Friday 30 June 2023

Spitalfields Life


Spitalfields Life

I discovered this blog recently, though it has been published daily for several years. Written by The Gentle Author, it is an eclectic cornucopia of delights. Todays’ post offers a tour of Dr Johnson’s house, while among the other contributions in June alone, there have been Tim Marten Guitar Repairs, In The Lavender Fields Of Surrey, Adverts From The Jewish East End, The Return Of Vicky Moses, Bewicks’ Birds Of Spitalfields – there is something to intrigue and inform all comers.

Be warned, though – once you have stepped into The Gentle Author’s world, it is difficult to tear yourself away.

There are more than 5,000 stories by The Gentle Author with 40,000 pictures to be found online in the Spitalfields Life categories and archives.’

Door superstitions


Door superstitions

                                Door of St Cuthbert's church, Wells

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hill Top Post commented that her mother was always quoting superstitions and they stuck in her head. The one she quoted said that people shouldn’t go out of one door and come in through another. That intrigued me but I couldn’t find much about it except that it seems to be an Irish superstition and means that people would carry the luck in the house out with them if they exited through a different door.

Then I discovered there were many superstitions involving doors, often contradicting each other. For example, in 1864, it was thought unlucky to go through the back door of a house you were intending to occupy. In 1907, after their wedding it was unlucky for the bride and groom to enter through the front door as that was the door the dead were carried out from. In 1923, in Taunton, Somerset, it was thought very unlucky to enter one’s new home through the back door.

Doors are considered paramount in forbidding entry to evil spirits and the exit of good fortune. In 1882, one way to challenge ill fortune was to change the doors, blocking an existing door and creating another. In 1926, an alternative to this was to foil a ghost by taking the door off its hinges and hanging it the other way round.

If there should chance to be a thunderstorm, doors and windows must be opened to let the lightning out if it came into the house, or to let it pass right through without damage. 

Huge mezuzah on Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem

                            Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Superstitious people thought that the porch of the main entrance to a dwelling should have a good luck charm. In similar, though more serious vein, observant Jews hang a mezuzah on the front door and often all the other door frames in their houses, apart from the bathroom. The mezuzah case is placed on the right-hand side and contains a small scroll containing the Shema, a prayer from Deuteronomy, which is recited morning and evening. Jews will often touch the mezuzah as they pass through a door to remind themselves of their faith in God and their duty to Him. 

                                               Sculpture of Janus, Vatican Museum
                                Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For the Romans, Janus was the god of doorways and gates. Janus was portrayed with two faces, one looking into the past and the other looking towards the future. Sometimes he was shown bearded and at other times clean-shaven.  He presided over all beginnings - the beginning of the day, the month and the year – and transitions. He oversaw the beginning and end of conflicts, and seasonal events like planting and harvesting. He also symbolised the meeting ground in life changes, as between life and death and youth and adulthood.

Janus was present at the beginning of the world and guarded the gates of heaven, governing access to it and to other gods. In portrayals of him he is shown holding a key in his right hand, a symbol of his protection of thresholds and frontiers. In Ancient Rome, a key was a sign that a traveller sought a safe place to stay or to trade in peace.  

January, the month marking the beginning of a new year, is named after Janus.

There were a number of ceremonial gates or jani in Rome. They were freestanding edifices used for propitious entrances and exits. Close attention was paid to the departure of a Roman army, for there were favourable and unfavourable ways to pass through a janus (gate). The most famous janus in Rome was the Janus Geminus, which was a shrine to Janus. It consisted of double doors at each end of a rectangular bronze structure. By tradition the doors were left open in time of war and closed when peace reigned. The Roman historian Livy recorded that the gates were only closed twice between the 7th century B.C., when the Temple of Janus was built, and the 1st century B.C.

Thursday 29 June 2023

Talking of old soldiers . . .

Talking of old soldiers . . .


The most well-known old soldiers in England are the Chelsea Pensioners, often to be seen at public events, resplendent in their scarlet coats. Any British Army non-commissioned officer or soldier may apply to become a Chelsea Pensioner, provided he or she is over 66 years old or of State Pension age. (Women were first admitted in 2009) Commissioned officers may apply if they have risen through the ranks.

