The origins of writing can be found 5,000 years ago; it began in different places around the world at different times and for different reasons. One of the main advantages of writing was the possibility of communication across time and space: we can, if we understand the alphabet and language used, read what somebody wrote several thousand years ago. Various writing systems and styles have developed, many of which have common ancestors. I found it fascinating to look at different systems and see how they developed from older ones.
Materials and technology have changed over the years, beginning with carved letters produced by a stylus in wax. The ancient Egyptians used papyrus before paper was developed. Handwriting, too, has undergone changes, created first with quill pens then fountain and ball point. Medieval manuscripts gave way to the printed word, which at first emulated the handwritten style. Calligraphy remains a valued, albeit niche, skill even since the development of typewriters and then computers.
Learning to write has always taken time and effort, even from the very beginning. Learning how to form letters is an important part of education for young children. The future of writing surely involves technology, with the increasing use of emojis, but people are still interested in notebooks and pens.
I managed to make it to the Science Museum‘s exhibition The Sun: Living With Our Star before it closed. The exhibition looks at the history of humanity’s knowledge and beliefs surrounding the Sun and the part it plays in our actual and our imaginative lives.
Early humanity’s belief in sun gods searched for explanations as to why the Sun appeared to rise and set every day; we see statues of sun gods from various cultures, including one of the Sun being pulled across the sky by a chariot. In the early sixteenth century, Copernicus challenged the idea that the Sun went round the Earth, supported by Newton 200 years later. From the earliest times, sundials were used to tell the time: there are examples from the Anglo-Saxon era on display. Later, the development of clocks made the Sun less important for telling the time, and nowadays standard time is taken from a network of atomic clocks.
From the earliest times the Sun has been associated with good health. Apollo was the Greek God of the Sun, light, truth and healing, while apothecary shops often had the Sun as their symbol. In the 1880s, scientists learned that ultraviolet light can kill TB bacteria: sunbathing was encouraged, and sanatoriums were opened, often in places like the Swiss Alps, emphasising fresh air, sunlight and good food. Later, suntans became fashionable, as holidays in the UK and abroad were seen as a sign of wealth.
On the other hand, sun exposure has risks, many of which have always been known about. In recent times there have been campaigns to reduce sun exposure and lower levels of skin cancer. Inuit people have been using snow goggles to protect their eyes from the glare of the Sun for thousands of years; the first sunglasses as we know them were used by Venetian gondoliers in the 1700s. Sunglasses became fashionable in the 1950s but rarely offered ultraviolet protection; modern ones are usually UV-resistant.
The exhibition explored how we have taken power from the Sun, using it for heat and electricity. The Olympic torch from the 2012 Olympics was on display: each time the ceremony is held the torch is initially ignited by sunlight, with a curved mirror used to focus the flame. The Sun was responsible for one of our biggest energy sources, coal, which is made of plants and vegetation buried and transformed over millions of years. Interestingly, even in the nineteenth century some people were aware that resources such as coal were finite: a book from 1867 warns that coal will not last forever. More recently, solar power has been used as an energy source, and there have been attempts to recreate the Sun on earth with nuclear fusion: a project called ZETA aimed to do just that in the 1950s, though the claim of success in 1958 was later proved false.
The final section of the exhibition looked at how we have observed the Sun over the years and discovered more about it. The Sun is made of hydrogen and helium, discovered by splitting light into a rainbow structure through the use of a prism; this conclusion was first put forward by astronomy student Cecilia Payne in 1925. More recently, the European Space Agency Solar Orbiter is one of the most ambitious solar missions ever attempted, aiming to fly closer to the Sun than the planet Mercury. It is hoped that the mission will help us understand the origins of the solar wind.
Jewellery of the exhibition
To this exhibition I wore my Eclectic Eccentricity Helios Vintage Sun Necklace, along with a pair of brass star earrings from the same store and a sterling silver sunstone ring from now-defunct jewellery store Cheap Frills.
I almost completely forgot about the Russia exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, but luckily managed to make it there on the very last day. The exhibition was actually divided into two sections, together encompassing history, photography, war and revolution.
Shadows of War: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea, 1855 was the first part of the exhibition. Fenton was the first photographer to document a war for public consumption. He spent four months in the Crimea, from March 1855. His pictures capture the reality of war and the lives of soldiers in the field. There are some incredible shots, including pictures of the infamous “Valley of Death” (from the Tennyson poem, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’) littered with cannonballs, as well as images of important figures from the war. One of my favourite pictures was of a soldier clearly suffering from shellshock, something which was not really known about or considered at the time.
The second part of the exhibition was Russia, Royalty & the Romanovs, concentrating on the reigns of the numerous monarchs who made up the Romanov dynasty. There were some fascinating paintings and artefacts, including the picture of Peter the Great, highlighting his seagoing achievements (which he partly developed during a visit to London). Some beautiful Faberge eggs were displayed, but probably the most poignant item was a small suit made for the young Tsarevich Alexei.
