Monday, 28 February 2011

The Oracle of Delphi

At Delphi, on a mountainside overlooking the Gulf of Corinth, stood a temple to Apollo which was one of the most famous and respected in the whole Greek world.

The fame of Delphi was due to the fact that the chief priestess was believed to be able to talk directly to Apollo, and to ask him questions on behalf of the humans who visited the temple.

A place where humans could  talk to the gods was known as an oracle. The oracle at Delphi was considered to be the greatest in the world.

According to legend, Apollo killed a terrible serpent named Python at Delphi. To celebrate this feat he set up an altar to himself and persuaded a group of sailors from Crete to settle there as his priests.

People who wished to consult the god at Delphi had to climb the mountain, then bathe in the waters of a sacred spring. They were then allowed into the sacred precincts of the temple.

After waiting for the chief priestess, the Pythia, to announce she was ready, the men were led into the temple and to a small dark room near the back. Here they told the Pythia the question that they wanted to ask the god Apollo.

The Pythia then climbed on to a metal stool with three legs that spanned a bottomless crack in the rocks from which came volcanic gasses. The Pythia fell into a trance during which she was believed to become possess by Apollo.

Sometimes the Pythia answered the question in verse, sometimes in ordinary speech and sometimes by incoherent rantings, which were translated by a priest.

The answers given by the oracle at Delphi are often said to have been either obscure or to have two meanings. For instance, King Croesus was told that if he invaded Persia he would destroy a mighty kingdom. He did, but the kingdom that was destroyed was his own, not Persia.

Some answers were very clear. In 480bc the oracle told representatives from Athens “Pray to the winds”. The Athenians did and a storm destroyed much of the Persian invasion fleet.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Video for the book Heroes of RAF Fighter Command in Sussex



The History Man is up for an Award

Rupert Matthews, the History Man, has been shortlisted for the prestigious 2011 Tyr Na N-Og Awards organised by the Welsh Books Council.

In their press release announcing the short listing, Welsh Books Council said:
"The Welsh Books Council has announced the titles on the short list of the prestigious Tir na n-Og Awards 2011. The awards are presented annually by the Books Council to acknowledge the work of authors and illustrators of children’s books in three categories: the best English-language book, the best Welsh-language book for the primary sector and the best Welsh-language book for the secondary sector.

"Wendy Lloyd Jones, Chair of the English-language Selection Panel, said, ‘It was a pleasure to reconvene with panel members to discuss the 2010 English-language books. During our deliberations, the importance of outstanding quality in the winning text was seen as essential in order to maintain the status of the award.’

"Gwenan Ellis Jones, Chair of the Welsh-language Selection Panel, added, ‘Reading through the wealth of original Welsh-language books for children and young people published during 2010 has been a great pleasure. It is heartening to see the standard and variety of books – poetry, novels and short stories – that have been produced.’"

I can only add how flattered I am to be included in the short list. As is usual I must also thank my publisher, Salariya, for their expert design and editing skills. Without them this nomination would not be possible.


Wednesday, 16 February 2011

King Edward I of England invades Wales

When King Edward I of England invaded Wales in 1282 it marked the end of an independent Wales. The long struggle between the Welsh and English which had begun when Hengest landed in Kent some eight centuries earlier was finally at an end.

Llywelyn, Prince of Gwynedd and of Wales, had always resented the power of the English and the way they occupied most of Wales. His great rebellion of 1258 drove the English out and united most of Wales. But in 1274 Prince Llywelyn went too far. He refused to attend the coronation of King Edward I of England. Edward never forgot the insult and when Llywelyn tried to marry a wealthy English heiress, he struck.

The ship carrying the bride to Wales was attacked and seized by English ships, and the hapless girl brought to Edward’s court as a prisoner. Llywelyn raised his armies and marched into Cheshire, burning and pillaging as he advanced. Edward, however, was ready and soon drove the Welsh back into the mountainous Snowdonia. By the autumn of 1277 Llywelyn was starving and abandoned by most of his men. He surrendered.

In the circumstances, Edward was generous. He allowed Llywelyn to remain as Prince of Gwynedd, though the Welshman was tripped of his other lands and had to promise to pay an annual tribute. Edward made his mistake in the question of law when he imposed English laws on Wales in place of the honoured laws of Hywel Dda. The Welsh resented the move and their resentment grew with time. Welshmen behaving, as they thought, perfectly legally suddenly found themselves hauled up before an English judge.

In 1282 Llywelyn led another great rebellion, like that of 1258. Men flocked to his banner form all over Wales and he led them to the walls of Chester. But times had changed in 30 years and this time the rebellion ended in disaster. By the following summer the Welsh were once again shut up in Snowdonia. When Llywelyn tried to break out and race to Brecon to raise new forces, he was cut off by English forces and killed. His brother, Dafydd, tried to continue the war but he was quickly captured and executed.

