I draw the curtains and light two Advent candles, the first for Hope and the second for Peace, and settle myself down with a boy soprano singing Stille Nacht in the background. Outside, the clouds are low over the mountains and it’s drizzling as darkness descends. Inside it’s cosy and warm. What is this season of Advent? What’s it all about?
Countdown to Christmas is probably what most people would say, but of course that begs the question of what is Christmas?
For Christians, it’s fairly simple. Advent means “coming” or “arrival”, the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, so the four weeks preceding his nativity are regarded as a time of expectancy and preparation for that event. It’s also the anticipation of His second coming, bringing His light back into a world of darkness and sin. Some people fast, just as in Lent, because this is basically a time of mourning, where we reflect on the evil in a world that desperately needs redemption. It’s the dark night before daybreak, if you like. For Christians, Christmas symbolises that joyful moment when Christ is born, Jesus the Light of the world. If you are puzzled by this, read this explanation https://www.christianity.com/christian-life/christmas/what-is-advent.html
Advent wreaths with their greenery and four candles, and Advent calendars with their twenty-four little doors opening onto spiritually inspiring pictures or texts, are intended to help us to meditate on these things during this dark season of the year. Thus, it’s a quiet, reflective time to repent and spiritually prepare.
In spiritual terms, the date when we celebrate His birth is irrelevant. It’s highly unlikely that He was born on 24/25 December, and much more likely that it was in springtime. I’ve heard excellent arguments in favour of the Messiah’s birth occurring around Palm Sunday, for example. But the early Church fathers decided that the winter solstice season was a good time to bring light into the darkness and so Christians celebrate Christmas in December.
However, for non-Christians, who seem to make up a very large proportion of people in the western world, this is just the holiday season. Xmas has nothing to do with Christ and December is party-time, “turkey and tinsel” in the UK. Advent calendars are filled with chocolates and presents rather than inspiring pictures, the theme of light is transferred to masses of expensive coloured, flashing decorations, fasting is replaced by parties where everyone eats to excess, gets drunk and kisses all and sundry under the mistletoe, and the coming they are looking forward to is that of Santa Claus and Rudolf, with even more food, drink, orgies and fun. The Romans called it Saturnalia (without Santa and Rudolf). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a killjoy or spoilsport, trying to stop you from celebrating the month of December in whatever way you like, or from rushing round spending a fortune on buying other people presents that are rarely appreciated and often exchanged a couple of days later. After all, the economy needs that! If that’s what floats your boat, go ahead and ruin your health having fun! Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die.
I also like to see the pretty lights around town, and enjoy seeing the excitement of little children as they look forward to getting their presents.
That’s not the axe I’m grinding here.
What I find distasteful is calling this kind of pagan celebration Christmas. Calling it Advent and Christmas is misleading. I think it needs a different name.
I was startled last week to see a headline in a British tabloid proclaiming that “Percy Pig Advent Calendar” had disappointed shoppers by containing “the usual chocolates” and not the pink chewy Percy Pig sweets. Startled, saddened and to some extent shocked. I quote: “Percy Pig is a legend of his time, and like any legend it is only right he should have his own festive advent calendar.” So, an advent calendar is a tribute to a legend?
I really don’t think that this should be misnamed an Advent calendar. It’s a countdown calendar to Santa Claus Day. But then – I’m just a grumpy old woman in league with the Grinch.
Leonz Egg (born in 1718) stayed in the Gäu area, married Maria Burkhard and had five children. He was naturalised as a citizen of Oberbuchsiten on 1 January 1746, and was able to buy property there. Like his father, he was a talented gunsmith and locksmith, and taught his sons the same trade. Apparently widowed, he remarried on 18 April 1768.
Was this the cause of friction between him and his grown-up sons? The elder son, Hans Jakob, moved quite early to Upper Alsace near the Swiss city of Basle, where the French had built a fortress with an arsenal near Hüningen, obviously an attractive opportunity for a gunsmith. He married the widow of a well known French gunsmith, which probably also helped his career. Soon, his younger brother Urs Christian, who had fallen out with his father, turned up on Hans Jakob’s doorstep, where he found a welcome and work.
