Monday 27 January 2014

The Prittlewell Prince, a Few Thoughts on Museums...and More Winter Birds

West Stow

First of all, thanks for all the lovely comments on my last post. There doesn't seem to have been much sun since I took those photos, just heavy rain, a bit of fog and an even more waterlogged garden. So gardening has been placed on hold at the moment - and with no gardening to do last Saturday morning (as planned) I decided to visit a museum instead to see some of the grave goods of the 'Prittlewell Prince'.

This royal burial was discovered a few years ago when archaeologists were excavating a known Anglo-Saxon graveyard in Prittlewell, near Southend, Essex. The grave goods unearthed included a gold belt buckle (below), coins, gold crosses, glass jars, bowls, drinking horns and weapons.  It was one of the richest Anglo-Saxon graves ever discovered.

Although there's no trace left of the body, it's believed that this was the grave of Sabert, king of the East Saxons, who converted to Christianity and died in AD 616. He would have been a contemporary of the High King, Raedwald, who it's believed was buried at Sutton Hoo. After Sabert's death his sons turned back openly to paganism and so Sabert's burial could well be a mixture of their pagan, and the old king's Christian, beliefs.

Bowl from the burial chamber

A few of the grave goods are currently on display in the Southend museum, but I must admit that I was disappointed that there weren't many of the finds on show.  It seems that there are plans to build a grand new Thames Estuary Museum to display everything properly, so I'll have to wait until then, I suppose, to see all the finds together.

My visit to see these finds from Prittlewell follows my trip to the (recreated) Anglo-Saxon village of West Stow, in Suffolk, on a very warm day last November. At that time of year, there was hardly anyone there, so we got to wander around on our own...

It's easy to imagine Anglo-Saxon life at West Stow and I love places like this.  My favourite kind of museums have always been the houses of people from the past (famous or not) where the rooms are displayed as if the occupants have just left them (rather than the old fashioned, rows-of-glass-cabinets museums).

I do like to visit the little museums you find in villages and small towns, though. I'm fascinated by all the local history and local stories and I love some of the quirky items in them (as long as they aren't stuffed animals or birds - I can't bear these). Do you have any of these tiny museums near you? If I can find the time, I'd like to visit more of these this year.

Anyway, back home and outside, it was, of course, the RSPB Garden Birdwatch at the weekend. There have been no surprises here, and there's still a worrying lack of some birds (like Sparrows and Starlings) that we used to have so many of.  But there are some birds we see more of, like the Goldfinches.  We're going to make a new, homemade feeder for them and fill it with nyjer seed...

Meanwhile the Fieldfare, after waiting under the fruit trees, has now dived right into them...

And the Little Egrets I've been watching in the field are now increasing in number.  There are now six of them.  I'm hoping to get a pic of them all together for a future post.

Thursday 16 January 2014

Birds, Bees and Gardening in Some Winter Sunshine

After all the heavy rain, there have been some lovely days of winter sunshine recently, so I've been able to get outside again and do a bit of gardening at last. Everywhere is still waterlogged of course, which is fine for the geese and ducks, but not so fine for the other animals and for me, because I'm wading to and from the animal houses through lots of little pools and a horrible thick, glutinous mud.  Last summer's dry grass and dusty tracks seem such a long time ago now.

One the best things about being outside at the moment is watching and hearing the birds.  They've definitely become livelier; they're singing more and they're even starting to pair up.  The male blackbird (above) has been raiding the crab apple tree in what has looked like teamwork with a female - so I'm sure that these two will form one of this year's breeding pairs. 

I'm seeing the robins feeding together, too - and in the blue tit box (with camera) that my parents have in their garden, the blue tits are starting to build a nest.  They're great fun to watch, because soon after one bird brings material in, the other bird arrives and takes it all out again. Obviously its mate has just got it all wrong!

I've also been really surprised to see a pair of egrets in the field by the beehives.  I've only ever seen these birds on the coast, but here they are inland (although it's not easy to get close to them to take a pic...)

On the smallholding, the geese are starting to breed and so Cador, the younger gander, is now seeing off everything that comes dangerously close to his females.  Sheep: Be Warned!!

The winter visitors are still here and will be around for a while yet. This Fieldfare has been waiting hopefully under the fruit trees...

