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Hollywood sets its sights on 1066


The field of the Battle of Hastings by Phillip C

John Hillman reports on news of the latest Hollywood historical epic

It’s looking like the story of the most famous Channel crossing in history is finally going to get the Hollywood treatment.

1066 and the epic battle of Hastings is having three separate feature films made about it next year; all of them carry heavyweight tinsel-town backing.

Nearly 1000 years have passed since William the Conqueror fought his way into England, and it still remains one of the most important events in European history. The death of Edward the Confessor caused a bitter split between Harold and William, and led to the invasion of England and the changing of our country forever.

Producers and writers behind films like Elizabeth: The Golden Years, Gladiator and Trainspotting are competing to be behind the biggest and best release of the film, with most of them choosing to focus on the relationship between the two warrior Kings, who were once good friends.

The epic battles and the arduous Channel crossings seem to be tailor made for some serious CGI action and I for one cannot wait for this belated arrival to the pantheon of sword and sandal epics.

Hopefully at least one of the films will attempt to bring alive what it must have been like to transport a medieval army across the Channel in some pretty rudimentary ships, when in all probability a large proportion of the soldiers had never even seen the sea. I imagine it was complete chaos; just the perfect topic for the cinema.

Miserable misconceptions


The Long Hot Summer continues....The weather man says it's raining... by Ian Keven

John Hillman laments the continental view of Albion

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Next time you head over to Rotterdam with P&O you might want to find out why on earth they think that the English are responsible for their bad weather.

Apparently a common enough slang for grey miserable rainy days is Engels Weer, English weather, which, when you consider that we get about half the annual rainfall that Holland does, is ever so slightly galling. We may as well start refereeing to our balmy summer evenings as Irish sunsets if we’re going to play by those rules.

Strange how much of a mistaken view of the English still exists on the continent, notably that we all eat bad food which, having lived in Europe myself, is another deeply irritating falsehood that you get fed up with hearing.

Even the tiniest village in the English countryside has a top quality Anglo-Indian restaurant and our supermarkets have more choice in them than any other I’ve been to from Berlin to Hawaii. The trouble is that we picked up a bad reputation about 100 years ago and can’t seem to shake it off.

There are few places in the world where you can experience as much gastronomic eclecticism as you can in England. For a nation that invented the pie, the steamed pudding and real ale to have such a bad culinary reputation represents a serious miscarriage of justice.

The Bouldnor Cliff


Across the Solent by me'nthedogs

John Hillman ponders over the cliffs of England and a perfectly preserved snapshot of the past that might just gives us a glimpse into our future

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The Bouldnor Cliff on the Isle of Wight is the site of some pretty interesting underwater archeology, including an 8,000-year-old submerged Mesolithic village, but it is the answers to the effects of climate change that have scientists interested the most.

Travel back in time to 6,500 BC and the cliff becomes the highest point in a chalk ridge, surrounded by a lush forest, a far cry from the watery playground that it is today.

Underneath the Solent, hidden away from all those pleasure boaters, are root systems and tree stumps, as well as flints, wood and other organic material, which makes Bouldnor Cliff one of the most important archeological sites in the UK.

Preserved by a seabed of peat this site is proving to be invaluable to researchers and climate scientists who are able to study 8,000 years of coastal erosion, giving them a unique insight into the rate at which sea levels have changed and their subsequent impact on the shoreline. This helps to gain some idea of how it will all react in the future, which is becoming increasingly important as the process of climate change begins to speed up.

Southampton University’s Oceanography Centre is involved in a three year study, along with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Trust for Maritime Archeology, to use the area surrounding Bouldnor Cliff to predict the effects of climate change, using both archeological and geotechnical techniques.
Thanks to the unique nature of Bouldnor Cliff scientists believe that they are now in a position to apply the data, gained from the site, to future environmental management plans around the whole of the British Isles.

Although most of us reside inland, there are millions of us living along the British coast or on any one of our 1000, or so, surrounding islands, so our exposure to the sea makes the work being done on the Isle of Wight crucially important as we move towards a future of more dramatic and dangerous climatic events.

The coast has always been subjected to a constant battering by the sea, and it is this that creates the beautiful and unique coastal arches, blowholes and stacks that attract so many of us to the beach each year. Primarily this is achieved by hydraulic action, whereby the force of the waves compresses air pockets in the coastal cliffs and rocks, which then explode as the air expands rapidly. During a big storm the force of the sea is so strong that it is actually akin to a bulldozer smashing into them at full tilt.

But thanks to rising sea temperatures of about 1C over the last century this process looks set to increase in intensity with about 20% of sites along the east coast eroding by more than 1 meter a year, which the Environment Agency thinks will cost us about £100 million a year in damages. About a year ago that might have sounded like a lot of money but in a post Credit Crunch Britain it feels oddly like small change.

The real concern will be the increased likelihood of flooding, with sea levels increasing by a millimeter a year and winter waves getting bigger all the time latest estimates put the increase at anywhere between four and tenfold over the coming years. Looks like a good time to learn how to surf though.

The P&O Club Lounge


The White Cliffs of Dover.... as seen in August of 1987 by Derek Farr

John Hillman slips into the P&O club lounge and tells us all about what he finds inside

There was a time when travelling between countries was a great excuse to indulge in a bit of glamour; when even a couple of bus conductors from Birmingham would magically transform themselves into Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh the minute they dusted down their passports.

Heading over to Calais last week it was reassuring to see a small part of this tradition still exists thanks to P&O Ferries’ Club Lounge experience.

Located at the top of the ship (where else) you find yourself gazing out across the English Channel whilst casually leafing through the Saturday papers, sipping chilled champagne and eating smoked salmon.