The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution is a free exhibition at the Science Museum, looking at the life and death of the Russian royal family during the Russian Revolution. It explores their family life in the years running up to Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication, the family’s murder in Ekaterinburg in 1917, and the eventual identification of their remains using DNA technology.
The science used to identify the remains of the Romanov family is the main point of the exhibition, but there is plenty of filler leading up to that, much of which I already knew having read up on Russian history and visited the St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg where the family are now buried. However, there was a very interesting display showing how Queen Victoria passed on hemophilia to many of her children and grandchildren. The DNA section was also fascinating, showing how DNA from living royals including Prince Philip was used as a comparison to enable scientists to identify the remains.
In any case, it’s a free exhibition and well worth a visit.
The exhibition Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite Visionary at Tate Britain looks at the career of Burne-Jones (1833-1898), taking a partly chronological and partly thematic approach to his life and work. There are sections on Burne-Jones as an apprentice and as a draughtsman, revealing another, humorous side to the artist. One room looks at the pictures Burne-Jones chose for exhibition, including some of his most famous works, such as King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. Another explores the portraits he painted of family and friends, while one striking room displays his Briar Rose series of panels. Burne-Jones isn’t my favourite Pre-Raphaelite, but I enjoyed the exhibition.
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is an exhibition at the British Library that I knew I definitely wanted to see. Though the Anglo-Saxon era is not my favourite, I did study history for my degree and to some extent all periods of history are interesting to me.
Anglo-Saxon settlers from northern Europe came to Britain in the 5th century, eventually forming several kingdoms that would one day become England. The exhibition brings together manuscripts and artefacts that help to illuminate this exciting period of history.
The exhibition has some amazing treasures on display, including Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Domesday Book, and artefacts from the Sutton Hoo burial ground. It takes a broadly chronological approach, looking at how the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms developed from the first arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to the Norman Conquest.
The Anglo-Saxon era was not static; different kingdoms gained and lost power over the centuries. Early in the era, the kingdom of Northumbria was in the ascendant, while later on, Mercia became the most powerful. By the tenth century, King Aethelstan was exercising power over most of what is now England and south-east Scotland.
The exhibition emphasises the multicultural links of the Anglo-Saxon world, with connections to Ireland and mainland Europe, and its literary, artistic and scientific developments. It is a fascinating exhibition, showing that even a world over 1,000 years old can still be relevant to ours.
One of my first exhibitions of the year was the dramatically-titled I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria at the British Museum. Before visiting, I knew nothing about this Assyrian king, and my knowledge of Assyria was limited to that Byron poem. This exhibition was an eye-opener. Assyria was the dominant power of the Middle East from approximately 900 to 612 BC. The exhibition covers this period of time, focusing on the empire’s peak when Ashurbanipal ruled.
The most fascinating part of the exhibition was the art: the friezes carved on walls depicting Assyrian conquests and disturbing tortures. The exhibition cleverly uses technology to describe and explain these carvings, which are fascinating and shine a light on this particularly violent society. Another interesting aspect of the exhibition was its focus on the bureaucracy of Assyria: rules, regulations and plans helped its rulers to conquer.
Ashurbanipal himself was both a warrior and a master administrator. He and his family fought lions to prove their strength; the images of lions in the exhibition are particularly well-drawn. Assyrian society relied heavily on writing to organise and manage, using cuneiform, the world’s oldest form of writing.
Eventually, after Ashurbanipal’s death, his empire collapsed, culminating in the burning of Nineveh in 612 BC. His great library was destroyed, but, consisting of clay tablets which harden in the heat, its contents survived. These include the text of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the best-preserved copy of that masterpiece, and still a basis for modern translations.
Assyrian society, surprisingly modern in both its brutality and its bureaucracy, is a fascinating subject for an exhibition. Sadly, the remains of Nineveh, former capital of the empire, located on the outskirts of Mosul in Iraq, were attacked by Islamic State a few years ago. I was pleased to see Iraqi experts and staff of the British Museum working together to repair and restore the ruins.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year – no, not Christmas, Halloween. I’ve been distracted by work and my friend’s wedding recently, so I hadn’t planned as much as I would have liked, but I managed to squeeze in a few fun things to mark the occasion.
First up was a trip to the Royal Academy to check out the PsychoBarn, Cornelia Parker’s amazing creation inspired by the house in Psycho. I wore my Odd and the Sparkly brooch to visit, just because.
On Tuesday I attended a screening of a classic silent film Der Golem (it’s German) at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, complete with live musical soundtrack. Considering the film is almost one hundred years old I thought the special effects were pretty impressive. Sadly, they didn’t provide English translations of the text displayed between the scenes, so I had no idea what was going on.