 Upon acceptance, pensioners must relinquish their army pension and any disability allowance, in return receiving free board, lodging, clothing and medical care. The objective is for every resident to contribute at least £175 per week, and if their pension does not cover that amount, the difference must be made up from personal savings.

                            Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Royal Hospital Chelsea is a retirement home accommodating 300 pensioners. It aims to enable its residents to live a supported independent life and is open to widows and widowers who may otherwise face a life alone. It replicates the communal bond of comradeship which army veterans have enjoyed during their military service.

The hospital was founded as an almshouse in 1682 by King Charles II as a retreat for veterans. An almshouse was charitable housing provided for people in need in a community, particularly in mediaeval times. Alms relate to food or money given to charity.  The hospital is sited in 66 acres on Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea.

Wearing the peaked cap or shako

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pensioners are able to come and go freely and can wear civilian clothing wherever they travel. They are encouraged to wear their blue uniform, known as ‘blues’, in the hospital and its grounds. If they go further from the hospital they are expected to wear the scarlet coat and peaked cap. For ceremonial occasions, they replace the cap with a tricorne hat and add white gloves.                     

In 1972 a number of generals from NATO countries were in London for a week of meetings. During the evenings, entertainments were organised, to the ballet, opera, theatre, all of which were greatly appreciated.  As a young major, working with them, Barry escorted a number of them to the Royal Hospital Chelsea for a day-long visit.  

In full formal dress, with tricorne hat and white gloves (and well-polished shoes)

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The generals found it fascinating listening to the veterans, some of whom were on active service before many of the visitors were born. The pensioners recounted their experiences of serving during the Boer War and the First World War.

It was universally agreed by the generals that the highlight of their week was the day they spent with the Chelsea Pensioners at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

Wednesday 28 June 2023

Old soldiers never die . . .


Old soldiers never die . . .

 . . . they simply fade away.

Soldiers of Xerxes' army, based on descriptions by Herodotus and archaeological discoveries.

From  left to right: Ethiopian soldier with bow, Khwarazmian infantryman, Bactrian infantryman, Arian cavalryman

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 Actually, I was thinking of bloggers. Some announce that they are withdrawing from the blogging world for a variety of reasons. Their followers sympathise and hope that they can persuade the leavers to stay. Some stop blogging but continue to comment on the posts of others. Sadly, some die, leaving a space that cannot be filled. Others just disappear without a trace, leaving their forlorn followers to wonder what happened. Some come and go, often promising, when they return, that they will blog assiduously henceforth, creating a burst of activity and then retiring, exhausted, maybe to pop up again in the future with renewed resolve and possibly further intermittent participation.

Bloggers apologise. Bloggers are pleasant people. Bloggers try to encourage others. Bloggers respond to comments and visit the sites of their commenters. There are exceptions, of course.

   Many carry on for years, posting daily or weekly or monthly, sometimes on a set subject, like travel or genealogy. Others flit where the fancy takes them, often finding inspiration from other bloggers. Some posts are short and pithy, others are detailed lengthy essays. Some cause laughter while others bring on tears.

The optimists, the pessimists, the serious and the light-hearted, young, old, gregarious, solitary - all these are represented and all will appeal to someone ‘out there’.

Why do people blog? Why do you blog? There are not always simple answers to such straightforward questions.

Tuesday 27 June 2023

More superstitions


More superstitions

                            Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hels and Andrew both mentioned superstitions I have often pondered.

Hels spoke of the bad luck that will befall anyone who opens an umbrella indoors. She said, ’The only superstition that sounded even vaguely sensible to me was never to open an umbrella in the house. I suppose it MIGHT have poked a family member in the eye.

That’s certainly the understanding I had.

In "Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things" (Harper, 1989), the scientist and author Charles Panati wrote: "In eighteenth-century London, when metal-spoked waterproof umbrellas began to become a common rainy-day sight, their stiff, clumsy spring mechanism made them veritable hazards to open indoors. A rigidly spoked umbrella, opening suddenly in a small room, could seriously injure an adult or a child, or shatter a frangible object. Even a minor accident could provoke unpleasant words or a minor quarrel, themselves strokes of bad luck in a family or among friends. Thus, the superstition arose as a deterrent to opening an umbrella indoors."

