Odds and ends from the Isle of Wight


I didn’t go to the Isle of Wight to look for the Age of Sail (I went to sail round it on the Waverley and walk round it on my feet, both of which plans failed), but I can’t go anywhere without falling over something.

The first thing I came across was a monument to HMS Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet, which sailed from a point in the Solent just offshore in 1787 – copies of the monument are also in Sydney, and at Norfolk Island where the ship was wrecked.

HMS Sirius monument
HMS Sirius plaque

Further round are the remains of the old church at St Helens – built close to the sea, it was already being eroded away in the 17th century, and in 1719 the remaining part of the tower was bricked up and painted white as a sea mark, a new church having been built further inland.

St Helen’s church
St Helens church plaque

(No one really seems to know why holystones are holy – they might have been ideally full of holes, like pumice, they might have been used for special Sunday cleaning, or it might just be that the sailors had to go down on their knees to use them!)

Another plaque record that HMS Victory was anchored off St Helens when Nelson left England for the last time and came to join her in September 1805 – I was more surprised by this than I should have been, because it’s not far from Portsmouth at all, and an island isn’t really a separate place to a ship.

Nelson plaque

I spent my second day on the island all along the lonely south shore, so it was the afternoon of the third day that I came to Newtown and its notorious town hall – this was once a busy town and harbour, with two seats in parliament as a royal burgh, but the harbour silted up and the population drifted away, leaving it as a ‘rotten burgh’ in Georgian times, with eventually only 23 voters for the 2 MPs!

Newtown Town Hall
Newtown Town Hall porch

Throwback: Waterloo

(This isn’t a new write up any more than it’s a new visit, but I haven’t posted it here before!)

It was few year ago now – before the 200th anniversary – that I was at a dance festival in Belgium, and instead of going into Brussels for the day before an evening flight home, slipped off to Waterloo.

After a week in Flanders it was a bit disconcerting to be thrown into French halfway through the train journey, especially in a town with such a Flemish name. The town itself has the main museum, and a very helpful tourist office.

The Wellington museum

The Wellington museum in the town was originally the inn where he spent the nights before and after the battle.

Waterloo museum

(I wasn’t sure whether I was allowed to take pictures in the museum or not as I didn’t see any signs, but no one was watching me, and I had the flash off.)

I liked this picture, showing Scottish soldiers with captured eagles.

Scottish soldiers

And of course I have a soft spot for Alexander Gordon, as another Scot – this is the bed where he died.

The bed where Alexander Gordon died

The great man himself, in the room where he wrote his dispatches – I think!


And there were ships! Napoleon being transferred from Bellerophon to Northumberland


It was a shame for him, but I love the idea of a monument to a leg.

Uxbridge’s leg

I bought a copy of this map, in the hope it would help me understand the Master and Commander books better, but I don’t know what I did with it…

1815 map

The tourist office had given me information about buses, but I decided to walk down to the battlefield – partly because I’d hardly walked anywhere for days, and partly to walk past some of the monuments. The first part was all very modern and dull, though – the bus might have been better!

The monuments

This is the memorial to the surgeons of the field hospital at Mont St Jean farm.

Field hospital memorial

And Mont St Jean itself.

Mont St Jean

I liked this painting.


The monuments are a wonderful mixture of large and imposing and small and unassuming.

The Belgian monument.

Belgian monument

General Picton.


The Inniskilling Regiment of Foot.

Inniskilling regiment

A monument to a French regiment.

A French monument

The Hanoverian monument.

Hanoverian monument

Alexander Gordon’s monument, and its inscription

Gordon monument
Gordon monument inscription

From there it’s not far to the battlefield – the Butte du Lion is very visible from the main road.

The battlefield

Butte du Lion
The lion

I was surprised by how flat the battlefield was, even allowing for the earth that was moved to make the mound.

The battlefield
The battle

The panorama was crowded but still surprisingly evocative – the soundtrack (including bagpipes) definitely helps with that.


A model of La Haie Sainte farm, at the centre of the battle.

Model of La Haie Sainte


Old College


After having visited the oldest remaining teaching building of the University of Edinburgh – the cottage in the Botanic Gardens, where botany classes were held – I thought I had better finally make a visit to the main Georgian building, planned in 1789 to replace various buildings owned by the university which were falling into disrepair (nothing has changed there!) and partly built, then completed from 1815 after the Napoleonic wars.

This was once the site of the original Kirk o’ Field, of Darnley fame, and when the courtyard was renovated a few years ago unexpected bodies turned up – not illicit ones, but where the medieval graveyard had simply been built over – as well as remains of earlier buildings including the church and an earlier university library.

Old College courtyard

The buildings are impressive, to be fair, but it is hard to be properly impressed when they are primarily a place you hurry to with exam papers that someone has given you at the last possible moment!

Registry entrance

A dome was in the original plans, but was not added until 1883.

