A murmuration…

If you have ever been lucky enough to see a murmuration of starlings – where the birds swoop and swirl in amazing aerial ballet creating patterns in the sky – it’s not something you are likely to forget. But have you ever wondered why it is called a ‘murmuration’?

You were probably too enchanted by the magical sight to notice the ongoing background murmur – or murmuration – as caused by the beating of 10,000 pairs of wings at once. And that’s where the term comes from. Most of the collective nouns we use date back to the mid-15th century. But the origins of most collective bird and animal nouns are not always as straightforward as they first appear.

Some are named after specific habits, such as ‘a descent of woodpeckers’, possibly due to their penchant for dropping down from great heights onto ants or ‘a leap of leopards’ or ‘a busyness of ferrets’ while others focus on a personality trait that we believe them to possess.

For instance, the number of sinister sounding nouns for crows, such as murder, mob and horde, probably come from medieval peasants’ fears that the mean-looking birds had been sent by the Devil or were witches in disguise.

Similarly, ‘an unkindness of ravens’ could stem from an old misguided belief that the birds were not caring parents, sometimes expelling their young from their nests before they were ready.

Many bird species have more than one collective noun. As with crows, there are many terms to describe finches (charm, trembling and trimming) and geese, depending on whether they’re flying (skein, wedge, nide) or gathered on water (plump) or land (gaggle).

A book by Chloe Rhodes An Unkindness of Ravens: A Book of Collective Nouns is fascinating. In it she explains that, unlike proverbs, rhymes or homilies, many of these delightful names endure because they were recorded and published in ‘Books of Courtesy’ – handbooks designed to educate the nobility. So an early sort of ‘one upmanship’ to ensure you made it plain you belonged to the ‘right’ set, something like the Sloane Ranger speak of the 1980s perhaps!

Here are some of my favourite bird terms:

  • A wake of buzzards
  • A commotion of coots
  • A murder of crows
  • An asylum of cuckoos
  • A swatting of flycatchers
  • A prayer of godwits
  • A conspiracy of ravens
  • A parliament of rooks
  • An exultation of skylarks
  • A murmuration of starlings
  • A chime of wrens
  • A booby of nuthatches
  • A quilt of eiders
  • A mischief of magpies
  • A wisdom of owls
  • A committee of terns
  • A descent of woodpeckers
  • A scold of jays
  • A charm of goldfinches
  • A fall of woodcock
  • A deceit of lapwings
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Squeezing through the Corinth Canal

Here’s a final holiday blog for you… some pictures from the island of Sifros and our journey through the Corinth Canal. I hope you have enjoyed some of the highlights of the trip.

One of the main reasons we wanted to do this journey was to see what it was like for a medium sized boat to squeeze through the Corinth Canal. The really big boats can’t make it but we did last night and wow it was spectacular. With only a foot or two to spare each side we took about 45 minutes to cross through this gap carved through solid rock. If you can’t take this shortcut then it’s a 180-mile trip round!

We were guided by a pilot boat and sailed through at a constant 5 knots, excuse me if I don’t regurgitate the mass of techy information the captain gave me about pressures and constant speeds… I just smiled and nodded!

The island I wandered round today was called Sifnos. The guides are all lovely and each one insists their island is the best. I have been trying to be friendly and learn a little Greek and smiled at everyone saying “Calamari!” (Good morning) till the guide politely pointed out that I was yelling “Squid” at everyone and I should have been saying kalimera not calamari. I thought they were looking strangely at me!

The island is so pretty and some of the walls were from 1500BC… so something like 3,500 years old… amazing and the flowers were beautiful, mainly bougainvillea and, as always, tons of olive trees. Lots of locally made bits and pieces, honey, olive soap, amazing ceramics and the ever present wine.

I bought some honey yesterday when I visited the site of the Oracle of Delphi. Apparently, the honey is made from local bees who all use pollen from the calm, positive atmosphere of Delphi and so the honey will bring positive vibes every time it is used. Ok, so I was persuaded…. but it tastes nice so what the heck!

Sadly home again soon, but it has been a very educational but fun trip, will it influence my work, no probably not but it has given us a wonderful rest!

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The sands of time…

Copyright Wikipedia

Rummaging around at the back of a kitchen drawer last week, I was puzzled to find my fingers covered in sand! On closer inspection, I found that an old egg timer had given up the ghost and leaked its contents everywhere. This caused an instant attack of nostalgia and set me thinking about old-fashioned gadgets, as opposed to the new ones, like spiralizers and omelette makers, that I have been writing about lately.