However, “der Urs” was an ambitious young man. in 1770 he appeared in London “with 3 shillings and 6 pence in his pocket” and found work with the then famous British gunsmith Henry Nock. By 1772 he had his own business with rented premises in the Haymarket, Panton Street, under the name of Durs Egg. On 3 June 1776 he sold two “Ferguson Rifle Guns” to the British army for £31, the first of many regular orders for arms, and by 1778 he was ensconced at St James, Piccadilly, where he counted the Prince Regent among his customers.
Among the numerous Durs Egg weapons which are shown as masterpieces in the weapons collection in Windsor, is a pair of pistols on which the trademark “Gun Maker To His Royal Highness” appeared for the first time. The prince’s esteem for Durs Egg was revealed in a letter to his brother Prince Ferdinand of Hanover:
“… the rifle barrel gun was made by the best workman we have here; he is a Swiss German and his name is Egg. This gun is made after Ferguson rifle, it is almost the neatest piece of workmanship, ever was made.”
One of these weapons is also kept at Windsor Castle.
At the age of 35, Durs Egg married Ann Mary Salomon, daughter of a London merchant of German descent, and had seven children with her. On 29 August 1791 he became a British citizen. At this time a conflict with France began to emerge, which he could survive better as a British citizen than as a national of a country which soon had to come under French influence.
In 1792 his father Leonz Egg died in Oberbuchsiten, leaving Durs the relatively modest sum of 900 guilders (approx. £70 ). From 1799 Durs Egg was allowed to call himself “Gun Maker To His Majesty, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York”.
During the war years against Napoleon Bonaparte, Durs Egg produced a large number of rifles and pistols for the army and he also supplied the French royalists, who had established themselves on the Channel Islands, with a large series of carbines. The historian John F. Hayward mentions in his work “The Art of the Old Gunsmiths” that Durs Egg was particularly famous for his double-barrelled shotguns and duel pistols, which he produced in large numbers.
Having made his fortune, Durs Egg participated in various companies and buildings and himself bought a few properties. At this point, he made the acquaintance of a fellow Swiss, equally if not more ingenious than himself, who fired his imagination with a totally new project. The inventor Samuel John Pauly (born Johannes Samuel Pauli near Bern) had arrived in London from Paris. Please read his fascinating story on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Samuel_Pauly as I can’t do him justice here.
Although penniless, Pauli brought with him the blueprints for an airship that he had developed with support from Maréchal Ney. Durs Egg was enthusiastic about Pauli’s airship plans and became a partner investing large sums of money, from £5,000 (statement Pauli) to £10,000 (statement Egg). Together they entered a patent specification for the construction of the airship “Dolphin”. Pauli was to prepare the plans and supervise the construction. The length of the hull was approx. 29 m and its largest diameter approx. 8 m. The hull was made from the dried intestines of 70,000 oxen sewn together in several layers into the shape of a dolphin, with a second hydrogen-filled balloon inside and it had a moveable tailfin as a rudder. It was driven by a steam engine, since the combustion engine had yet to be invented. It took a long time to develop, but plans were announced for regular flights between London and Paris carrying 15 to 20 passengers at a time, and the public poured in to pay a guinea per person for a peep inside the hangar where this aircraft was being constructed.
Unfortunately for Durs Egg, the defeat of Napoleon and the ensuing peace meant that in 1815 his income fell from around £90,000 pa to about £2,300. He was also beginning to lose his sight at this time, and clearly getting cantankerous, involving lawsuits with family and business partners. He fell out with Pauli, dragged him to court, and work on the Dolphin was stopped. His airship was later sold to the American showman Phineas T. Barnum who exhibited it as an attraction with his famous midget General Tom Thumb in the gondola in the zoological garden of Surrey. It was an irony of fate that this was the only use of the costly but captivating project, wrote J. E. Hodgson in 1924 in “The History of Aeronautics in Great Britain”.
