A Walk in the Woods in London

Exploring Epping Forest

Epping Forest

It’s pushing it a bit to say Epping Forest is in London, but it certainly borders the city. And as for suburban woods, this is the big one: a forest rather than a wood. There are nearly 6,000 acres of woodland, interspersed with heaths and lakes and rides. The wood formed after the last Ice Age and is mainly oak, beech and hornbeam. Watch out for the massive branches of previously pollarded trees, left to grow since the passing of the Epping Forest Act in 1878. Hidden among the trees are two Iron Age earthworks, Ambresbury Banks and Loughton Camp, their banks and ditches still distinct two and a half millennia after they were first dug. The ditches in front of the banks were originally 10 feet deep, and the banks 10 feet high, making formidable defences. Local legend places Boudicca’s last stand against the Romans at Ambresbury Banks.

Aerial view of Holland Park

Holland Park

Although Holland Park is one of London’s grand formal parks, there is a surprisingly extensive wood in its northern half. Set off down one of the shaded paths and within a minute the sounds of urbanity are muffled and then all but disappear. It’s a surprise how far away the city can seem here. There’s also a lovely Japanese garden, as well as a café and excellent, age segregated play areas for children.

Highgate Wood

Highgate Wood/Queen’s Wood

Highgate and, on the other side of Muswell Hill Road, Queen’s woods are remnants of the ancient forest of Middlesex, which once covered most of north London and the now defunct county of Middlesex. The smaller Queen’s wood has the more diverse ecology associated with its predominant oak/hornbeam canopy – the rare wild service tree, a marker for the age of a woodland, is present throughout. Highgate Wood also has the wild service tree although less of them, so it’s no newly-planted forest, as well as a café, playground and playing fields. As a school boy, I fought imaginary battles among the trees with my friends.

Oxleas Wood

Shooters Hill Woodlands

Oxleas, Jack and Shepherdleas woods, remnants of the post-glaciation wildwood that once covered the country, cover Shooter’s Hill with a mixture of oak, sweet chestnut and hazel, plus the tell-tale maple-like leaves of the wild service tree. The rare palmate newt lives in ponds in the woods. Walk it in the early morning for a shiver sense of the deep past that still lingers in the shadows under the trees.

Book review: Royal Navy versus the Slave Traders by Bernard Edwards

Royal Navy versus the Slave Traders by Bernard Edwards

Slavery has been as endemic in human history as warfare. Whole societies have been built on slavery and, for most of history, the practice was taken completely for granted as simply part of the cultural fabric, as unfortunate but as inevitable as death and illness. There’s only been two places and times in the world where it has been outlawed: firstly, in Christian Europe in the early Middle Ages and then again in the fractured Europe of early modern era. Having outlawed slavery for Christians, the more enlightened men of the Englightenment reinstituted it on the basis of dubious sounding but scientifically dressed up theories of racial superiority (much of Voltaire’s wealth was earned from the slave trade and he defended the trade on the basis of his belief in a racial hierarchy where white people “are superior to Negroes, just like Negroes are superior to monkeys”).

Against the likes of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau were set a bunch of mostly British religious nut cases, or so they were depicted at the time, who insisted on putting principle before the passive acceptance of a lot of people getting quietly rich. The abolitionists, in the teeth of well-funded opposition, managed to drive the abolition of slavery through Parliament and, in the face of even more opposition, succeeded in enlisting the Royal Navy to police this abolition upon the oceans of the world.

This book tells the story of the squadrons of ships given the task of patrolling the seas where the slave traders ran. It was one of the most difficult stations for any ship: fever-ridden coasts where many a sailor met his end in sweat and agony, to be consigned to a grave in the ocean. So when you read about people agitating for restitution, it’s worth asking what of the men who gave their lives to stop the slave trade? Should not their relatives get restitution too, for they died that others might live free of the shadow of slavery.

Book review: Aelfred’s Britain by Max Adams

Aelfred’s Britain by Max Adams

While the blurb suggests that this is a history of Alfred and his times, it would be better to think of it as an archaeological interrogation of the historical evidence. Working from very different evidence bases, archaeology and history often come to quite different conclusions about what happened, with scholars in each discipline naturally tending to favour their own speciality. As such, Aelfred’s Britain is a helpful read for a historian, as it challenges many of the assumptions that historians have made about Alfred’s era based upon sources that King Alfred largely ensured told the story that he wanted told. Admittedly, historians have been aware for quite some time of this potential bias but an awareness of the bias does not help, on its own, to rectify it, without evidence from other sources.

