29 November 2015

A storm named Annie

Here in the British Isles we have already been blasted by two major storms this autumn/winter season. In quick succession, first Abigail and then Barney raced across us, bringing gale-force winds and sleet showers, torrential rain and subsequent flooding.

What intrigued me about these storms was their names and, after a little research, I discovered the list of storm names for autumn and winter 2015/16 has, in fact, been chosen for the very first time by members of the public. Using email, Facebook and Twitter, people were able to propose the storm names that will now be used by the UK Met Office and Met Eireann over the coming months.

Out of curiosity I checked to see if my name was on the list – it isn’t – but that in turn led me to wondering if there had ever been a storm named Annie … and, of course, there has been. In fact, Annie has been the name of several different types of storms, raging far and wide around the world.

Hurricane photographed from the International Space Station,
 image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Firstly though, let’s just clarify the terminology for these storms, something that confuses a lot of people. Broadly speaking, the names are location dependent: in the Atlantic and northeast Pacific the term hurricane is used, if the storm is located in the northwest Pacific it’s called a typhoon, and if it’s located in the Indian Ocean or south Pacific, it’s called a cyclone.

The word ‘typhoon’ may originate from tai fung, meaning wind that strikes, or from the Greek monster Typheous, the father of storms. The origin of the word ‘cyclone’ is also unclear; it may come from the Greek verb kuklos, meaning to rotate, or perhaps from Cyclops, the one-eyed monster.  

Bad weather usually begins life as a ‘low’ or a ‘depression’, may develop into what we would usually call a storm as the wind and rain intensifies, and only officially becomes a hurricane, typhoon or cyclone once the winds are averaging 74 miles per hour (64 knots or 118 kmph) or more. Major hurricanes are further categorised by number once they reach Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale (that’s between 111-129 mph, 96-112 knts or 178-208 kmph). At that point, devastation is likely and we should all be under cover somewhere safe!

Now let’s get back to those storms named Annie. Due to their location, typhoons usually have Asian names so there haven’t been any typhoons named Annie (though there have been both a greyhound, in Australia, and a racehorse, in New Zealand, called Typhoon Annie; neither was successful!).

According to Weather Underground, there was a tropical cyclone named Annie in the southern Indian Ocean between 28 October and 4 November 1969. She started out as a normal tropical depression (above left), then strengthened to a category 1 cyclone, with winds gusting between 74 and 95 mph, but fizzled out after about week without making landfall. And there was another named Annie in the same area (above right) in November/December 1973, which also worsened from tropical depression status to a category 1 cyclone. Luckily, though winds were gusting to 90 mph (78 knots or 145 kmph) at the Cocos Islands, this Annie also dissipated without causing any damage. 

Devastation caused by Hurricane Annie, images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

However, I was rather shocked to discover that Hurricane Annie was the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the United States! According to an article in the Sun Sentinel:  

The Labor Day storm [on 2 September 1935] was a category 5 hurricane that killed 408 people in the Florida Keys. People caught in the open were blasted by sand with such force that it stripped away their clothing. The storm destroyed Henry Flagler's railroad that connected Key West to the mainland and is said to have cleared every tree and every building off Matecumbe Key.
Those who perished in the storm included 259 World War I veterans living in three Civilian Conservation Corps camps while they worked constructing the Overseas Highway. A train sent to rescue them from the storm arrived too late and many died on board when it was swept off its track by the storm surge. Author Ernest Hemingway visited the Keys after the storm and wrote a scathing magazine article critical of those rescue efforts titled, "Who Killed the Vets?"
Damage in the United States was estimated at $6 million. … The only other category 5 hurricane to strike the U.S. coast was Camille, which hit Mississippi in August 1969. Camille's central pressure was 909 millibars. Andrew [August 1992] ranks third. Classified as a category 4 storm, Andrew's central pressure measured 922 millibars.

Burial of the 1835 hurricane victims, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you are interested, there is more information about the hurricane on Wikipediaincluding a list of publications that have been written about it, and news channel Local10 also has a news bulletin showing images of the destruction caused by Hurricane Annie 80 years ago.  

What a sobering discovery it was to learn that a hurricane with my name had caused such devastation and loss of life, and what a terrible tragedy for the people of Florida. Let’s hope that was the last storm named Annie to cause any damage anywhere in the world.

27 November 2015

Happy National Gutters Day!

On a disused Victorian toilet block
Today is the day to ensure sure your hopper heads are firmly attached to your downpipes and your gutters are clean and unclogged ready for the winter onslaught of rain, sleet and snow.

Guttering is, of course, a very practical invention – buildings do not survive long without the means to rapidly and effectively jettison rainwater – and it was the Romans who first brought the notion of good water management to Britain. They even had a goddess of the sewers, Cloacina (who, not surprisingly I suppose, also protected sexual intercourse in marriage!).