Old College dome

An inscription over the imposing entrance from North Bridge (probably now only used by tourists and post vans, as the rest of the university is on the other side of the building) commemorates the building works.

Old College inscription

The University of James VI King of Scotland founded in the Year of Our Lord 1582 in the year 1789 renovations were begun under the gracious patronage of King George III, the Provost of the City Thomas Elder, the Principal of the University William Robertson, the Architect Robert Adam.

Throwback: Trinity House Newcastle


I’m in Trinity House fairly often, as it’s where most of the Collingwood Society meetings are held – just not often in daylight, as most of the talks are winter evenings! So I took a chance last summer to take a few photos, as it’s an amazing place, accessed through a little archway from Broad Chare in among a muddle of modern buildings, and then opening up behind into a range of buildings round a main courtyard.

Trinity House was set up in 1505 as a charity to support local seafarers, and soon became involved in improving navigation, first building marks and lights at the mouth of the Tyne and eventually becoming responsible for marks between Berwick and Whitby, and licensing masters and pilots, all paid for by dues on ships coming into their rivers. These powers have generally passed on to modern bodies, and the dues abolished,but they’re still active in various ways including licensing pilots.

The bulk of the buildings visible now are Georgian, although sometimes copying an earlier style, but there was a building on the site when Trinity House took it over in 1505, and their chapel was added in the 16th century.

The main room of the building, and the place where the talks are held, is the Banqueting Hall on the south side of the main courtyard.

Banqueting Hall

There are plaques on just about everything to tell you when it was built or rebuilt, and who was responsible for it – Trinity House seem to be very proud of their work!

Building the hall

Inside it’s decorated in a very nautical fashion. There’s a good description here of the various paintings on the walls – I generally sit and look at Quiberon Bay, and get muddled about the others.

The ceiling is painted with a sailing ship in the middle, and an optical illusion is supposed to mean that the sails swell regardless of where you’re looking at them from.

Banqueting Hall ceiling

At the foot of the entrance stairs as you come into the courtyard are two anchors, one from the Armada, and one far more recent. How either of them got to be here, I don’t know!

Armada anchor

(On the other side of the stairs for a long time was the model of a new Collingwood monument they were hoping to build, but both the model and the idea seem to have vanished.)

The main entrance is more obviously Georgian, rebuilt in 1800 in the style of the time.

The entrance

Another courtyard is visible from my usual shortcut round the back of the theatre, although it’s also accessible through an arch from the main courtyard, holding almhouses and the old school building, originally intended for the children of brethren, and later teaching navgation.

Almshouse courtyard

Along the Crinan Canal


While I was in Argyll I took the chance to walk the Crinan Canal – it’s only 9 miles long, so makes a nice trip.

The canal was originally built between 1794 and 1801, but ongoing problems meant that sections were being repaired and rebuilt for at least another 10 years.

The current buildings at Ardrishaig are a bit newer – the canal offices date from the mid 19th century, when tourist traffic was beginning to pick up.

Ardrishaig canal office

The steamer terminal dates from the heyday of steamer transport in the 1890s, and has been used as various things since the steamers stopped coming – at the moment it’s a cafe. I like the practicality of the doors, which recognise that passengers for a boat arrive as a trickle, but passengers from a boat come out as a flood.

Ardrishaig steamer terminal

As well as local transport to and from Glasgow, and tourist traffic on the canal, Ardrishaig was for a long time part of the sea route from Glasgow to Oban and Fort William and Inverness via the Caledonian canal, with passengers transferred to smaller boats and onto another steamer at Crinan.

The breakwater was built in 1800 and extended in 1817 to make it easier to enter the canal – there was never really a natural harbour at Ardrishaig, only a small bay.

Ardrishaig breakwater

Inside the sealock the basin is usually busy with small boats.

Ardrishaig basin

For the first part of its journey the canal runs close to the side of Loch Gilp, which is too shallow to allow access for boats.

Further up, a sharp bend before Craigglass marks the point where the banks of the canal collapsed in 1805 – it had originally been built across flat but unstable ground, and was rerouted much closer to the rockier hills.

Bends in the canal

From Cairnbaan, roughly halfway along the canal, two competing routes had been considered – the one eventually chosen, via Dunardry to Crinan, and a route across the Great Moss coming out at Duntrune Castle.


Dunardry, at the western end of the summit reach, was the most troublesome part of the canal with leak after leak, and the first part which Thomas Telford was called in to advise on.

Dunardry locks

The alternative route would have taken the canal around and across the Great Moss at Dunadd, and avoided Dunardry – although the ground here might not have proved any more stable than in the Moss at Craigglass!

The Great Moss

A great variety of ground was found to underlie the canal as it was being dug, and this was nicely visible a bit further – hewn rock turns into a bank built of brick.