Adams, and a generation of archaeologists, have been busily searching for this evidence, although it comes with its own set of inherent biases. In particular, archaeology is site specific: it tells you about what happened in a particular place. As we can’t dig everywhere, this inevitably skews our evidence to the sites that have been excavated, which in no wise constitute a random sample.

As such, Aelfred’s Britain is a valuable addition to the Alfredian literature, although by the book’s design it’s somewhat bitty: it took me a long time to finish as it’s a book that almost asks to be put aside for a while and then picked up again.

Catalan Child-Frighteners

What to do if little Johnny won’t go to sleep at bedtime? A glass of warm milk? A gentle lullaby? Or a blood-curdling horror story of child abduction and flesh-eating monsters? Catalan folklore is full of decidedly non-PC espantanens (‘child-frighteners’), designed to make kids behave and – as a side effect – turn them into gibbering emotional wrecks.

Goya’s depiction of El Coco.

El Coco is one of the best known. With shaggy black hair and fluorescent eyes, El Coco preys on children who don’t go to bed when they’re told. Only leaving his hidey-hole in the dead of night, he lingers in the shadowy corners of children’s bedrooms and taunts them with a scary grunting noise, before grabbing them and carrying them home to eat raw.

La Pesanta, as depicted by Eduardo Valdés-Hevia

El Coco takes children who don’t go to sleep but pity those who do: La Pesanta is waiting for them. In the form of a huge black dog with human hands, she jumps on to the chest of those who sleep on their backs; her great weight gives them terrible nightmares before suffocating them to death.

L’Home del Sac

Warning of ‘stranger danger’ is L’Home del Sac (the ‘bag man’), a sinister old man dressed in old brown rags with shaggy hair and a giant sack on his back. Wandering the streets of Barcelona, he lures over any children he sees out alone with sweets and toys and then tosses them in his sack. Back in his castle, he boils down the children’s juicy flesh to produce a fine oil, which he uses to grease the train tracks.

Caçamentides by Javier Prado

Continuing the gruesome roll call of Catalan monsters, there’s the Caçamentides (‘liar hunter’), a man as tall and wide as the towers of the cathedral and with fingers as sharp as claws, which he uses to snatch up children who tell lies. He knows who they are because when a lie comes out of a child’s mouth, it turns into an invisible bird that flies away after leaving a dark stain on their teeth. The birds fly to Caçamentides and tell him where the child is to be found. He barbecues his captives and eats them seven by seven.


Much feared by little girls is the Cardapeçois, a strange and bad-tempered old woman who’s obsessed with well-combed hair. She visits little girls with long, tangled locks and goes at them with thistle heads and, in especially bad cases, the sharp iron spikes used to card sheep wool. She combs until she’s pulled all the hair out, and the offender is left bleeding and bald.

Jan de Gel

Putting on the frighteners out in La Vall de Ribes de Freser is Jan de Gel, a boy made of ice, and so cold-hearted that children freeze just by looking at him. He throws the human popsicle on his back and carries it to his ice cave to make it into a hearty soup. Another winter sprite is La Tinyosa, who appears as a mass of foggy cloud, descending over any children lost in her territory of the Montserrat mountains and the plains of Vic, and carrying them away.

Book review: Rocks and Shoals by Chris Durbin

Rocks and Shoals by Chris Durbin

With Lieutenant Holbrooke’s promotion, the two lead characters, Carlisle and Holbrooke, have been separated, their adventures occupying alternating books: for Rocks and Shoals, the focus is Captain Carlisle, American captain of a ship of the Royal Navy, navigating the treacherous waters of the St Lawrence River as part of the expeditionary force of General Wolfe against the French in Canada. So the novel exchanges the broad expanses of the ocean for the narrow passages of inland waterways, and ships acting as floating gun batteries alongside infantry assaults: it’s a fascinating insight into an earlier version of combined arms warfare, with the engaging Captain Carlisle as our guide. As enjoyable as the earlier novels in the series.