Another suggestion for the origin of the superstition says that in Ancient Egypt, umbrellas were used as protection from the heat and were thought to ward off evil spirits. Opening an umbrella indoors, out of the sun, would be an insult to the sun god, Ra, and promote unfavourable consequences.

Andrew mentioned the myth that new shoes should not be put on the table. He said, ’My partner yells at me to remove them, so I don't do it.

I’ve always thought this a really odd superstition. I could only think it might be because the shoes might scratch the table and that putting shoes on the table might become an unwelcome habit.

I looked it up and found that it is considered bad luck in many English-speaking countries. At a time when shoes were very expensive, before the advent of modern machinery in the 19th century they would be passed on from a dead donor and would therefore be ‘new’ to the recipient. Thus putting ‘new’ shoes on the table could signify the death of someone or simply bring bad luck for the rest of the day.

In the North of England, after a colliery accident, a dead miner’s shoes would be put on the table as a sign of respect, so to put ‘ordinary’ shoes there would be considered bad taste as well as tempting fate.

Sir Arthur Wellesley,1st Duke of Wellington, painted by Thomas Lawrence, between 1815 and 1816.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 In 1814, the Duke of Wellington had noticed many officers carrying umbrellas to shelter from the rain. Wellington made it clear that he did not approve of their use in battle, saying, ‘in the field it is not only ridiculous but unmilitary.’ Standing orders for the Battle of Waterloo stated unequivocally, ‘Umbrellas will not be opened in the presence of the enemy.’

Monday 26 June 2023




Roxy and Gilbert make a lot of noise as they play - worrying to someone not used to it

They play like this for ages
              Filmed on a bright morning with shadows of Herschel and Barry

Eventually, they stop and slumber, often with Gilbert's head resting on Roxy

                     Then they wake up and start all over again

Sunday 25 June 2023




I’ve always wondered why it was considered unlucky to walk under a ladder. First of all, is the ladder inside or outside? If outside, people sometimes say that it would be unlucky because you might have a pot of paint dropped on your head, assuming the person up the ladder was painting and not cleaning gutters or pruning the wisteria, in which case a tool might be dropped on your head. If it’s indoors, the paint and tool thing might still happen.

It seemed more logical to say that it was unlucky not to walk under a ladder, as walking round it might involve stepping into the road, placing yourself at risk of harm from traffic, or falling into a pyracantha bush or other similarly prickly vegetation.

However, while parading under a ladder, you might inadvertently knock it, unbalancing it and causing it and anyone on it to tumble down onto you. Ouch!

Anyway, the consensus is that walking beneath a ladder in public is to be avoided. If you adhere to the superstition, you can negate it in one or more of several ways. You could make a wish as you perambulate, or say ‘bread and butter’ or cross your fingers and keep them crossed until you see a dog. *(Why do we cross our fingers for good luck?) You could also spit three times between the rungs of the ladder but I can’t see how that would work. Surely you’d have to walk sideways or else turn your head and risk falling over?

The silliest suggestion to undo the bad luck is to walk backwards under the ladder again, so that would be back to just before the ladder, then turn round and walk backwards in the direction you want to proceed. Maybe the easiest thing to do would be to cross the road and walk on the other side. Why is it thought unlucky?

                                    The Pyramids at Giza

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

The Ancient Egyptians built pyramids as tombs for their pharaohs. They considered triangles to be sacred and the faces of a pyramid are triangular. They were designed to help the pharaohs’ ascent to heaven.

A ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle and the Ancient Egyptians believed that good and bad spirits lived in the space between the ladder and the wall. It was forbidden to walk under a ladder, for fear of angering the spirits.

Early Christians adopted and adapted the superstition, saying that a ladder had rested against the cross on which Christ was crucified, and it became a symbol of betrayal and death. Walking under a ladder meant bad luck.

In mediaeval times, a condemned man climbed a ladder to reach the gallows. If someone walked under a ladder the superstition was that he would eventually be hanged. In the 17th century, men were made to walk under a ladder on their way to the gallows.

                             John Brown's execution, in Texas, 1859
                             Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

*Crossing fingers for good luck is used in the UK and parts of Scandinavia but is less common in mainland Europe. It is a relatively recent superstition, the earliest record of it being made in 1912. It is obscurely linked to the ladder superstition. People, especially children, also cross their fingers if telling a white lie, and some regard it as a means of invalidating a promise.