This might sound like a bit of a snooty reason for the added expense of the Club Lounge ticket but the truth is that when you are travelling from London to Calais, and back again, in the space of 12 hours, then being able to recline into a deep sofa and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet starts to feel like more of a necessity than anything else.

Of course it’s easy to develop a taste for these things so the concern is that you’ll ruin yourself and be unable to enjoy the salty delights of cuing up in the food hall for some greasy goodness next time you pop across to France, but then these are the choices one needs to make in life and as a lifelong subscriber to Darwin I’m all for the evolutionary process continuous self-advancement. More shampoo anyone?

New Year’s Eve in Amsterdam


Bierbrouwerij Kasparus Kersepit by Joe500

John Hillman looks towards Amsterdam, the perfect setting for a New Year’s Eve Party

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There are few spectacles in life as exhilarating as a stroll through the picturesque streets of Amsterdam on New Year’s Eve.

Not that picturesque is a particularly truthful description of the riot that’ll be going on around you; with an entire city cooking on gas it’s more a case of: if you can stand the heat then get yourself in that kitchen.

As a city famed for its liberal attitudes and tolerance, it’s no surprise that a colossal free street party attracts thousands of revellers from Sydney to Solihull each year. And with the tiny town centre full to the brim with champagne swilling, firework throwing party animals you will be pleased to hear that you won’t find a criminally-overpriced mini cab in sight, or need one for that matter.

If you are happy to throw shapes with the global party people then the central squares of Rembrandtplein, Leidseplein, Dam Square and Nieuwmarkt are packed out with people who have travelled by ship, plane, train and automobile for one purpose only – splendid japes.

The surrounding areas, such as the Jordaan district, are more likely to be full of low key locals trying to avoid the international car-crash in the city centre, but offers up a more laid back local vibe.

Remember that this is a city where New Year’s Eve means lots of fireworks and an attitude to health and safety that mirrors George Bush’s attitude to the correct use of the English language, so be prepared for some hairy moments, but don’t be put off because a New Year’s eve party in Amsterdam is one of life’s little experiences – and it makes the other 364 days of the year seem worthwhile.

An unsung hero?


Sea Lions on Morro Bay buoy by mikebaird

John Hillman sticks up for the humble buoy – a little lifesaver

Floating about on the high seas sounds like a wonderful life to some but during these icy cold winter months spare a thought for the lonely buoy.

No-body knows who first had the idea of floating a marker out at sea in the hope of preventing shipping accidents but we can guess that it must be as old as seafaring itself.

Throughout the years they have probably saved as many lives as all other emergency services but you can bet that they won’t be getting a mention in the Queen’s New Years honours list. They’ll just quietly get on with their job, whilst providing a useful spot for birds and seals to rest on.

The millions of buoys around Britain’s coastal waters provide us with everything from the seemingly mundane, such as channel marking for ease of navigation, to the MI6 ‘spook’ buoys that the navy uses in its anti-submarine defence systems.

Tsunami buoys have now been developed and float all over the Indian Ocean, acting as early warning systems that will, should another similar quake occur, prevent the catastrophic loss of life that we saw in 2004 in Thailand and Sri Lanka.

So you see, buoys might seem mundane to the casual observer but they are actually amongst the most useful inventions known to man; making a greater contribution to humanity than most people ever will.

Treasure hunter


Shipwreck by Isdyk

The English Channel is not just a formidable geographic barrier, but a blanket for centuries of human history. John Hillman wonders just what’s hidden beneath the waves.

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The prospect of deflation is unfortunately all around us, but not it seems in the world of the treasure hunter.

With the price of gold looking set to go through the roof over the coming years, as more and more investors sink their cash into the stuff, the prospect of unearthing a treasure trove of pirates’ booty has never seemed more appealing.

The English Channel is rumoured to be full of old shipwrecks laden with treasure, a fact that is endorsed by the ever present sight of private treasure hunting companies on the P&O route between Dover and Calais.

Some of these companies are so successful that they are actually listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange, with one apparently discovering more than $500 million worth of old coins just last year, and just few hundred miles off the west coast of England too.

It is quite amazing to think that as you sail across the channel on your way to have a holiday or do a bit of shopping, that you are actually floating over hundreds and hundreds of old shipwrecks dating from as far back as pre-Roman Britain.

In fact it would be quite a sight to behold if you could drain the Channel for a few days just to take a walk through it all and have a look, it would almost be like some kind of historical maritime-vessel dump, albeit unfortunately dominated by debris from the Battle of Britain.

Indeed one of the best parts of being a professional treasure hunter (apart from the obvious) would surely be getting a real sense of just how much of our surrounding seabed is littered with these shipwrecks from the ancient past.

For historians and archaeologists the tempting prospect of what lies on the seabed of the English Channel must be enough to make them wish they had fins.

Thinking about all of this is enough to make you realise what a shame it is that ‘treasure-hunter’ is not a job that you see posted up on your average employment website; it’s almost certain that the reason we have so many social problems these days is because young men don’t have the opportunity to run away to sea like they used to.

There are currently at least two outstanding shipwrecks being actively salvaged in the English Channel. It requires high levels of skill and bravery to dive in these dark and murky waters and even greater level of expertise to begin salvaging what you can from them.

Before you even begin bringing things up from the deep you have to apply for permission to do so, by getting something called an Admiralty Arrest warrant, so you presumably need a team of lawyers on your team to deal with all of that.

And this is a shame. The idea of lawyers being involved in something as romantic as treasure hunting is really quite depressing; a bit like going on the biggest rollercoaster in the country only to be sat in between Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling.

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