Book review: Perilous Shore by Chris Durbin

Perilous Shore by Chris Durbin

If you’re read the previous five books in this series about Captain Carlisle and Lieutenant Holbrooke, officers in the Royal Navy during the Seven Years’ War, then you’ll know what to expect in the sixth instalment: convincing naval action (the author was naval officer), just enough interpersonal intrigue to keep matters interesting without anything getting too out of hand, and a cast of characters that are, generally, thoroughly good eggs, although with sufficent personal quirks to render them individuals. It’s not challenging historical fiction but it is extremely good historical fiction: perhaps one step down from the top rate but story shape and read worthy.

Book review: The Reverie by Peter Fehervari

The Reverie by Peter Fehervari

You don’t normally read 40k for dense, allusive prose that carry echoes of some of the great prose stylists of the 20th century, but with Peter Fehervari’s 40k work this is exactly what you get. The Reverie is a fascinating take on the grim dark of the far future, one that repays lingering over the words as well as paying attention to the plot (in fact, I lingered so long over the words that I got a little lost in what was actually happening). It’s as close to a philosophical 40k novel as has been written, a novel-length investigation into the corruption that turns to canker all the best intentions of even the best characters within this universe. So if your preference in 40k skews towards creeping dread and the long, slow dissolution of the few citadels of hope in that universe rather than bolter porn, then this is the story for you.

Book review: The Ghost and Mrs Muir by R.A. Dick

The Ghost and Mrs Muir by R.A. Dick

The fact that the author, Josephine Leslie, chose R.A. Dick as her pseudonym does illustrate rather well that, despite six years of war, 1945 was a more innocent time than now (I know slang changes but it meant the same thing when I was a child and that was much closer to 1945 than it is to today).

The story itself is charming: a young widow moves with her children to a seaside cottage to get away from her overbearing in-laws, only to find the house already inhabited, by the ghost of Captain Gregg. The Captain saves her from various potential disasters along the way, including a nearly disastrous liaison with a poet and writer (that was always going to end badly), and it all ends happily ever after. A slight story but perfectly told.

Book review: Travels in England 1782 by Karl Philipp Moritz

Travels in England 1782 by Karl Philipp Moritz

It’s not often that an essay on what I did in my holidays makes a good book, but Moritz’s account of his travels in England is truly charming. In part, it’s because Moritz comes across as such a wonderful traveller: he accepts almost everything in good spirit and with a cheerful optimism. In part, it’s because Moritz visits England because of his Anglophilia and proceeds to confirm, to himself at least, his love affair with a country that, until then, he had only read about.

For the present-day reader, the writer’s companionship is enlivened by his descriptions of England in 1782. Because Moritz preferred to walk, innkeepers thought he was a tramp and treated him abominably, but he remains good humoured throughout. He visited the House of Commons and saw Pitt and Fox debating, as well as a Member asleep on a bench in the House (some things don’t change), writes of rowdy theatre goers chucking orange peel at the stage and the propensity of English schoolboys to get into fights. A fascinating contemporary account.

Book review: Our Lady of the Artilects by Andrew Gillsmith

Our Lady of the Artilects by Andrew Gillsmith

While wrapped up in a dressing of modern-day notions of AI (transplanted a couple of hundred years into the future) this debut novel is in fact something of a throw back to such Golden Age SF stories as James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Walter Miller’s Canticle of Leibowitz and Anthony Boucher’s The Quest for Saint Aquin, being a novel of ideas about faith, reason, science and consciousness. While the ideas are fascinating, the writing does not really reach the levels of its prototypes (although as these are among the greatest SF stories ever written, that’s not so surprising). It’s been a while since I read the book and, to be honest, not that much has stuck in memory but I do remember being disappointed that the single most interesting character in the novel, the android Thierry, spends almost all the novel off page. However, the world building, proposing a future world centred more upon Africa and Asia, was an enjoyable corrective to the usual American/European bias.

While not wholly successful as a novel, what is impressive is Gillsmith’s willingness to take up these grand themes. I think he might well become a notable writer of ideas – something the distinctly lacklustre field of SF needs at the moment.