I think it’s fair to say you would find an hourglass egg timer in most people’s kitchens until a few years ago. Boiled eggs were a staple for breakfast and hard-boiled eggs regularly appeared in packed lunches and afternoon tea and party sandwiches. Whether you like your boiled egg runny, soft or like a bullet is a very personal thing and using a three-minute egg timer produced a slightly runny egg. Egg timers, or hourglasses as I should really call them, came from a much slower era. You had to pause and keep your eye on the sand as it trickled gently down – none of this multi-tasking, rushing around and waiting for an ear-shattering bleeping to tell you your egg is cooked.

As a child, I found the hourglass my Mother had quite fascinating. I loved the shape and can remember watching it intently, convinced it would stop flowing if I took my eyes off it! The design is simple – two glass bulbs connected vertically by a narrow neck that allows a regulated trickle of material (often sand) from the upper bulb to the lower one. What period of time the glass measures is defined by sand quantity, sand coarseness, bulb size, and neck width. So you can buy three-minute, or four-minute and so on, egg-timers to suit your tastes.

Copyright www.eggrecipes.co.uk

The origin of the hourglass is unclear, but the use of the marine sandglass has been recorded since the 14th century. Marine sandglasses were very popular on board ships, as they were the most dependable measurement of time while at sea as the motion of the ship while sailing did not affect the hourglass. Sailors used the hourglass to help them determine longitude, distance east or west from a certain point, with reasonable accuracy which was of vital importance when you are trying to sail around the world or make accurate maps!

The hourglass also found popularity on land as it was relatively inexpensive, as they required no rare technology to make and their contents were not hard to come by, and their uses became more practical. Hourglasses were commonly seen in use in churches, homes, and work places to measure sermons, cooking time, and time spent on breaks from work.

The sandglass is still widely used as the kitchen egg timer – for cooking eggs, a three-minute timer is typical, hence the name ‘egg timer’ for three-minute hourglasses. We still often use sand timers when we play games such as Pictionary and Boggle.

Rather wonderfully… unlike most other methods of measuring time, the hourglass represents the ‘present’ as being between the past and the future, and this has made it an enduring symbol of time itself. The hourglass, sometimes with the addition of little wings, is often depicted as a symbol that human existence is fleeting and that the ‘sands of time’ will run out for every human life. And that’s a fact that none of us can dispute.

 

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Remember rosemary…

I think most of us tend to think of the herb rosemary alongside roast lamb, I know I certainly do! But there’s much more to this zingy Mediterranean herb than you might think…

Its Latin name means ‘dew of the sea’, possibly because in its natural habitat it often grows on the sea cliffs of the Mediterranean. It is a hardy evergreen shrub and, once established, will chug on happily in most gardens throughout the year. It comes in compact and trailing varieties and really is a bit of a gem.

It is a plant I love to have in my garden, not just to because it is so wonderfully pungent and fresh when picked, but because of its delicate lilac-blue flowers that appear in winter to bring cheer. Brush against it on the coldest of days and the fragrance transports you to warmer climes… The flowers are edible and give a sweeter, lighter flavour than the leaves. What could make a prettier addition to a winter salad?

Rosemary planted as a hedge outside a local school… lovely for little hands to brush against.

Fresh or dried leaves can be used to flavour meat, soups and many other dishes, while sprigs steeped in olive oil give it a distinctive flavour. It’s becoming more common to see recipes for fish using rosemary and, given where it grows in the Mediterranean, that’s really no surprise. I think it works really well.

It is also surprisingly good in some sweet recipes – add a teaspoon of dried rosemary to an ice cream mix before making it. It’s particularly good with peach, strawberry, and lemon flavours. Or, why not try making this simple syrup and add it to summer drinks:

Rosemary syrup

  • 250ml of water
  • 200g granulated sugar
  • 2 good sprigs of rosemary
  1. Put all the ingredients into a pan, heat gently until the sugar has dissolved.
  2. Bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes.
  3. Leave it to cool and then pour it into a jar, rosemary sprigs and all, and store in the fridge. Simply add a splash of rosemary syrup to cold drinks, such as orange juice, lemonade… or even a gin and tonic!