This time Edward decided to treat the Welsh more leniently, while takin greater care of military matters. He still insisted that English laws should be enforced, but now he appointed Welshmen to be judges and government officials with instructions to introduce the new laws gradually and with tact. At the same time Edward began the construction of the might fortresses which still dominate many Welsh towns. Beaumaris, Caenavon and Conway castles were built to ring the lands of Snowdonia, for so long the centre of resistance to the English.

Finally, Edward decided to reinstate the office of Prince of Wales, but this time giving the job to somebody he could trust. Legend has it that the Welsh demanded Edward give them a Prince who was born in Wales and who could not speak English. Edward readily agreed, and the Welsh chiefs must have congratulated themselves for gaining a victory. But then Edward presented them with his own baby son, born in Wales and unable to speak English as he was only a few months old.

Whether or not the tale is true, the young prince was crowned Prince of Wales in 1301, by which time he was old enough to begin his education in the arts of government. Although there would be future uprisings by the Welsh, the new settlement worked out reasonably well. The combination of tact and military might used by Edward after 1284 ensure that peace at last came to the Welsh Marches.

An extract from 200 Events that shaped British History

Monday, 14 February 2011

Which is the Greatest Seaside Resort?

In the year 2000 the British government announced that it would be launching a drive to rejuvenate the British seaside resort. The setting for  many British childhood holidays  was about to get an update.

There can be no doubting that the increasingly affordable foreign holiday has had an impact on British seaside resorts. In the 1950s virtually every family looked forward to a week or two at the seaside to liven up the summer. The attractions and shortcomings of different resorts were earnestly discussed, before a destination was settled on.  But by the 1990s the visits to the British seaside were more likely to be for a quick day or weekend when it looked as if the sun might shine. The British weather has driven many Britons to holiday abroad. It remains to be seen if the government can reverse the trend.

The oldest of the resorts is Brighton, which rose to fame when the Prince Regent started visiting it in the 1780s. Conveniently placed for the capital, Brighton became the resort of choice for the dashing young blades who made up the social set around ‘Prinny’. The popularity of the town made Brighton one of the first places to be linked to London by rail. With the journey time down to an hour and much cheaper than before, Brighton became the target for reasonably prosperous working families looking for a day out, a weekend away or a week’s holiday. Brighton, however, always managed to retain its original fashionable air and catered mainly for the gentry and middle classes.

London’s poor, on the other hand, flocked to Southend. Easily accessible from the East End by train, this resort stands on the north side of the Thames Estuary. It lay just far enough away for the beaches to be free of the pollution from Victorian London, but not so far that it was difficult to reach. Again, the railway made the journey cheap and quick. The rise in popularity of Southend is mirrored in the size of the pleasure pier. First built in 1830 as a relatively modest wooden structure on which visitors could take the sea air, it was extended in 1846. In 1889 the wooden pier was torn down and replaced by the present iron structure over 2.15km long, which has a narrow-gauge railway to carry holiday-makers to the far end. So far out to sea does the pier reach that it has been accidentally hit by passing ships on 14 occasions, fortunately no serious damage has been done.

Noting the successes of seaside resorts near London, towns close to other large cities set to work. One of the most successful was Weston-super-Mare, which lies south of Bristol and boasts a fine beach. Before the railway came Weston-super-Mare was a little village of 100 people. Forty years later it had 20,000 permanent inhabitants and many more annual visitors. The rapid growth was matched by a planned layout of wide seafront roads, public gardens and broad streets which Brighton and other older resorts could only dream about.

Further removed from major cities is Torquay in south Devon. A product entirely of the railway and clever promotion, Torquay has never allowed itself to suffer, as some other resorts did, from milking the tourists without reinvesting in new attractions. Nor has the town spared much sentiment on nostalgia. Torquay moves with the times. When donkey rides were popular, there were donkey rides. When donkey rides fell from favour, the donkeys left. As a consequence Torquay has modern hotels, modern attractions and large numbers of modern visitors.

But the most successful, brashest and most ambitious of all the seaside resorts was built to cater to the working families of the great northern conurbations. It was created as a location for sheer populist pleasure, and has never failed to live up to its reputation. It is Blackpool. The town does not feature much in books aimed at foreign tourists, but that has never bothered Blackpool residents too much. Their town and its attractions are aimed fair and square at the British. So successful has the town been at this that one British guide book recently proclaimed “If there is a form of holiday entertainment that Blackpool cannot provide, it is difficult to think of.”

The resort rose to fame in later Victorian times, though it had been attracting visitors to its pretty, sandy beaches since the 1760s. The great landmark of Blackpool is its famous tower, a half size copy of the Eiffel Tower. The complex of buildings at the base of the Tower contains sumptuously decorated holiday attractions, including a massive ballroom, an aquarium and a famous organ. The seafront stretches for 11km with beaches on one side and an almost unbroken succession of hotels, pubs, fish and chip shops and amusement arcades on the other. During the winter season, the Front comes alive with the famous Blackpool Illuminations - bright electrically lit figures and designs. At the southern end of the Front is the Pleasure Beach which thrills visitors with the world’s tallest roller coaster - The Big One, with a height of 71 metres and a maximum drop of 63 metres and top speed of 128km/h.