From 1822 Durs Egg was blind. He lived until 1831.
Only one of his sons, John Egg, born 1795, followed his father in the gunsmith profession but the economic situation forced him to give up until 1837 when, with the support of his family, he was able to reopen his own business. He chose an address three doors away from his father’s former shop (No. 4 Pall Mall, In the Opera Colonnade) and was successful, although as a gunsmith he wasn’t in the same class as his father. John Egg was probably the supplier of arms for the last known pistol duel in England in 1843.
He was married and had two sons and two daughters. One of his sons, Georg D. G., born in 1842 and died young in 1870, is mentioned in the annals of the gunsmiths of London, but no further information can be found. It seems that he left no children. His brother John chose another profession and remained unmarried. One hundred years after Durs had set foot in London his line died out.
However, Jean Joseph Egg, a son of Hans-Jakob Egg – the brother of Durs Egg who had emigrated to Hüningen in Alsace – became a gunsmith like his father and followed his uncle to London. Joseph Egg worked for Henry Tatham from 1801 and later co-founded the company Tatham & Egg. In 1814 he opened his own shop at Piccadilly Circus. In addition to his professional successes, Joseph Egg’s personal references are sparse, as he is not included in the traditional family chronicle written by a daughter of Durs Egg.
What is certain is that Joseph was probably the most creative of the entire gunsmith dynasty. His speciality at first was a new type of miniature pistols (pocket pistols) of the highest quality, whose precision is reminiscent of the work of watchmakers. They have one or two barrels and fittings made of engraved silver, in some cases even gold. This was followed by a whole series of inventions and patents. Joseph Egg’s weapons can be found in Windsor Castle, the Leningrad Hermitage and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Augustus Egg, born 2 May 1816, the son of Joseph Egg, inherited the creativity and considerable wealth of his father and became an important artist of the Victorian age. He was admitted to the Royal Academy in 1835 and his works can be seen in numerous museums and galleries in England (Leicester; London: South Kensington, Tate, Birmingham, Preston; Sheffield). He was also an excellent actor in the amateur group around Charles Dickens, the most important writer of the time. With Charles Dickens he travelled around Italy in 1853. Because of his fragile health he spent the last years of his life in southern climates, in Italy, France and finally in Algeria where he died in 1863.
Claude Blair, the weapons historian and author of a newspaper article “The Egg family” described the significance of the Egg gunsmith dynasty as follows:
“Among the outstanding gunsmiths of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Great Britain, Durs and Joseph Egg were among the most important. Most English collections contain weapons from their hands that are much sought after and valued for their great reputation.”
Egg Jakob abt. 1690-1748, from Blüemlismatt, Solothurn, emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1745, father of Leonz Egg Leonz 1718-1792, naturalised in Oberbuchsiten, gunsmith, father of Hans Jakob and Urs Christian . Egg Hans Jakob 1745-1815, born in Oberbuchsiten, gunsmith in Hüningen (F), father of Jean Joseph. Egg Urs Christian (Durs) 1748-1831, born in Oberbuchsiten, gunsmith in London, father of John Egg John 1795-1870, born in London, gunsmith in London, son of Durs
Egg Jean Joseph 1775-1837, born in Hüningen (F), gunsmith in London, son of Hans Jakob. Egg Charles 1811 – 1867, born and lived at 1 Piccadilly, London, gunsmith, son of Joseph Egg Henry 1815-1869, born and lived at 1 Piccadilly, London, gunsmith, son of Joseph.
How do these Eggs tie in with my daughter’s in-laws, the millers in Schlatt and Ellikon? The Solothurn Eggs were Roman Catholics, registered as “peregrini”, non-residents, in the Gäu region of Solothurn in 1718. Where had they come from in those turbulent times? So far, I haven’t been able to identify a connection, but I’m pretty sure there is one if I can get back to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
Maybe Easter would be a more appropriate time for this post, but I have been collating all this information in the last few days, so am bursting to get it down in black and white.