Following their successful invasion of England in 1066, the Normans instigated the construction of huge numbers of castles, manor houses, churches and more, throughout the land, and these buildings, with their stone roofs, towers and turrets, required gutters and gargoyles to throw the water clear of their walls. Though unverified, it is thought that the first downpipe was erected in Britain in 1240, to protect the newly whitewashed walls of the Tower of London

The destruction of church buildings that began in 1536 after Henry VIII’s decree for the Dissolution of the Monasteries was, amazingly, a good thing for gutters because large quantities of lead became available. This lead was repurposed and reshaped into hopper heads for use on England’s many great houses, and the hopper heads were decorated with designs and dates, a fashion that continued when the use of cast iron replaced lead in the late 1700s.

Fabulous gargoyle water-throwers on the tower at Llandaff Cathedral

Also at Llandaff Cathedral, hoppers and Kings of England and a jolly Green Man

Cast iron was cheaper and more plentiful than lead so gutters, downpipes and hopper heads became commonplace on smaller houses and the fact that the iron was cast meant it could also be patterned. During the Victorian period, hopper heads became rather ornate, their designs more detailed, and downpipes might have embossed motifs or barley-twist patterns.

Sadly, this fashion died out in the mid 20th century and the gutters of today are very uninspiring, mostly black and frequently plastic, usually plain and angular, with no ornamentation. Fortunately, there are still some craftsmen manufacturing replica guttering for the refurbishment and restoration of historical buildings, and they maintain the old tradition of adding ornamentation and dates to their work. 

This magnificent beast attends to the rain water at Cardiff Castle, as do those pictured below

National Gutters Day does, of course, have a more practical purpose than simply celebrating the gutters of the past. The day came into being in 2002 and was the brainchild of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). It is the finale of National Maintenance Week, ‘an awareness campaign designed to encourage everyone who owns or looks after a building to take a few simple steps at the beginning of winter to ensure that their property is ready for anything that the season can throw at them, especially in these increasingly wet, windy and unpredictable days’.  

On the Cardiff Crown Court and City Hall buildings

On a repurposed church and on a private house (a well-used pigeon perch by the look of it)

It’s an eminently sensible cause. For me, though, today is about paying tribute to the craftsmen who created the wonderful designs to be found on the hopper heads of some of Cardiff’s glorious old buildings and about celebrating the ornate guttering of centuries past. Happy National Gutters Day!

The beautiful creatures above and below guard the gutters on Cardiff University's Trevithick Building

A selection from the King Edward VII Hospital buildings

An appropriate design for this hopper at St Margaret's Church in Roath

My favourite of Cardiff's gutters to date: this magnificent hopper can be found on Cardiff University's Glamorgan Building

22 November 2015

Grave matters: 'No way to run a laundry'

In a room above a laundry in Lower Cathedral Road
A lurid story of sex and drugs is ready to unfold.

Shock, horror, scandal – four found in a bed.
Three women are alive but the Chinaman is dead!

Had they smoked opium? Speculation raced!
Is that why the women are so yellow faced?

Three English lasses, brassy and bold,
And a Chinaman from Birmingham, or so we are told.

Western Mail photo, 22 November 1922: ‘The laundry in Lower Cathedral-road’

If they had smoked opium, where is the pipe?
Or is this yet another case of newspaper hype?

Now the story changes: they drank it in their tea.
But where is the opium? That’s the mystery!

Western Mail photo, 22 November 1922: ‘Removing the girl victims from the laundry in the ambulance’

The women have been drugged, of that, there is no doubt.
Now we need to wake them up to get the story out.

“First, take them outside. Lay them on the ground.
Next, strip them naked, walk them all around.

Pummel them, push them. Don’t let them rest.”
Are they up to questioning? That will be the test.

Western Mail, photo: Arthur E. Smith, 23 November 1922: ‘Rosetta Paul and Florence Paul, two of the three girls who were found unconscious at the Chinese Laundry in Lower Cathedral-road, Cardiff.’

Treatment continues; all is touch and go,
And even when they’re better, their brains are very slow.

Doctors and policemen try communication
But the girls can’t – or won’t! – explain the situation.

And what of the Chinaman? Little Yee Sing.
Was he really part of an opium ring?

His friends say “No.” A policeman does too.
“He said he was afraid.” But of what? Of who?

Western Mail photo, 23 November 1922: ‘Yee Sing’

A search reveals four bottles full of Chinese swill
Tests show opium but not enough to kill.

An inquest is held: it shows disease in Yee Sing’s heart.
Was it that or opium that caused him to depart?

Western Mail photos, 28 November 1922: [left] ‘Our photograph shows Chinese and a white girl mourner (on the right) at the graveside.’ [right] ‘The Rev. W. Harris, of Clive-street Baptist Church, conducted the short service at the graveside.’