The seaside holiday has developed a long way from the royal ostentation of Prinny’s Brighton to the cheerful escape-from-the-factory fun of Blackpool. But however much foreign sunshine calls, and however wet British summers manage to be, and whether the British visit their own resorts for brief weekends or longer stays, the British seaside holiday resort grits its teeth and Carries On, just like those films.

An extract from Everything You Need to Know about the British

Friday, 11 February 2011

First Life on Earth

The first living thing was neither an animal nor a plant
The oldest fossils found by scientists date back about 3 billion years. They take the form of round, cushion-shaped deposits of limestone. These are the remains of colonies of thousands of tiny living things called blue-green algae. These algae contain just a single cell and are neither animal nor plant.

The first animals were as soft as jelly
Animals do not produce their own food, but gain nourishment by eating living things such as plants or other animals. The first animals were single-celled creatures that ate single-celled pants. Later animals were made up of hundreds of cells but were all soft and lacking any hard parts. Charnia grew attached to the seabed, while jellyfish floated freely.

Plants appeared around 1000 million years ago
These early plants were green algae. These single-celled plants had chlorophyll, the green substance that enables plants to convert sunlight to energy. These algae produced oxygen, gradually making the Earth’s atmosphere able to sustain more advanced forms of plant and animal life.

Early land plants simply clung to rocks
By about 800 million years ago, some algae was growing together with fungi to form lichen. Lichen is able to grow on bare rock, creeping across the surface as it grows. The chemicals produced by lichens help break rocks down into grit and soil.

Plants that can stand up are called vascular plants
Gradually, more complex plants evolved. These had more than one cell. Vascular plants have several different sorts of cell. Some form vascules which transport water and food from one part of the plant to another. When these vascules form stems, a plant can stand upright. One of the earliest such plants was Cooksonia.

Anomalocaris hunted other animals
The creatures Anomalocaris lived about 520 million years ago in what is now Canada. It used its fins to swim through the shallow seas in search of prey. Smaller animals were caught in its two pincers, then pushed into its mouth. Anomalocaris grew to be about 60cm long.

I Don’t Believe It!
None of the early animals had bones. They were made up almost completely of muscle, skin and other soft tissue.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Prisoners of War as Gladiators in Rome

 Prisoners of war fought in the arena
Between 250bc and 100bc the Romans fought many wars against foreign enemies. Prisoners captured in these wars were sold as slaves in Rome. Captured soldiers were highly valued as gladiators and were made to fight in the arena, using their native weapons and armour.

The Samnites had the best weapons
The Romans fought a long series of wars against the Samnites between 343bc and 290bc. These men each carried a large, oval shield and wore a helmet with cheek pieces. Samnites were famous for having top quality swords and spears.

The Thracians had the strangest weapons
The men from the kingdom of Thrace carried small shields and wore helmets with crests. They were famous for being able to hit any target with their spears and carried short, curved swords. This mix of weapons proved very popular and many gladiators adopted these weapons. They became known as Thracians, even if they were not from Thrace.

The Celts had the finest clothes
The Celts were the only people ever to have captured Rome, in 390BC. They lived in northern Italy and across much of Europe. Celts loved to dress in brightly coloured clothing and painted their bodies when going into battle. The Romans forced many Celtic prisoners to fight in their native clothes and with native weapons.

The Numidians fought on horseback
Numidia was an area of northern Africa in what is now Algeria. The area was famous for breeding top quality horses and its army included large numbers of cavalrymen. Prisoners of war from Numidia were mounted on horses when they appeared in the arena.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Roman Legions

Heavily armoured infantry formed the legions. The main fighting formation of the Roman army was the legion, a force of about 6,000 men. Most of these men were equipped with body armour, a helmet and a large rectangular shield, as well as a sword and throwing spear.

Roman allies wore cheaper armour. Every Roman army included soldiers called auxiliaries who were from countries that were allied to Rome. These units had to provide their own armour and often wore tunics covered with mail or with scale armour, which was made up of lots of small metal plates.

Roman armour was made up of strips of metal. During the period when the Roman Empire was at its largest the legionnaries wore armour known as lorica segmentata. This was made up of a series o of metal strips bent to fit the human body and held together by leather straps and metal buckles.

Roman shields could be used to form a “tortoise”. One tactic used by the Romans was called the testudo, or “tortoise”. The men formed a dense group then held their shields so that they interlocked on all sides and overhead, just like the shell of a tortoise. They could then attack an enemy safe from spears or arrows.

Roman swords were copied from the Spanish. After about 200bc Roman soldiers carried a sword that had a straight, broad blade with a sharp point. The weapon was used to stab an enemy rather than slash at him. It was copied from a style of sword used by Spanish soldiers who defeated the Romans in battle.

Make a Legionary Door Sign
You will need:
Piece of card 15 x 7 cm
1. Cut the top of the piece of card to the shape shown.
2. Draw a legionary looking out from behind his shield on the card.
3. Write your message on the shield.
4. Hang the door sign from your door handle.