My dear son-in-law’s grandmother was born an Egg – that is, her surname before marriage was Egg, which I’m afraid made me giggle. However, I have to take the Eggs more seriously now as he has inherited some family portraits and genealogical details. Hence we have been delving into the history of the Swiss Family Egg and come up with some very interesting findings. My daughter actually has enough material to write a book about it all, if she can ever find the time and I hope she doesn’t mind my intruding on her domain by my summary here.
The first Egg we could positively identify in my DSIL’s line is a gentleman called Rudolf Egg from the village of Schlatt near Winterthur, Canton Zurich, who purchased a mill in the village of Ellikon an der Thur in 1630. Mills being very lucrative in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Eggs were among the wealthiest families in the Zurich dominion, and became very important people in Ellikon. The miller and Chief Magistrate Hans Kaspar Egg (1740-1792) and his wife Ursula née Arbenz had at least four sons, Hans Kaspar, Johann Jakob, Johann Konrad and Johann Rudolf (helvet. Grossrat – Cantonal Deputy in the parliament of the Helvetian Republic 1798-1803) from whom my DSIL is descended.
The eldest son, Hans Kaspar (b. 29.1.1764 Ellikon an der Thur – d. 8.12.1846 Ellikon an der Thur) became Municipal President of Ellikon and then from 1803 to 1830 was a member of the Zurich Parliament. His brother Johann Jakob (b. 9.6.1765 Ellikon an der Thur – d. 18.8.1843 Naples) was a shrewd businessman, who set up a mechanized spinning mill in Ellikon in 1803 (later taken over by another brother Johann Konrad and sold in 1868) and in 1812 established the cotton spinning industry in the Kingdom of Naples, importing 100 workers recruited in Zurich. This rose to over 1,000 by 1840 mainly from poor houses and prisons.
These two great-uncles both led very full and interesting lives but remained without issue. Now, their portraits – one a jolly, chubby judge, the other a slim, sophisticated dandy – are watching over my daughter and her husband, and I’m leaving the task of writing their fascinating biographies up to her.
Still, point me at a family tree and whoosh – you can’t hold me back! For once, the question of who came first, the Chicken or the Egg, is irrelevant. What other Eggs are connected with the Ellikon nest? Google is always good for a starter and I also have ancestry.com at my fingertips.
There’s a Rudolf Egg, marriage 13 December 1707 in Ellikon an der Thur to Gottlieb Zimmermann, daughter Gottlieb Egg born about 1708 but no other information. Are they related to us?
Another Rudolph Egg was born in Ellikon on 17 February 1717 and arrived as a hopeful nineteen-year-old in Philadelphia on 29 May 1736. He settled down, married a girl called Anna Catharina and started a family in the township of Upper Salford, Pa, as shown in the church records of Goshenhoppen (delightful name!). A family tree I found online but have not been able to verify claims that Rudolph’s parents were Hans Rudolph Egg and Barbara née Bachmann, his grandparents Ulrich Egg and Regula née Frei, all from the Winterthur area. The family tree shows the descendants of his daughter up to the present day.
However, Rudolph and Anna Catharina are not the only Eggs of Goshenhoppen. There is also Jacob Egg and family, who arrived in Upper Salford township in 1745. Are they related to Rudolph or to any of “our” Ellikon Eggs? It’s hard to say. But there’s plenty of information about them.
Jacob Leonz Egg and his family were Roman Catholics originally from Blüemlismatt above Egerkingen, at the foot of the Jura in the protestant canton of Solothurn, where their religious affiliation was a disadvantage forbidding them to own land or to graze cattle on the common. The Jura is well known for its precision engineering, producing not only watches. In the seventeenth century, the names of Pfluger and Egg were famous gunsmith dynasties.
