my expanded Beathan The Brigante notes as I file away a lot of my research. Today's focus is on Vindolanda Fort which features in Beathan The Brigante. To Beathan, Vindolanda  Fort is a source of deep resentment but also supreme satisfaction. (It would be huge spoilers if I give more details here!)

I planned a visit to Vindolanda for June 2020 but, with the Covid 19 restrictions still current, it wasn't possible. So, rather than giving first-hand experience after a visit, I still have to rely on textbook and internet references. However, Vindolanda by Robin Birley (first published 2009) has provided me with useful information, as have my many other Roman Britain sources. Also sadly, I have no photos of my own and have to borrow them from the internet till I can get some of my very own. 


Extensive bathhouse,
though of a much later fort than the original.
Wikimedia Commons

Knowledge of the very first fort at Vindolanda is slight compared to later uses of the site. Due to the earliest remains being at a depth of between 2 and 3.5 metres below the levels of the latest stone buildings, only about half of the earliest remains have been uncovered. One of the important reasons that anything survived is due to the site not originally being level and that subsequent new development meant that the ground was filled in with deep turf layers, or debris, to improve the flatness for the next builders. The climate is rainy much of the year, which hampered the excavations at Vindolanda, but the ground itself is actually only slightly damp. What lay below was preserved as each successive new layer was created. The remains on the lowest levels are in surprisingly good condition due to the seals made when each new layer was prepared and, since very little oxygen is present, bacteria has not eroded too much of the materials. `

The first fort at Vindolanda was probably built around AD 85, which puts it around the time of General Agricola’s withdrawal back to Rome. Tacitus does not tell us how many of Agricola’s troops remained stationed in Caledonia after he left, but archaeology supports a continued use in many of the Caledonian forts for at least a year or two after Agricola left in late AD 84, or perhaps early AD 85. (In my Celtic Fervour Series, I’ve favoured an early AD 85 withdrawal for General Agricola)

Trimontium (Newstead) and Coria/ Corstopitum Supply Fort (Corbridge) also continued to be garrisoned which would have meant sufficient control of activity to the immediate north of Vindolanda when it was being built.

The site of Vindolanda is about half way across the narrow stretch of land between modern-day Carlisle (west) and Newcastle (east). It was around 30 miles from Carlisle, though just 12 miles from Corbridge which was an easy day’s march. Corbridge being a supply fort would perhaps have scheduled deliveries e.g. the necessary iron work for the initial timber construction at Vindolanda.   

The Vindolanda tablets record a garrisoning by the 1st Cohort Tungrian auxiliary unit during the pre-Hadrianic era who may, or may not, have been the original builders, since the unit was stationed there for some time. Tungrian forces were said to be part of Agricola’s armies at the battle named Mons Graupius by Tacitus, so it’s possible that they went south with General Agricola, or sometime fairly soon after him. At least some of those Tungrians could have been deployed in building the first Vindolanda fort, which may have been around 1000 strong (if a usual double strength 1st cohort), and covered around 2 ha (c. 4 acres)

The land around the Vindolanda fort was largely wet meadow, pasture and heathland, some of which was likely to have been farmed by the local Iron-Age tribes before the Romans chose their site. Though – as today  – it would have been hard subsistence farming, battling against the vagaries of the wild weather. The name Vindolanda is thought to have been Latinised from a local name meaning white fields, or white ‘lawns’. The initial fort was built on a relatively flat promontory with good natural defences to three sides, with burns flowing on three sides which fed into the River Tyne.

The Roman writer Vegetius, of the 2nd century AD,  was to write that fort gates should face the enemy or face south, but that was probably not the case at the original Vindolanda fort. The initial fort was aligned East-West, which seems significant because it was part of a line of defences which protected the main road from east to west, which was later named the Stanegate. Free passage along the Stanegate was important for the constant flow of military communication, personnel, and goods across what later became the western frontier.