We will never really know what happened in that room,
Neither how three women were so drugged, nor Yee Sing met his doom.

The Chinaman is buried in the cemetery at Cathays
To lie in peace beneath the trees the rest of his days.

Yee Sing's grave at Cathays Cemetery

20 November 2015

Gather ye waxcaps while ye may

Okay, that’s not really how the 17th-century poem (‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’, by English Cavalier poet Robert Herrick) begins but, when it comes to gathering waxcaps, you really do need to seize the day because

Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same [fungi] that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.

This blog was supposed to be full of deliciously luscious photographs of waxcap fungi taken somewhere up a hill in the wilds of the Welsh valleys after an outing with my new friends from the Glamorgan Fungi Group. Then Storm Abigail decided to sweep across Britain, with her whistling winds, hail showers and torrential rain. Though some of the dedicated – some might say mad! – followers of fungi still braved the hill, I chose to remain indoors.

Luckily, I have a magnificent and very abundant source of waxcaps much closer to home, at Cathays Cemetery. The fact that its 110-acre grounds have remained largely undisturbed since the cemetery closed to new burials about 35 years ago means the grassy spaces between and around the graves are ideal for waxcaps, as the hygrocybe species are sensitive both to pollution and to agricultural chemicals.

I am still very much a novice when it comes to identifying fungi – if you’ve ever tried it, you will know what a difficult process it can be. Is the fungus slimy or dry? Where is it growing? Is it alone or in a cluster? What is the texture of the cap? How are the gills attached to the stem? What colour are the spores? These are just a few of the myriad questions you must answer. It is at once frustrating, entrancing, infuriating, captivating … and highly addictive!

I think I know the identities of all the waxcaps in these photographs but, just in case I’m wrong, let’s just focus on how beautiful they are and not bother about what they’re called. Enjoy!

For more facts and an identification guide to waxcaps in particular and fungi in general, check out the First Nature website. 

15 November 2015

Going the extra mile … post

Before the days of odometers, satnav, GPS and TomTom, travellers could only measure distances travelled by looking at the numbers marked on signposts along the way. (In fact, the less gadget-obsessed amongst us – like me! – still do.)

Here in Britain, the original mileposts were milestones – actual stones, laid by the Romans to mark every one thousandth double-step, which was their way of calculating distance. The Latin for thousand was mille, hence the word ‘milestone’. Though one thousand Roman double steps equated roughly to 1618 yards, the eventual British standard measurement for a mile was 1760 yards. Maybe the British had longer strides!

According to the Mile Stone Society, there are around 9000 waymarkers still surviving around Britain, though many thousands more have been lost to thieves, collisions with cars, destruction by hedge-cutters, or removal during the Second World War, when the intention was to confuse the Germans if they invaded. The notion of reaching a significant point along the road has, of course, led to our more modern idea of a milestone as an important event or stage in life, progress or development.

Since moving to Cardiff, I’ve been gratified to see that many of the old mileposts still exist and that most are listed structures, so protected from destruction, though some have been moved in the course of road widening and motorway building. Because of their status I’ve managed to locate several posts by searching the British Listed Buildings (BLB) website and have walked many a mile to photograph them. These are they … and more may follow in the future as I continue to roam the roads and trails of my newly adopted country.

We start first near the centre of Cardiff, with one in a series of mileposts that mark points along the route of what is now the A48, a road that was once the principal route between the south-west of England and south Wales (the construction of the Severn Bridge in 1966 changed the course of that link somewhat).

Made of moulded cast iron in a rather ornate style, this milepost has survived remarkably well when you consider it is 180 years old and located near the centre of a busy city.

One mile down the road we come to the second in this series along the western section of the A48. The style is the same as the previous milepost but, as you can see, in that short distance we have moved from Cardiff town to ‘Landaff Parish’ (now known by its Welsh spelling, Llandaff), and further away from London.

Next we cross town, and the River Taff, to find a milepost that now sits adjacent to the Gabalfa interchange on a slip road that gives access to the eastern section of the A48, here called Eastern Avenue. According to the BLB website, this post is ‘shown on the Ordnance Survey [map] of 1880’ and ‘was located at the junction of two important routes out of Cardiff, Merthyr Road and Caerphilly Road.’

What a wonderful find these two stones were at the end of quite a long walk! Though differing in design from the previous mileposts, the newer one (on the left above) almost certainly dates from around the same time, the early 1830s, and was erected when improvements were made to the road that ran from Cardiff through Caerphilly to Merthyr.

The stone – literally, a stone – (shown in close up here to the left) probably dates from the late 1700s and, though I couldn’t read the inscription, it appears to mark the same route as its more modern neighbour. 

The BLB website notes that both stones have been re-sited, as they appeared in a more northerly position on an 1898 OS map.

How marvellous that both have survived.