Jacob Egg was born about 1690 and married Anna Maria Margaret Kilcher in about 1715. Their eldest son, also Jacobus Leontius and known as Leonz, was born on 15 April 1718 and baptized in Hagendorf/Gäu under the heading “Non-residents” (peregrini). Eleven more children followed, all baptized in Gäu.
There could be several reasons why they were considered non-residents. One, being Catholic, the family could have been uprooted because of the recent conflict. Two, his occupation, gun maker, may have required the move in order to master the trade and become a journeyman, or master gun maker. Three, he or his wife might have had relatives in the Gäu area of the canton of Solothurn and they were on their way there.
In any case, they eventually moved from Blüemlismatt and tried to make a living in the area around Basle before undertaking the great and dangerous adventure of emigrating to America. Sons Leonz, Joseph and Durus stayed behind. The family that arrived in Pennsylvania was reduced to Jacob, his two daughters and three sons. There’s no record of what happened to his wife and the other children but they probably perished on the long, arduous voyage
Jacob was able to purchase 125 acres of land in 1746, but died only two years later. As a Roman Catholic, he may have chosen the homestead site for the express purpose of being near a church and neighbours of his own faith. There was only one Catholic Church in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia at that time, St. Paul’s Mission at Goshenhoppen (now Most Blessed Sacrament Church at Bally, Berks Co.) which had been established only a few years earlier in 1741. The Goshenhoppen Register, church records for St Paul’s Mission, do not mention Jacob Egg specifically and the church records are very incomplete for the early years but it does have information about some of his children and later descendants up to the present day.
In the list of Jacob Egg’s children there is a repetition of names for some of them. Giving more than one child the same Christian name was a common practice during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An example is that three sons were named John Paul, John Peter and John George. Usually one son would be called John and the others were known by their second name. The same principle held for daughters who had the Christian name of Mary or Anna. There may be other reasons for this practice but Jacob Egg presented a real problem for researchers of family history because two of his sons, Hannes and Johannes, were both known as John Eck. They attended the same church and lived in the same general area of Pennsylvania.
Jacob Egg, realizing that his death was near, almost certainly asked one of his children to write his will as he dictated it. In it, his children are all named except for Leonz, Catherine, Anna Maria Barbara, Jacob Christian and the son who died in infancy. The court could not accept the will as valid because his children, or heirs, signed the document as witnesses. Letters of administration were issued. Hannes Egg and Valentine Wiebel, Jacob Egg’s future or new son-in-law, were appointed administrators. It is a very interesting document as it shows, on the single piece of paper, the handwriting of one of the children as well as the signatures of all six family member who were present. Here is the English translation of Jacob Egg’s will:
February 13, 1748
Because of an extended illness, I, Jacob Egg have to distribute my belongings in the presence of witnesses. If it can be executed, I will to Hannes Egg and Jacob Egg and Johannes Egg, each one 33 pounds, to Durus Egg and Joseph Egg each one 25 pounds. And Hannes Egg and Jacob Egg and Johannes Egg are to draw for six years the interest from the sale once it is carried out. If one or the other of the two brothers should come, he must receive his appropriate share. Anna Maria Eggin and Anna Eggin shall each receive 25 pounds and each one the bed she is sleeping in and each one her dishes.
Everything is to be sold, horses and cattle, hogs and household goods and everything there is. If at all possible, each one should receive an equal share. If, however, the final proceeds are smaller, each one should proportionately take a lesser amount. And once the six years have passed and neither of the two sons has appeared, then the other five shall receive everything in equal parts.
Witnesses: Hannes Egg, Jacob Egg, Johannes Egg, Anna Maria Eggin, Anna Eggin
The final inventory totals approximately £200. The daughter’s names appear with the feminine form of the surname, Eggin. Jacob Egg died some time between 13 February 1748, the date of the will, and 28 April 1748, the date of the estate inventory. Although the exact date is not known it is probable that he expired shortly after the date of the will in February or early March. I’m indebted for most of this information to ECK FAMILIES, A Compilation of Eck Families Primarily Listing Descendants of Jacob Egg/Eck and Anna Maria Kilcher compiled by Helen E. Arkey,plus some amendments of my own.