Different edges

The final stretch of the canal runs along the side of the River Add and the shallow bay at Crinan Ferry, as it does with Loch Gilp at the eastern end.

The canal and the river Add

Across the water from Crinan is Duntrune Castle, the other possible western end.

Duntrune castle

Crinan is quite an idyllic spot on a sunny day, but there’s still nothing in particular there, and there was probably even less 200 years ago – as in Ardrishaig, the village grew up around the canal.

Crinan sea lock
Crinan basin

Old Sunderland


Going to Sunderland to look for the tall ships introduced me to a very different side of the city – the Georgian remnants of the old town, much closer to both the river and the original seafront than the modern town centre.

The first glimpse was a lovely terrace that I walked past on the way to the museum – maybe the early Victorian tail end of an originally Georgian development, but not something I expected to see there, anyway!

Georgian Terrace

Sunderland was officially part of Bishopwearmouth, further up the river, until it became a separate parish with the building of Holy Trinity Church in 1719, on the edge of the Town Moor.

Holy Trinity church

The church was holding a Georgian Festival as part of the tall ships events, although there wasn’t very much going on there by the time I turned up – you couldn’t get into the church itself except as part of a guided tour, as there is work going on to turn it into a community venue, but there were various stalls in the garden, and I was sad to see I’d missed a Collingwood talk the day before.

Next door are the buildings of the Donnison School, opened in 1798 to provide free education to poor girls.

The Donnison school

Next door again is the most striking Age of Sail landmark, the Trafalgar Square almshouses.

Trafalgar Square almshouses

These are really early Victorian, built in 1840 as housing for retired seamen and their dependents – but the style is still perfectly Georgian, no Victorian ornamentation.

Trafalgar Square plaque

The fancy arms are essentially Nelson’s – the sailor and lion as supporters are his, and the crown and ship and chelengk at the top, however unrecognisable, and the left hand oval with the Nelson cross and the motto of the Order of the Garter around it, and his own motto at the bottom – but the right hand oval, with apparently three sheep’s heads and the back of a possible elephant, eludes me.

Trafalgar Square trustees

A more recent addition is a monument to the men of Sunderland who served at Trafalgar, listed by their ship – this dates to 2010, which presumably makes it part of the Collingwood celebrations, rather than the Trafalgar bicentenary 5 years earlier.

Trafalgar memorial

The tall ships in Sunderland


In all this month’s running about I did manage an afternoon at the tall ships in Sunderland – helpfully arranged for a weekend when I had to be in Newcastle anyway, although sadly I was busy at the time of the parade of sail.

I’m never quite sure if this counts as an Age of Sail experience or not – so many of the ships are so new, in design as well as build – but it is nice to see a harbour full of masts.

Wear bridges

I was pleased to see that some of my old friends were there. Sørlandet was built in the 1920s, and is made of steel – but she’s beautiful, and apparently the oldest full-rigged ship still sailing. Plus I’ve still got a soft spot for anything Norwegian – I first met her in the southern part of Norway which she’s named after.


Shtandart is something quite different from most of the other ships around, a replica of a Russian frigate from 1703 with the modern engines and so on kept well out of sight. I really lost my heart to her when she was the only ship making any attempt to *sail* in the parade of sail at Kristiansand, but she’d already been putting on a good show before that.


And I always seem to end up taking a picture of Alexander von Humboldt, because of the beautiful green sails – but it’s an Age of Sail name, too. (There was also a small ship called Captain Cook, but I didn’t manage to get a good photo of that.)

Alexander von Humboldt

It’s always interesting as well to get to wander about parts of a harbour that you usually don’t – I got much closer to this old building than I did when I was walking the coast, although I’m still not sure what it was used for.

Old harbour building

The local museum was running an Age of Sail exhibition to tie in with the visit of the ships, so I went up there – although advertised as Nelson and Collingwood there was a bit more of a Nelson focus than I expected in the north-east, but then in a place that has always been in competition with Newcastle that’s maybe not surprising at all!

Museum exhibition

The star of the show was the famous Nelson portrait, borrowed from London – they also had the Collingwood portrait from the Discovery Museum, and some quite impressive paintings of the battle. Apart from that there was less than I was expecting – local reports, and the silver kettle presented to Collingwood by the Corporation of Newcastle – but it was all interesting to see.

Hutton Memorial Garden


I am regularly surprised by the number of secrets Edinburgh manages to conceal – the latest being a little memorial garden to the geologist James Hutton, tucked away just behind one of the university sports halls, where I’ve delivered exam papers dozens of times, but invisible until you know it’s there.

Hidden garden

Hutton was born and brought up in Edinburgh, attending the Royal High School and the university before going to study medicine in Paris and Leiden, although his family had Berwickshire roots, and it was while living on a family farm in the Borders that he first became interested in geology.