The honeybees have been flying too, on these mild days. Honeybees are hygienic little creatures and they'll be making cleansing flights from the hives. I've had a sneaky peak in the hives and all is well so far this winter. Many beekeepers will open their hives briefly at this time of year to add Oxalic Acid.  It's lethal stuff when it comes into contact with human skin but it can be used in the hives when there is little brood (i.e. when the queen isn't laying) to control the varroa mite (a parasitic mite that attacks honeybees).  At the end of January, I'll be adding some homemade winter candy to the hives as extra food, because by March, colonies that haven't got enough winter stores can starve (they will have used up all the stores they do have).  This was a particular problem last year because of the long, cold spring.

The bees will do some foraging at this time year on warm days. There isn't much in bloom for them at the moment, but there is Viburnum and Mahonia...


Bees also like Snowdrops.  After having a good hunt around, I've found some of these out already...

So no real signs of spring here yet, but there is a sense that winter is passing...

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Living in a House with a Famous Victorian Murder Mystery

I know I'm late with New Year wishes; but Happy New Year and I hope you had a lovely Christmas. I've started 2014 ready to get going on some new projects, but most of these are outside and everywhere is waterlogged, so I'm having to get involved in indoor tasks instead, like tidying up and clearing out old papers.  And it was when I started doing this the other day that I came across an old photo of the Priory, where I lived many years ago...

The Priory, in Balham, south London, is an old, gothic-style mansion that was divided into attractive apartments in the 1980s. I rented one here for a few months in my twenties, when I was in a sort of 'in-between' period of my life (I lived in north and west London, and here in south London for this brief time). Sadly Balham was a bit run down when I lived there and the Priory seemed a place that had been left over from an another era. It was built to look over its own grounds with green fields beyond. Entering into the Priory was also like being transported back to the Victorian age, because it had a grand entrance hall with a sweeping staircase and dim lighting.

It also had its very own Victorian ghost...

Charles Bravo; The Ghost at the Priory
This is because the Priory was the scene of a famous Victorian murder mystery that dominated the news and knocked other stories (including those about the Royal Family and the Prime Minister) off the front pages. The Victorians were gripped by it - according to the Coroner at the inquest 'half of London' lined the pavements outside to watch participants come and go. But the murder was never solved and it has taken different authors (such as Agatha Christie) and several TV programmes in the hundred years since to come up with various whodunnit theories.

The story is this; in 1876, Charles Bravo, a 30 year old gentleman who lived at the Priory, died in his bedroom of poisoning. The suspects included his new wife, Florence (they had only been married about four months), her ex-lover Dr Gully, Mrs Cox - the severe housekeeper who always wore black (and who Bravo was in the process of dismissing) and the ex-groom, Mr Griffiths (who had been recently sacked and was very bitter about it).  Charles Bravo died in bed after three days in agony without accusing any of them.

The police initially concluded suicide, but a few days later they decided it was murder. Some months after that, the inquest was held and all the intimate and unpleasant details of the private lives of Bravo and Florence were revealed to a shocked and fascinated public. Bravo was cruel, abusive and a bully and it was said that he had married Florence for her money; she was an heiress and the Priory was her house. Florence, meanwhile, was not a respectable woman (because she'd had this scandalous affair with Dr Gully).  

So; who was the murderer? Theories have included Florence, because marriage to Bravo had become intolerable, and Bravo himself, after accidentally dosing himself with laudanum for toothache, while he was actually trying to poison his wife (who had been ill after a miscarriage).  The evidence doesn't really point to Dr Gully, even though he would have known about poisons, or Mr Griffiths or Mrs Cox, although the latter could well have aided her mistress.

Mrs Cox is questioned at the inquest

So Charles Bravo would have been a troubled ghost. I used to wonder if part of my flat was his bedroom, but looking at an old layout of the Priory since I'm pretty sure now that it wasn't. I have to admit I never sensed a ghost in my time there at all. Have you ever sensed one? I never like to think of them, because usually they're people who've died in tragic or nasty circumstances. Certainly, the other residents have sensed the Priory's ghost over the years, and have reported noises, sightings and a strange atmosphere. 

Anyway, I knew that I'd be distracted from clearing out papers when I came across my old photos. Next I'm sorting through a box of mementos. Fatal. Will I ever get it all done?!

Further info: 'Death at the Priory' by James Ruddick & a docudrama 'A Most Mysterious Murder: The Case of Charles Bravo' by Julian Fellowes.