The eldest son, Leonz, is not mentioned in the will but I was able to follow him and his descendants up from a detailed account in the 1996 article Die Solothurner Büchsenmacher Dynastie Egg by Hans R Degen. And that will have to be another post!
Back in July, I was finally enrolled on the
Swiss Civil Status list, which I think means I now exist officially. “Now you
can get married,” declared the registrar as she handed me my document. I must
have looked blank, as I have no intention of getting married (I’d have to find
a man prepared to take me on, for a start!) and I explained to her that my
purpose was to apply for Swiss citizenship. “Oh, no problem there!” she replied
blithely. I crossed my fingers.
“All you need now is confirmation that you
have attended the course on Swiss institutions and speak German,” said the lady
at the Town Hall when I handed in my dossier. “The next course will be in
So here we are in November, and the course
has begun. Two and a half hours each Saturday morning for the next five weeks
in a town about 25 km from my home.
We’ve had a magnificent autumn this year –
the viticulturists must be rubbing their hands in glee at the thought of the
2019 vintage – but the weather forecast for today said snow. Accordingly, I
wrapped up warm as I set out at 8 am to get the 8.30 train, but although it was
cold it was dry and the sun was actually visible. Good omen, I thought. The
train took 15 minutes and the bus was waiting right outside the station. I told
the driver my destination: “The High School in Flös” and he shook his head.
I looked at my information letter and told
him the name of the street. His brow wrinkled. “What number?”
I told him, he consulted his iPhone, and
his brow cleared. “Ach, that’s the swimming baths!”
Evidently, education is second to exercise
in his life. And on a Saturday morning, it seems a lot of other people share
his view. I asked several people in the crowd outside the large building that
houses both the school and the swimming baths, but nobody knew where the school
entrance was. Upstairs? On the left? No, go round there and … but at that
moment I was rescued by the course instructor, who had come out to see where
her last student had got to. Just as the clock struck 9, she led me into the
classroom. That’s Swiss punctuality in action!
There are 13 of us in this class, the
majority German and the others Eastern European, about equally male and female.
Obviously I am the oldest, the next looks mid to late fifties and the rest in
their thirties and forties. We all had to write our first names on a folded
card placed in front of us on our desks, facing the teacher, which meant she
knew who we were but we ourselves couldn’t read the cards so nobody knows
anyone else’s name. Somewhat disconcerting, since we were all addressing each
other with the familiar “du” which in English is equivalent to being on first
Our first task was to form small groups and
order cards bearing the names of towns, cantons, rivers and lakes into the appropriate
categories. My team mates were a German couple who had obviously been here
since their school days and we quickly had our cards sorted. To while away the
time, we put the names into alphabetical order and then the man carefully
aligned the cards neatly in each column. Tongue in cheek, I made sure they were
all equally spaced. No doubt; we passed that test.
Then we had to place these name cards on a
map of Switzerland, to show we had an idea of Swiss geography, and finally add
picture postcards of the places to prove we knew the main tourist attractions
of each. The ice was broken, but we still didn’t know one another’s names!
The rest of the lesson was taken up with
facts and figures about Switzerland, places of interest and a bit of history
including the tale of William Tell, the national hero. We have all been here a
long time – a minimum of ten years’ residence in the canton is required before
you can even think about naturalisation – and have obviously done all the
tourist stuff so some of us knew more than our instructor. We have a booklet to
work from, and various worksheets, so we also have homework to do learning
these facts, but I do wonder why we have to attend the classes. It would be
much simpler to work from home, and I for one could save the train and bus
fare. Not to mention being able to stay in bed on these cold and frosty
At the end of the lesson, there were three of us from this end of the Rhine Valley who caught the same bus and train home. We smiled politely at one another as we waited at the bus stop, and confirmed which towns we live in. Then small talk fizzled out and we stood in silence till the bus came. Each of us sat well away from the others. We got off the bus at the station, and hurried to the platform where our train was due. Three minutes later, we each stepped into different carriages. I didn’t see the other two again.