Tea made by infusing chopped leaves in boiling water helps digestion, so it’s no surprise to learn that rosemary belongs to the same family as mint, also a great choice for aiding digestion.

In the Middle Ages, rosemary was associated with wedding ceremonies. The bride would wear a rosemary headdress, while the groom and wedding guests would wear a sprig of rosemary. I went to a wedding last year where the corsages included rosemary, they looked (and smelled) wonderful!

Rosemary has a reputation for improving memory and has been used as a symbol of remembrance during war commemorations and funerals. Mourners would throw it into graves as a symbol of remembrance for the dead. And in case we were left in any doubt, even The Bard mentions it. In Hamlet, Ophelia says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”

 

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Quirky museums for Easter holiday fun

The year seems to be galloping by and, tomorrow, it will be April! If you find yourself looking for a way to entertain youngsters during the school holidays, why not try some of the country’s more quirky museums? There are some amazing ones around – have a Google and you’ll see. I’ve picked out a few ‘interesting’ ones that you might like to visit…

(Click on the museum names to visit their websites).

The Dog Collar Museum

Copyright: Leeds Castle.

I absolutely had to include this museum! Leeds Castle (which is in Kent, not Leeds) has a unique collection of historic and fascinating dog collars that is now the largest of its kind on public display anywhere in the world.

The colossal collection of canine neckwear, spanning five centuries, is fun for children and adults alike. There are over 130 rare and valuable collars with the earliest dating back to the late 15th century – a Spanish iron herd mastiff’s collar, which would have been worn for protection against wolves and bears roaming Europe at the time.

Other collars range from 16th-century German iron collars with fearsome spikes to ornate gilt collars of the Baroque period, through to finely-chased nineteenth century silver collars and twentieth century examples fashioned from tyres, beads and plastic.

Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

Copyright: Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.

Located in the picturesque Cornish harbour of Boscastle, this museum was started in 1960 and is now one of the most visited museums in the Westcountry. It claims to have the world’s largest collection of items relating to witchcraft, magic and the occult. Exhibitions change regularly so there’s always something new to see. 2017 boasts an exhibition of ‘poppets, pins and power: the craft of cursing’, which sounds well worth a visit! Being in such a lovely coastal setting, there’s plenty to see and do as well as explore this mysterious museum.

The Bakelite Museum

Copyright: The Bakelite Museum, above, and main header.

Anyone who has clocked up their half century will have come across Bakelite! The first proper plastic, Bakelite was a revolutionary material. It enabled mass-production and was known as ‘the material of a thousand uses’ and, in various guises, was used by everybody. The museum is an enormous collection of vintage plastics, from the earliest experimental materials to 1970s kitsch. It includes Bakelite objects in a huge variety of shapes, colours and functions – radios, telephones, eggcups, musical instruments, toys, tie-presses and even a coffin. There are also domestic and work related things from the Bakelite era, mainly the 1920s to the 1950s, and the whole collection is a nostalgic treat, a vintage wonderland and an educational eye-opener.

The exhibits are displayed in an atmospheric 18th-century watermill, in the heart of the beautiful Somerset countryside between Taunton, Minehead and Bridgewater. Williton Station, on the West Somerset Railway, the longest stretch of restored steam railway in the country, is just a 20-minute walk away. They also serve Somerset cream teas – so what’s not to love about this museum as a great day out!

Gnome World

Copyright: Gnome Reserve.

Yes, really! This north Devon attraction promises ‘a completely unique 100% fun experience, simultaneously 100% ecologically interesting, with an extra 100% wonder and magic mixed in’.

Set between Bideford and Bude, the 1000+ gnomes and pixies reside in a lovely 4 acre-reserve, with woodland, stream, pond, meadow and garden. Visitors will be delighted to learn that gnome hats are loaned free of charge together with fishing rods and you are encouraged to embarrass the family with some truly memorable photos for the family album!

The House of Marbles

Copyright: House of Marbles.

I don’t know why most of these museums are in the Westcountry, I was looking nationwide… goodness knows what it says about those of us that live down here! Anyway, I absolutely must give a final mention to The House of Marbles, here in Bovey Tracey, Devon, owned by some old friends of mine. Whenever you look up unusual museums or great places to visit – the House of Marbles is up there at the top of the list. No less than three museums, an enormous marble run and the chance to see glass being blown, it’s a great place to visit whatever your age. Oh, and it also has a very popular restaurant and great shops!

Have fun!

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