Thursday, 17 May 2018

CHARCOAL - not just for barbecues

not just for barbecues

In my second DI Sonny Russell mystery, BLOOD ON THE SHRINE, I describe how a detective constable discovers a charcoal burner's hut in the woods near Uckfield, where two men on the run have been hiding:

"The newly emerging leaf canopy gave little shelter and Barrow was glad to get into the charcoal burner’s hut, out of the rain. The interior was gloomy and it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust. The hut was a crude affair. It was roughly circular, shaped like a bell tent, with chestnut poles leaning in to meet at the apex, but instead of canvas, the outside was cloaked in sacking and grassy turfs. The hut, though dark, was surprisingly weatherproof. He looked around. There was nothing of note, just a few pieces of whittled wood, a small bench and some old sacks. He poked at the pile with his shoe and kicked something hard. Reaching down he uncovered a smooth length of wood. He almost dismissed it, thinking at first that it was of no consequence, but when he examined it more closely, he realised it was a walking stick, with a distinctive V at the top. He ran back to the car and tapped on the passenger window.
The window opened a crack. ‘Found anything?’ Parker asked, boredom in his voice. Barrow triumphantly held up the stick. ‘Is that all?’
‘But Sir. It’s a thumb stick! That’s what Wolfgang had, according to one of the local coppers who talked to him.’
‘I see.’ Parker huffed. ‘I suppose you want me to help you look for any more clues.’"

Although I knew a little about these unique structures I did some research which turned up many fascinating facts.

Apparently they are known from the stone age in south-west Germany and Finland. It's agreed that the huts of forest charcoal-burners provide a direct link to those made in prehistoric times. 

Since the iron age charcoal has been used for glass-making, smelting of iron, working precious metals and in the manufacture of gunpowder. However increased use of coal from 18th century started the decline in the need for charcoal although it is still used in the manufacture of incense and, of course for supplying the means for men to cremate meat on warm sunny weekends. 

Traditionally it takes six to eight days to turn wood into charcoal so it was quite a solitary life for the mend who tended the kilns where the process took place.

A reconstructed charcoal burner's hut at the Weald and Downland museum

Tuesday, 1 May 2018



Monkey's fist

During my research for BLOOD ON THE TIDE I delved into the esoteric world of knots. I already knew quite a bit about the different methods of joining, splicing and shortening ropes, through my time in the scouts and from messing about in boats. However, I wanted to find out more about the more obscure knots and came across the double constrictor knot, which features in the book.

Double constrictor knot

It's a knot that is almost impossible to untie and has to be cut, so quite distinctive.

Stages in forming a monkey's fist

Another interesting use of rope is to make a monkey's fist this takes the form of a six sided ball in the end of a rope. It is used to add weight to a heaving line - the rope that is thrown from ship to shore, or vice versa. Usually tied in a light line, this is attached to a heavier warp that is hauled across to secure the vessel.

Other uses included forming it round an object, i.e. a precious stone, to protect it. Or to form rather natty cufflinks.

And a Marlin Spike? This is a simple tool used when working rope. You may even have one on your multi-blade knife!

Marlin spike

Tuesday, 24 April 2018


The Devil's Cut

I have an interest in barrels - not just the contents but how they are made. I knew I came from a practical family on the distaff side - my maternal grandfather was an accomplished watercolourist, my mother had nimble fingers - sewing, knitting and even decorating and hanging wallpaper. My older brother started out as fine artist, became a successful potter then turned to boat-building. But it wasn't until much later in my life that I discovered that there was practicality on my father's side. I don't believe he was especially practical but his father, my paternal grandfather, was a cooper in Cork City, Eire.

This title meant that he made barrels, a very skilled occupation. Not for those two wonderful brewers of Irish stout, Murphys or Beamish (which I think equal, or even better, the taste of Dublin brewed Guinness) but for a whiskey* distillery. (* note the different spelling from Scotch whisky).

The names of some of the sizes of barrels are familiar - others, not so.
Beer barrels are called: gallon, firkin, kilderkin, barrel and hogshead, containing from one to 54 imperial gallons.
Wine casks are called: gallon, rundlet, barrel, tierce, hogshead, puncheon/tertian and pipe/butt. These hold from one to 210 imperial gallons.

As well as containing the more usual wine, beer, whisky/whiskey and sherry, barrels are also used for tequila, balsamic vinegar and Tabasco sauce.

An interesting term I came across while doing research was The Devil's Cut. This refers to the portion, or 'cut' of the product that is absorbed into the wood of the barrel. If the barrel is then used to store another product, the devil's cut may in turn leach into the liquid producing interesting new characteristics. 

Friday, 6 April 2018



While sitting on the beach at Dungeness today I counted a dozen or more Cormorants, flying low above the sea, travelling both east and west. This happened over a short time - maybe only ten minutes and it made me wonder about these reptilian looking birds.