My granddaughter says that means we have
already learnt to be Swiss.
The images have started pouring in on us again in news reports of the carnage being inflicted by Turkey on North Syrian Kurds and anyone else caught in the crossfire. In particular, the sight of the Syrian woman refugee in Akçakale whose baby son was killed by a mortar this week reminded me of this poem by Nelly Sachs, which I translated several years ago.
Those in power with blood on your hands, will you never stop?
Already wrapped in the arms of heavenly solace stands the demented mother with the rags of her tattered mind, with the cinders of her burnt brain, laying her dead child in his coffin, laying her lost light in his coffin, bending her hands to bowls, filling them from the air with the body of her child, filling them from the air with his eyes, his hair, and his fluttering heart –
then kisses the air-birthed babe and dies!
Schon vom Arm des himmlischen Trostes umfangen Steht die wahnsinnige Mutter Mit den Fetzten ihres zerrissenen Verstandes, Mit den Zundern ihres verbrannten Verstandes Ihr totes Kind einsargend, Ihr verlorenes Licht einsargend, Ihre Hände zu Krügen biegend, Aus der Luft füllend mit dem Leib ihres Kindes, Aus der Luft füllend mit seinen Augen, seinen Haaren Und seinem flatternden Herzen –
It’s a different matter when it comes to eating out in England, which can be very hit-and-miss. My recent trip to old and new haunts involved many meals out, from pubs to country inns and posh restaurants via a catering college, and I surprised my hosts and guests by privileging traditional dishes or those only found in the UK. On the whole, I was impressed by the quality of the food.
I wanted fish and chips, steak and ale pie (with Stilton cheese in it), a cream tea with real clotted cream, sticky toffee pudding and banoffee pie. With proper custard, not vanilla sauce. Okay, that’s a lot of calories and more than enough carbs, but with attention to the rest of my diet, I managed to include all of the above plus a very copious mixed grill (including black pudding), roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, and a gorgeous lamb shank in my various outings without actually adding any more pounds to my (admittedly) already overweight frame. A tasty high tea – with pork pie, English cheeses and sausage rolls among other things – provided by a food loving cousin ticked many of my boxes!
I had, in fact, made a list of such
delicacies, just for fun – it started with a decent cuppa and a nice G&T,
but I had forgotten how trendy gin has become, so was slightly fazed when asked
“What kind of gin would you like?” and saw the rainbow assortment on the shelf
behind the bar. I’m an old fashioned girl: good old Gordon’s or Beefeater is
fine by me – I want my gin to taste of gin and not of rhubarb, lavender or
liquorice, no matter how much I enjoy those flavours by themselves.
There were some foods I had completely forgotten about that were an unexpected delight – malt loaf and Coronation chicken with a jacket potato spring to mind – and then I discovered some that were new to me, but which were delicious.
The first of these was the dessert served at the aforesaid catering college in Stafford. It was the first day for the new intake of students, who stood stiffly to attention in a well-scrubbed, shiny-faced line backed up against the counter looking as if they were facing a firing squad. Could they possibly be over 15? Some of them, including the minute maiden who served us, didn’t look more than ten or twelve. We were a party of three, alone in the large dining room, and outnumbered four to one by the potential staff, so we should have been the ones who were intimidated!
The starter and main course were good, but the dessert was delicious: a lemon posset with sugared almond shortbread. None of us knew what a posset was, but were very pleasantly surprised and even happier when the “manageress” gave me the recipe (from BBC Good Food). It’s a very light lemon cream, sweet but tart, and the shortbread was melt-in-the-mouth. Well done, you rookie cooks! https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/3090678/lemon-posset-with-sugaredalmond-shortbread)
The second was a traditional local speciality from North Staffordshire, and I am totally flummoxed as to why I didn’t know it, and why it hasn’t become more wide-spread. Scottish oatcakes are famous, but Stoke oatcakes are an entirely different entity.