 I remember we children crossing our fingers at school and I’m sure it was accompanied by ‘fainites’, a call for a respite from the rules of a game. Fainites is a southern English dialect word originating in the 14th century and used in school slang from the 1870s. 

I wrote another post about ladders in 2009. It's more light-hearted. 


Saturday 24 June 2023





                                    Spider's web with midges

In the early morning on a warm, summer day,  clouds of tiny insects cavort above the pond, near the trees. In the evening they can be seen again. These little creatures are midges.

In the UK there are more than 650 species of midges, about 500 of which do not bite – the rest do. It is only the females that bite because they need fresh blood to allow their eggs to mature. They feed on birds as well as mammals, with each species having its particular host. There are two or three generations of midges a year in the UK, but in other parts of the world, a new generation can emerge every three weeks!

                                                More midges

      Midges gather to dance because they are hoping to mate. Both sexes give off scent to attract a mate and can also be attracted to human perfumes, aftershaves and deodorants. They swarm near things like branches and sometimes gather in such numbers that they create tall towers. On one occasion there was such a large congregation of midges in Wiltshire that they shrouded the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, looking like smoke. The fire brigade was called because concerned citizens thought the Cathedral was on fire.

Closer view

Midges are some of the most sensitive indicators of water purity. Their presence signifies healthy water with good oxygen levels; when their absence is noted, it may mean the water is polluted.

Midges are known as ‘Scotland’s secret weapon’ and while their bites may be irritating, they do not transmit disease. They are most active at dawn and dusk, but can bite at any time of day. Apart from people, they also feed on cattle, sheep and deer but are preyed upon by bats, spiders and birds.

Friday 23 June 2023




                        Jellicoe having a leisurely wash this morning
We had a heavy downpour of rain last evening, much needed and welcomed. Half an inch fell in about half an hour. Unfortunately, Jellicoe and Herschel were outside and the patio door was shut. Barry opened it as soon as he realised and Jellicoe hurtled in as though the hounds of hell were pursuing him.
Herschel  this morning

Attaining a perch on top of the dog crate, he proceeded to yell at Barry – loud, prolonged vocalisations clearly indicating that he blamed Barry for the horrible wet stuff he had endured. He was very cross and we understood what he was saying; ‘How dare you subject me to this misery? Why was the door closed? You know I need access at all times.’

                                                Morning yawn

Having made his point very plainly, he proceeded to wash. Then Herschel galloped in, wide-eyed and wet. He is a wise cat and knew that Barry was not to blame, but, even so, he was not happy. Then he, too, began to wash.

                                        It could be love . . .

Our cats are careful groomers. They do not overgroom, but do just enough to keep themselves tidy. They also groom Roxy and Gilbert, paying particular attention to their heads. 

                                    This could be love, too . . . 

Roxy is calm and patient, enjoying the attention and asking for more by gently pushing her head towards whichever cat is washing her. Gilbert can become overexcited and try to turn the grooming session into a game. The cats do not appreciate him grabbing their legs or heads but do not retaliate.

       Gilbert brings a toy but Herschel doesn't want to play

        They simply yowl at him and he's a good boy and desists eventually


                                                                Also relaxing




      Salt being transporte by camel train on Lake Assale (Karum) in Ethiopia                                  2017

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Salt is like good humour, and nearly everything is better for a pinch of it.’ Louisa May Alcott (1832 – 1888)

Before the advent of industrialisation, the procuring of salt in the immense quantities required for food preservation was labour-intensive and expensive.

                    Salt farmers harvesting salt in Thailand 2011

                            Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Iron Age Britons produced salt through evaporation, boiling salt water in clay pots over open fires.  Later, Romans boiled larger volumes of water in large lead-lined pans.  Salt routes existed from pre-historic times to move salt from the point of production to areas requiring it.

In the Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries) roads were built to transport salt. Some of them are still in existence. The Old Salt Route (Alte Salzstraße) in Northern Germany was a mediaeval trade route between the salt mines of Lüneburg in the north and Lübeck on the Baltic Sea coast. Another famous salt road is the Via Salaria which carried Roman salt from Ostia to other parts of Italy.