He returned to live in Edinburgh in 1770, to a house in St John’s Hill on the site of the current garden, which was a fashionable area on the edge of the old town at the time. (It’s just on the edge of respectability now – St John’s Hill itself is all fairly new flats, but the garden has university buildings on one side and the road running up to the Dumbiedykes flats on the other.)

Hutton plaque
Memorial garden description

The main block is carved with Hutton’s most famous statement, ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’ – geological processes, as he saw them, were never in a finished state, but constant – rocks were being worn away now to be deposited elsewhere later, as today’s rocks had been deposited in the past, while pressure and heat were distorting and transforming rocks in the same ways as could be seen in ancient rocks.

Hutton inscription

The smaller rocks are from locations where he had made discoveries supporting his ideas – schist from Glen Tilt with granite veins running through it, where the granite has penetrated older rock while molten, and conglomerates from near Dunblane containing pebbles of older rocks.


Siccar Point and Hutton’s Unconformity


When I walked the Berwickshire Coastal Path in the winter I meant to go down to Siccar Point, the site of a famous feature known as Hutton’s Unconformity, and just didn’t have time, which I was disappointed about – so recently I finally got round to going back there, because it’s not often that you get to see Enlightenment science just sitting there in front of you!

An unconformity is a gap in the sequence of rocks – in this case the older rocks are 65 million years older than the newer rocks – and if I’m understanding it correctly, the point is that this gives time for the older rocks to have been worked on in various ways – squashed and folded and worn away. And the real point is the sheer amount of time this must have taken – Hutton‘s work in the 1780s is the start of the move from biblical time to geological time.

At Siccar Point the older rocks are greywacke (and definitely grey), tipped up until the strata are almost standing on end, and the newer rocks are red sandstone, still in vertical layers – Hutton’s trip there to study the rocks was by boat, but it’s all quite visible looking down from the top of the point.

Siccar Point

It’s probably only visible if you can land by boat, and even then possibly only to an expert, but one thing that really excited Hutton was that the older rocks still show ripple marks from having been laid down in water, as well as the results of later pressure – another sign of gradual processes, not one great cataclysmic event.

Rocks at the foot

Hutton owned farms in the area, and it seems to have been work on improving the land which first raised his interest in geology – he had already been involved in chemistry experiments and a chemical business.

It wasn’t on the signs at the point, but I know I’ve read somewhere that it was the mix of red and grey stones in the field walls that set him looking in this area for what he wanted, and it’s still a striking local feature today!

Finding David Douglas

I was still very interested in David Douglas after reading about him, so when I found out that a short film had been made about his life by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, I was pleased to see that it was also available from the Scottish Forestry Commission – and actually when I contacted them to see if this was still the case they offered to send me a copy for free, which was very nice of them (I’m not sure if they were pleased someone was still interested a few years later, or just hoping to get rid of it!)

It’s a good potted history of Douglas, with the inevitable focus on the second voyage with the surviving journals, but there’s plenty to look at even if you know the story – and it includes all my favourite quotes.

It’s been beautifully made – even artistically. There’s no attempt at reenactment (unless you count a brief piece of footage from a modern sailing ship) – instead it’s a mix of modern film of places he visited, and 18th and 19th century drawings and painting and engravings of those places, with a voiceover which is partly narration and partly readings from Douglas’s own writing. People mentioned are introduced by their portraits, and plants mentioned are again a mix of modern filming and some beautiful botanical illustrations. Apart from it being interesting to see contemporary ideas of the scenes, the contrast can be quite striking – particularly the change from a busy York Factory to an isolated relic.

Mixed in with this are interviews – with botanists and forestry people in the UK, and local experts in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii, and this includes looking at specific artefacts – herbarium specimens at Kew, and accounts in the Hudson’s Bay Company archives in Manitoba, as well as visiting the sites of Douglas’s death and burial in Hawaii.

The sound is slightly out of sync with the the picture during the interviews, which makes them feel odd (possibly it’s like that all the time and it just doesn’t show during voiceovers, or possibly something went wrong fitting in the parts filmed in the UK) – and the voice used for reading Douglas’s own words is a bit disconcerting to a Scot, reminding me more of the Glaswegian Alan McManus than anyone from rural Perthshire. But it’s the right kind of voice, sounding slightly reluctant to be speaking in public, and anyway I forgave them that since they pronounced ‘Scone’ and ‘Menzies’ right!

The ending amused me – the film was made partly by the Scottish Forestry Commission, and so it finished with praise for Douglas’s trees, covering Scottish hillsides which were once bare. Forestry monoculture is not something which most people admire, although it had been done a bit better in the Perthshire landscape they were showing us than in some places (and there has been a lot of work done on more sympathetic replanting recently).

The website seems to have died just in the last few weeks, but there is still an archive copy with a lot of information about the film, including a full transcript, and short video clips – it’s well worth having a look.