The family name is Phalacrocoracidae and, there is little distinction between Cormorants and Shags. The only subtle difference is that the Shag's bill is more delicate and the forehead is steeper.

They are excellent divers and have been recorded as deep as 45 metres. The have webs between all four toes and use their feet to swim, with some help from their short wings.

They are coastal rather than oceanic birds and all are fish-eaters. They dive from the surface, making a half-jump to give themselves a more streamlined entry into the water. After fishing they go ashore and are often seen holding their wings out to dry.

As a postscript, I couldn't resist adding a photo of the estuary on my 009 layout, Compass Point, where I have a Cormorant, perched on the port marker, drying its wings. (Or is it a Shag?)

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

THE CROWN CORK - stopping your pop from popping

stopping your pop from popping

The crown cork, also know as the crown cap, crown seal, or just cap, was invented in Baltimore by William Painter in 1892. It was the first highly successful disposable product as it is difficult to re-use it. Not something we'd encouraged in these days of recycling.

An 1892 Dutch patent application

Before the invention of the crown cork, soda bottles had ordinary corks and many bottles had rounded bottoms so they could not be stored upright. This was because the cork tended to dry out and shrink, allowing the pressure in the bottle to make the cork 'pop'. Crown corks eliminated this problem and bottles could then be stored upright.

Because of the huge range of designs, crown corks are collected all over the world. In Mexico they are called corcholatas; in Spain and south America, chapas or chapitas; in the Philippines, tansan.

There are many distinct designs of tools to open bottles. The famous Victorinox Swiss Army knife generally has one in its armoury; pubs often have a wall mounted example and traditional, metal bottle openers, with advertising cast into the handle, can still be found. 

The caps can, of course, be removed without a bottle opener, as I describe in this passage from my novel, BLOOD ON THE SHRINE when the minor felon, Tommy Atkins, turns up in a bad mood.

‘Yes I did. And I was wrong. I was proper shafted by the bastard.’ Atkins shook his head dazedly and kicked the leg of a chair before sagging on to it. ‘Gimme a drink.’ Bates leant over and took a bottle of Courage beer out of the crate on the floor. He rested the cap on the edge of the table and thumped down on it with his fist. The cap flew in the air and he handed the bottle, creamy foam running down its neck, to Atkins who tipped the bottle to his mouth, his Adam’s apple bobbing furiously as he guzzled the contents. When he’d drained the last drop he banged the bottle down on the table, belched and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
‘We’ve been ’ad, good and proper. Stitched up like a bleedin’ kipper.’
Bates coughed, softly. ‘’Er, we did warn you Tommy.’
‘Yes, yes, I know,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘But what’s done is done. How’re we gonna get out of this one? I ain’t gonna let this job go; it’s too good to lose.’ He had a wild look in his eyes.
‘C’mon, calm down Tommy. First of all, tell us how you found out,’ Baker said.

And if this has whetted your appetite and you want to know more, you'll just have to read the book! 

Monday, 26 March 2018

LIGHTSHIPS - keeping the seas safe

keeping the seas safe

 LV21 moored at Gravesend, originally used on the Goodwin Sands, it is now owned by a trust and can be boarded.

A light vessel, or lightship is used in waters that are too dangerous or too deep to build a lighthouse. Although there are records of Romans using fire beacons the first modern light vessel was moored off the Noore sandbank, at the entrance to the Thames in 1734.

The most important function is to have a light mounted high enough, so it can be seen clearly from as far a distance as possible. Early vessels had oil lamps that could be raised and lowered for servicing, later these were fixed and employed fresnel lenses, as used in lighthouses.

In addition to the light was a large foghorn, as can be seen on the North Carr ship. It must have been absolutely deafening for those on board, particularly before the advent of efficient ear defenders.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

THE OAST HOUSE or 'hopping' down in Kent

or 'hopping down in Kent'

Today, St Patrick's Day, it seemed relevant to talk about beer. Well, about one of the vital ingredients - hops. I touched on oast houses, a few posts back, when I wrote about Rowland Hilder's wonderful watercolours of the Weald.

Oast houses date back to the 17th century, shortly after the introduction of hops into England. The oast, consisted of a two storey, cylindrical structure. In the lower half, a fire was lit, while above, freshly picked hops were spread on a perforated floor. The heat rose, drying the hops and the hot air was vented through a wooden cowl, which swivelled, so as to face out of the wind.

Although they look small from ground level, these cowls are usually about six feet, or two metres tall.
The biggest concentration of hops kilns in the world is at Beltring, near Paddock Wood, in Kent. Many are still dotted around the (mainly) Kent and Sussex countryside, harking back to the times when Londoners would escape the dirt and smog of the city to spend a holiday 'hopping' in the fresh air of the countryside.

Very few oast houses survive in their original guise - most have been converted into dwellings, not always sympathetically.