One theory I’ve read is that the soldiers who initially built and garrisoned Vindolanda, may have also been the Stanegate road builders. This seems a reasonable assumption if the indigenous tribes to the south of the Stanegate were under control (mainly Brigantia), and the troops still stationed in southern Caledonian forts and fortlets were also controlling any serious opposition to the north. The geography of the land north and south of the Stanegate probably played its part, since the wild moors of the Southern Uplands and North-Pennines meant a relatively sparse local population to keep control over. There are few mentions in the Vindolanda tablet records of the indigenous population and it’s unlikely many, if any, would have hung around after the first wave of Romans descended upon the area. It’s unlikely there would have been much resistance (at least not till joined by others) and the idea of slavery would probably have deterred people from hanging around.  

The tree cover around Vindolanda would have been unlimited for the earliest timber fort. There’s evidence of alder, mature birch, hazel, willow, ash and even some pine. Sufficient supplies of very old oak were used to create the initial structural timbers of the wooden praetorium and principia, though it appears that these major command buildings were replaced in stone by the late AD 80s. Evidence of the first fort buildings indicates that they had interior wattled and daubed walls, and panelling was used for separating areas. Exterior walls seem to have been plastered and whitewashed. Some interior walls also seem to have been whitewashed and roofs of the initial buildings were covered with timber shingles. The bulk of the floors were of beaten earth which was layered with bracken, though at some point stone flagging and planking was also laid in places. 

The most surprising fact I read during the research of the first Vindolanda structure was that some buildings appear to have been glazed. Glass would been used sparingly in Rome, but for any of it to be used in construction on the western empire frontier was quite amazing. 

The construction order seems to have been that deep foundation trenches were dug and base beams were laid into these trenches. After this stage was completed, the timber uprights were bolted to the base beams and packed with stones for security. Unfortunately, those earliest builders had not counted on the amount of subsidence that seems to have plagued the initial ditches on the site. There’s evidence that some door accesses had to have steps formed to counteract the subsidence problem. These flights of stairs were needed for entry from outside, but also to move from room to room which (I think) would have been unusual in a fort, and inconvenient.

There’s sufficient evidence around the fort that supports the husbandry that was an integral part of the fort day-to-day-running. There would have been paddock areas where animals grazed inside the fort and field areas used outside.  Oxherds (bubulcarii, adiuvencos); swinherds (ad porcos) are mentioned in the Vindolanda tablets, which provided meat supplies, though the meat ration for the general soldier was perhaps only small quantities. There’s also evidence of early brewing (cervesarii) on the early fort sites. Unfortunately, the building of later levels has obscured most of the original wooden fort, so knowing what the interior layout was is presently impossible.

It’s clear that the sources for the main building materials were to be found close to hand around the Vindolanda environment, but in addition to local timber there were extremely valuable local deposits of iron ore; sandstone; coal; limestone(necessary for mortar bonding the stones of the stone forts); and even veins of lead. Whether these deposits were worked by the earliest soldiers at Vindolanda is hard to tell, but over the hundreds of years of Roman occupation the deposits were definitely worked using Roman toil.

A stone altar found in Beltingham churchyard, a couple of miles from Vindolanda, is dedicated to a goddess named Sattada and was commissioned by the ‘Curia of the Textoverdi’. This may mean the locals were from the Textoverdi tribe but this is still conjecture until more evidence can prove it. It could be that the church site was previously a local Iron-Age tribal site of Celtic religious significance, or the stone may have transported from some other origin.  

As I wrote the ‘Vindolanda’ scenes in Beathan The Brigante, I added tiny details from my research. Beathan sweeps Commander Verecundus’ praetorium and lays down new brackens as draught-proofing.  The Vindolanda tablets refer to a Commander Verecundus being in post in one of the earliest forts but it's not definite that Verecundus would have been there at the same time as my fictitious Beathan is used there as a fort slave. 

And later on in the story, Beathan's friend Torrin is detailed to free the animals from the animal pens during a raid on Vindolanda – but you can read all about this thrilling event in the novel!

One of the amazing things about writing fiction based on roman Britain is that often after I've completed the novel I find yet another gem for researching. That can be a book or it can be a video. This one was only discovered long after I completed and published Beathan The Brigante. I'm adding it here because it's one that I'm sure to return to again and again. 


[Check out the other video possibilities below - you might also find them interesting. ]

If you haven't read Beathan The Brigante yet here's the link! CLICK HERE