Traditionally made at home and sold from the windows of small terraced houses directly onto the street in the Potteries town of Stoke-on-Trent, they look like a thin pancake or crêpe with a savoury filling – mine had mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese and bacon. Nowadays, that tradition has died out (the sad march of progress) but I enjoyed my very first Stoke oatcake at the eatery in Trentham Gardens, so a beautiful setting as well as a very satisfying lunch. The recipe and some of the history can be found here and these definitely deserve to be better known. https://www.instructables.com/id/North-Staffordshire-Oatcakes/
And oh yes, just for those who are unfamiliar with the history of sticky toffee pudding and banoffee pie, which appear on the dessert menus of virtually every pub in the country (and can vary from divine to nauseating, so be warned!), here is some interesting information.
Figuratively and literally, in the West Midlands and Shropshire if you take the long way around you are going all round the Wrekin.It had been a long time since I’d seen this peculiar hill rising out of the fairly flat landscape – legend claims it was originally a Welsh mountain picked up and dumped by a giant, a story which doesn’t seem too fanciful when you contemplate this mound.
Now here I was, back in the old country after a two-year absence, and there in the distance was the familiar hump of the Wrekin with its little sister the Ercall, visible from the ruined keep of Stafford Castle and from the wooded hillsides of Cannock Chase.
The Wrekin, an old acquaintance from my childhood, our constant companion on fishing trips to the River Severn with my father, seemed to beckon me to come closer and say hello again.
One of the places I wanted to see on this visit to the UK was the village just over the border in Wales where Jeremiah and Sarah, my 5-times great-grandparents lived, and William, my 4-times great-grandfather, was born. To my childish delight this entailed driving past the Wrekin. It would have been nice to have taken the more scenic route and gone all round the Wrekin, but time was pressing so we returned the same way we had gone. Maybe next time!
Once you reach the border, of course, there are hills galore. What has changed in the 200 years since my ancestors lived and worked in this rural setting?
If they came back now, could they find their way around? Actually, I think they probably could, Of course, they would be amazed at the business park, but they would only have to walk a few metres further and I’m sure they’d recognise the old bridge and wharf with its limestone kiln.
Jeremiah and Sarah were married in Buttington parish church, the same building that stands at the entrance to the village opposite the coaching inn, which was surely also there in 1800. Inside the church, the font is most likely the one in which my 4x great-grandfather William was christened. There was nobody available to answer my questions, and not enough time to inspect all the ancient gravestones, but there was a list of names of some of the parishioners buried there. No Jeremiah Williams, but could John Williams (1830-1894) be his younger son?
In the 1841 census, Jeremiah is listed as an agricultural labourer and his son William as a male servant at the farm of Maurice Jones in the township of Hope. Nowadays, this seems to be just a country lane, with a few attractive houses in it – not what I would call a township, more a hamlet.
One of these houses is now the headquarters of a travel operating company, but it’s based in an original black and white half-timbered building so I marched in and enquired about its history. Yes, this had been Hope Farm, and it was there well before 1800. In fact, I was informed, it was probably the only one in Hope in 1841, as the next oldest was not built until 1850. I explained my interest and was allowed to take a photo of it.
I felt connected to this place, and as the coaching inn opposite the church was open, we had lunch there – and I have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending the Green Dragon to anyone with an appetite. Being in “traditional” mode, I ordered fish and chips and mushy peas, and wasn’t disappointed.
Did my 4th great-grandfather William start his journey to the coalfields of the Black Country on a coach from this inn? Why not? He wouldn’t recognise the modern road, of course, but I don’t think the scenery on either side would be totally unfamiliar. And he certainly must have gone past the Wrekin, if not all around it.