            Salt harvesting, Lake Bumbunga, South Australia, late 1940s

                             Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Droitwich Salt Way was a trade route to the south-east of England. Brine bubbled up from the ground naturally and the salt content was twenty times greater than in sea water. The Salt Way was used from the Iron Age and throughout the Roman and mediaeval periods. Today it is a public footpath between Droitwich Spa and Blisworth in Northamptonshire.

Badwater Salt Flats, Death Valley, California, 2020
  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Historically, salt was an important and very valuable commodity and it production was strictly regulated. In the 6th century Moorish merchants traded one ounce of salt for one ounce of gold and in Africa, cakes of salt were used as currency.

                              Salt field worker, Slovenia, 2009
                             Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 Salt taxes have caused unrest across the world. In France the oppressive tax, or gabelle, on salt caused resentment and was one of the causes of the French Revolution (1789 – 1799) The gabelle was abolished in 1790 but reinstated by Napoleon in 1806 to raise money for his military campaigns. It was eventually abolished in 1945.

Meanwhile, in India during the British Raj, 1858 – 1947, the British Government had a monopoly on salt production and distribution. It was heavily taxed and became a substantial source of revenue for Britain.  Indians considered the tax unjust and repressive.  

                     Sifto Salt Mine, Goderich, Ontario, Canada, 2018

 Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 1930 Mahatma Gandhi led a march to the coast at Dandi to protest against the ban on Indians making or selling salt. When he reached the coast after 23 days, he violated the law by making salt at the seashore. Thereafter, people across the country followed Gandhi’s example and began producing their own salt. Gandhi’s march became known as the Salt March or Salt Satyagraha and was an important turning point in the struggle for independence.

                            National Salt Satyagraha Memorial, 2020

 Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There is a mistaken belief that Roman soldiers were paid in salt rather than money. They were certainly issued with salt as part of their recompense but it was not their only payment. Salarium (salt ration) is the origin of the word ‘salary’.

 Himalayan salt, 2020

 Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There are many beliefs and superstitions associated with salt, the commonest probably being that it is bad luck to spill salt. The ancient Sumerians negated it by throwing a pinch of the spilled salt over their left shoulder. The ritual spread to the Egyptians, the Assyrians and later, the Greeks. It reflected how much salt is valued.

In the later Christian tradition, spilling salt was thought to be an invitation to the Devil to enter your life and cause havoc. The Devil lurks behind one’s left shoulder, waiting for a way in. Tossing a pinch of salt directed it into the Devil’s eyes, making him blind and powerless. Some people believed that throwing salt over one’s shoulder was an act of purification and healing.

Nowadays, people do it ‘for luck’ without thinking of the deeper meaning behind the act.

A man ‘not worth his salt’ is a person considered unreliable or untrustworthy, whereas a man described as ‘the salt of the earth’ is dependable and worthy. In mediaeval times, when salt was a precious commodity, it was placed at the centre of the dining table. The nobles would sit ‘above the salt’, nearest the most important diners, and those of lesser, more ignominious rank would be seated ‘below the salt’.

                                    Rock salt, central Poland, 2014
                             Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed salt was sacred and used it in religious ceremonies and sacrifices. Salt is also used in Shintoism as a purifier and Buddhists use salt to ward off evil. Judeo-Christian traditions used salt to purify and to finalise contracts.

However, salt could be used in a destructive way. An ancient military practice involved ‘salting the earth. Salt was spread on the sites of razed cities by their conquerors. It was a curse to prevent repopulation and meant that no crops could be grown. It was an act designed to reinforce the victor’s power and his desire to eradicate his enemies.

                                        Rock salt, Pakistan, 2017
                             Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Finally, if you’re advised to take something ‘with a pinch of salt’, it’s a warning that what you’re being told may not be entirely believable. It is not clear how the phrase originated but some have credited Pliny the Elder with it. When engaged in writing the first encyclopaedia, he included a cure for poison, in which one ingredient was a grain of salt. Over time, the grain grew into a pinch.

Thursday 22 June 2023




The first raspberries of summer had to be picked quickly before Roxy realised and sucked them off the canes. There are more to come, which will make up for a distinct lack of strawberries and cherries.

We may still get strawberries and blueberries and there are plenty of plums, greengages, apples and pears to come – if the birds don’t get them first, which actually I wouldn’t mind too much! Every little mouth needs feeding. We all have our place in the universe.