We return now to Cowbridge Road East, in Canton, as this milepost (in the photograph at right) is located between numbers one and two above. (Don’t be mislead by the street number; they are simply more numerous on this side of the road.) 

This milepost is not one of the A48 series, however. It has been moved from its original position and is one of a series that mark the Cardiff-Llantrisant turnpike. Though it is undated, it was probably erected in the early to mid nineteenth century.

The milepost shown below is the second in the Cardiff-Llantrisant series and is located near the entrance to Llandaff village, the historic ‘city within a city’ as the locals say. The BLB website provides some interesting additional information for this entry:

The turnpike toll-house stood at the junction of the Llantrisant Road with Bridge Road in Llandaff, about 500m north. The toll-house was demolished in the late C19. The milepost was sited in its present position when Cardiff Road was widened at the junction with Western Avenue in 1976.

7) Albany Road, Roath
This last milepost was a bonus find when I was out walking one day, as it isn’t included on the BLB website. Yet, just like several of those above, it is a cast-iron milepost with a flat back, canted faces and top, so probably also dates from the 1830s. It has suffered a little damage over the years, with either a four or a two missing from the mileage shown on the top.

As you can see, the sizes and shapes of these old mileposts vary quite considerably but their functions are the same. And I’m sure that in the days of hot dusty journeys in bum-numbing horse-drawn coaches along bumpy pot-holed roads, both the coachmen and their passengers would have been very glad indeed to see that final post that read ‘Cardiff 1'!

10 November 2015

British birds: A swan with two necks?

When I was a small child, many many moons ago, my brother and I would get up early on Sunday mornings, snuggle down under our eiderdowns in front of the big old valve radiogram (yes, I am that old!), and listen to Children’s Hour. One of my favourite stories was ‘The Ugly Duckling’ by that master storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen.

You know the one: a homely little duckling is called ugly and is persecuted by its siblings and other farmyard critters, spends a winter alone and lonely, only to be welcomed by a flock of swans that arrives in the springtime because, though he never realised it, he is actually one of them, an ugly duckling that has grown into a beautiful swan.

Maybe that’s why the swan has always been one of my favourite birds. Maybe I hoped I would grow into a beautiful swan – ha! Or maybe it’s all the other amazing things about them. For example, did you know?

  • A swan will mate for life.

  • A swan is one of the largest flying birds, with a wingspan of more than six feet.

  • A swan can fly as fast as 60 miles per hour.

  • A male swan is called a cob, a female a pen and that little ‘ugly duckling’ was really a cygnet.

  • Some people are scared of swans and there are two names for that fear, cygnophobia and kiknophobia (though the Oxford Dictionary’s never heard of them!).

  • There are many collective nouns used for swans, including a herd, a fleet, a gaggle, a bank, a bevy, a whiteness, an eyrar, a gargle and, for flying swans, a wedge.

Did you also know that here in the United Kingdom all swans are owned by Her Majesty the Queen? Well, strictly speaking, it’s only ‘unmarked mute swans in open water’ that the Crown owns, a claim that dates from the 1100s when swans were considered the pièce de résistance at the banquets of the gentry. 

Of course, nowadays H.M. doesn’t parade around going ‘That’s mine”, and “That’s mine”, and “I’ll have that one for dinner”. Swans are no longer eaten but, each year, the modern equivalent of the ancient practice of catching and marking them, on the upper bill, with a system of nicks and cuts to indicate ownership, is still practised on parts of the River Thames. It’s called swan-upping and, fortunately, these days the birds are rather more humanely banded instead by the Queen’s Swan Marker and the swan uppers of the descendants of two centuries-old medieval guilds, the Worshipful Company of Dyers and the Worshipful Company of Vintners.  

Originally, the members of these two medieval guilds made their own marks on the birds’ beaks: one nick for a dyers’ bird and two for a vintners’. And reminders of that practice can still be seen today in pub names, like the ‘Swan with Two Nicks', a centuries-old pub in Little Bollington near Altrincham in Cheshire.

And now you finally get to learn why I gave this blog post the title ‘A swan with two necks’. In early English, the word ‘nick’ also meant ‘neck’, so it is also common to find a lot of English pubs called ‘The Swan with Two Necks’, not because the birds were freaks of nature but as a reference to the nicks in their beaks. Of course, inn sign-makers were able to have a field day with a name like that, and the signs on the Manchester ‘Swan with Two Necks’, shown in the photos here, are a fine example of what a good imagination can produce.

Since humans first flexed their imaginations, the swan has inspired artists, novelists, choreographers and composers. It appears in Greek and Norse mythology, in Irish legends and in religious scriptures. It features in heraldry, in company logos, and is the name of a well-known Australian brewery.

So, next time you visit your local lake or wetland, take a second look at the wonderfully elegant swans as they glide by, and be amazed by the beauty they bring to our world.