On Halloween itself I went to see a play about a Victorian séance. It was promising but ultimately unsatisfying, and I began to wonder if I would have been better off having a night in with a horror film or a book of ghost stories.
Speaking of which, I spied a book on a friend’s Instagram with the most amazing cover that I immediately decided to track down myself. The book was Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book and was full of apparently true stories of ghostly experiences in houses all around the country. I might take these claims with a pinch of salt, but they were entertaining nevertheless.
As well as Halloween, it was also Dias De Los Muertos – the Mexican Day of the Dead. The V&A held a late to mark the occasion and I went along with a friend. We made a beeline for the crafting area where I made a mask – now displayed on the wall at work – and painted a skull necklace. Despite my known lack of artistic talent, it wasn’t too bad.
Yeah, sorry about that title. Anyway, after my enjoyable if exhausting walk following the route of the Fleet, I decided to walk the course of another London river and fellow Thames tributary – the Wandle. This river flows from Croydon to Wandsworth, and I began my walk, as this Londonist article suggests, in Morden.
The Wandle has in its time powered many working mills, despite its current appealing rural-lite setting. It has avoided the fate of becoming a covered sewer and instead is a haven for wildlife (although, with an exception of a few ducks and one perplexed-looking moorhen, I didn’t actually see any on my walk).
I got off at Morden Tube station and headed towards Morden Hall Park, across the Wetlands Boardwalk which is now, apparently, home to newts, frogs and herons. Beyond the park, across the tram line, I walked past Deen City Farm, a working urban farm which introduces young city kids to farm animals – an excited pair I passed on my walk were being taken there by their dad.
After a short walk taking in a housing estate I reconnected with the river as it flowed past Merton Abbey Mills.
Past Merton High Street, I ventured into Wandle Park, through which the river was diverted many years ago. Crossing the river I reached Wandle Meadow Nature Park, a former brickworks and sewage farm. This section of the walk was rather quiet and eerie, but I soon made it to the small River Graveney, passing numerous families out for a walk before reaching the Wandle once again.
I crossed Plough Lane, a busy road near the former Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium, and embarked upon a fairly long section of path on the left hand side of the river. I was surprised to see anglers fishing on its bank, while the electricity sub-station loomed in the background. After a while I reached Earlsfield, passing the familiar Tara Theatre before venturing towards King George’s Park.
Once I’d reached the other side of the park, I found myself in Wandsworth.
I walked through the busy town centre and past the old Ram Brewery buildings before reaching a sluice gate containing a bell, on which is inscribed ‘I AM RUNG BY THE TIDES’. Just a little further and I had reached the island in the middle of the river as it flows into the Thames.
I enjoyed my walk and it was a lovely day for it – clear and cool and crisp. I found the signposts and directions to be somewhat lacking, and had to open my trusty Google Maps at several points, but this may just be because I have a terrible sense of direction. In any case, I was pleased to feel as though I’d accomplished something.
As part of the annual Heritage Open Days, I headed to the House Mill, somewhere I’ve been meaning to visit for a while. The Mill has a rich history and I was able to enjoy a fascinating guided tour.
The House Mill is an important but little-known Grade I listed building on the River Lea in Bromley-by-Bow, part of the Three Mills complex. The original tidal mills here date back to the Domesday book of 1086, and the present structure of the House Mill was built in 1776 by Daniel Bisson (after a fire in 1802 it was quickly rebuilt). It is the world’s largest tidal mill, with four water wheels, and was used to mill grain for gin distilleries.
In 1989 work began to restore the House Mill site, which included the rebuilding of the Miller’s House, which had been demolished in the late 1950s after wartime damage. The façade of the house was rebuilt to the 1763 design, and used original eighteenth-century bricks.
I turned up in plenty of time for my tour, and we were taken into the mill by our guide. The building which is now the entrance area and cafe originally used to be the house, which is why there are fireplaces on this side, but not in the mill itself. It was very important not to risk fire with so much grain and wood around, and in fact there was actually a fire in 1802.
We started at the top of the building, where bags of grain were winched up to begin their journey. The natural pressure of the grain pushed it down chutes to the next floor down, where it was ground down. Eighteenth-century machinery sits alongside nineteenth-century examples so it’s possible to see the difference in process.
At the bottom of the building, we saw the original wheels used in the tidal mill, sadly falling into ruin now. The mill, as well as all other mills on this site, worked when the tide went out, so that they would all share in its power. Here it’s also possible to see the doors through which carts would drop off their sacks of grain, and the ropes that would take them up to the top of the building.
The people who work at the House Mill are trying to raise money to restore the mill, starting with the wheels. If you happen to have a spare £500,000, do send it their way!
Address: The Miller’s House, Three Mill Lane, London, E3 3DU