February 2020




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7th February            INTERESTING ILKLEY!


Now in the midst of my brief lecturing season – the relatively slack period between our final pre-Christmas garden tidying sessions and March, when the grass starts growing again – Hubcap and I have just enjoyed a splendid day out in Ilkley. In the morning I delivered my ‘Fish n’ Ships’ lecture on Grimsby’s history to the local branch of the University of the Third Age at Ilkley Playhouse, which seemed to go down well (at least, they want me to come back some time!) – as did our lunch at a lovely Turkish restaurant, The Olive Branch, which we found nearby.


Duly fortified by raki, slow-cooked aubergine stuffed with Mediterranean vegetables and Turkish coffee, (Hubcap opted for the lamb moussaka), we set out to explore this delightful Dales town. Nestling in the spectacular scenery of the River Wharfe valley, Ilkley has a long and fascinating history; as Roman Olicana, a small fort was established there in AD 79, and an Anglo-Saxon church built within its ruins in AD 627. No trace of the fort remains, but the 14th century Manor House (pictured above left - now a museum due to re-open on February 29th) and All Saints Church, (pictured below left), both built on the site, incorporate some of its stone.  


We spent a most instructive hour inside All Saints, where I was delighted to find this unusually well-preserved section of an Anglo-Saxon preaching cross, and the magnificent tomb of Sir Peter Middleton, (pictured below) whose family held extensive lands in West Yorkshire. He would have known Ilkley as a centre for sheep farming and wool spinning; but when his descendants opened the first bath-house near the town’s spring in 1690, it began developing a reputation as a good place to go and ‘take the waters.’ (It’s still possible to do this at White Wells Cottage if you take a swimsuit!).









Ilkley’s prosperity as a 19th century spa town can still be seen in its wide streets, many green spaces and fine civic architecture, including some handsome hotels; it’s also well supplied with tempting shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants. I was particularly tempted by Poppy Pickering’s hand-made chocolates – needless to say, the bag Hubcap treated me to didn’t survive the journey home! So we thoroughly enjoyed our few hours there, and plan to return later in the year for a good hike on Ilkley Moor to see the famous Bronze Age carved stones, to visit the Manor House Museum, and work up an appetite for another slap-up meal at The Olive Branch. Highly recommended!


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27th February: HAPPY LEAP YEAR FOR THE 29th!!!!


2020 will be a Leap Year to remember for Herstory – and it’s just as well that February has an extra day this year, because it’s been a particularly hectic and eventful month.


My first priority was to prepare the penultimate talk of my winter lecture season on a subject I’d been chafing to share: Isabella of France, the put-upon wife of King Edward II. In Isabella's case, truth really is stranger than fiction: a French princess married at 12 to a man who publicly snubbed her for his favourite, Piers Gaveston, for more than two decades this young but highly political queen didn’t put a foot wrong. Then, after falling foul of her husband’s new and infinitely more ruthless henchman Hugh Despenser, an outbreak of hostilities with France gave Isabella chance to launch her astonishing coup.


Offering to negotiate with her brother Charles, the new king, she left for her homeland – and failed to return. Next she succeeded in bringing her eldest son, Edward, to join her in France on a state mission (pictured) – and failed to return him. And while her husband went frantic, a court-in-exile of opponents to his Despenser-dominated regime gathered around the errant queen – including Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, with whom the love-starved Isabella began a passionate affair alongside their political alliance.




With money, troops and ships provided by her relations in Europe, she then launched an invasion aimed at deposing Edward in favour of the 12-year-old Edward, Prince of Wales. No doubt to Isabella’s great joy, her army was unopposed – most people were just as sick of Edward and his rapacious favourites as she was – and the Hugh Despensers, father and son, duly met grisly ends, (as, many believe, did the ex-king).


Based on her past record, Isabella should then have become a wise, prudent guardian and mentor until her young teenage son reached his majority. Sadly, she and Mortimer failed to learn from recent dire example and repeated many of the same greedy, power-crazed mistakes made by their predecessors. The result? Edward III, in the mould of his grandfather Edward I, ‘Hammer of the Scots,’ launched a successful coup to wrest his kingdom from his mother and her lover. Unlike Mortimer, Isabella escaped execution; her previously-astute political sense returned, and she was soon back in her son’s favour, living in luxurious semi-retirement as a royal matriarch. She never remarried, becoming increasingly pious in later life and joining the Poor Clare nuns; and touchingly, asked to be buried wearing her wedding mantle and holding the silver urn containing the embalmed heart of her late husband. So maybe Isabella had loved Edward, in spite of his failings; and at last, she could have permanent, sole possession of his heart.


It’s a cracking story which I thoroughly enjoyed telling, and was pleased that it went down well with my audience from Sherburn-in-Elmet Local History Society. In the meantime, other writing was going great guns; my ‘Things I Can’t Live Without’, is due to appear soon in Country Smallholding magazine; and I uploaded two blogs on my HelenRaeRants site, a review of Lauren Johnson’s new paperback edition of Shadow King: the Life and Death of Henry VI, and a long-planned piece on the amount our small household has reduced plastic/non-recyclable waste pollution (by nearly 5000 items per year!) thanks to making more eco-friendly choices and a few simple lifestyle changes.


Best of all: I’ve just sent the final draft of ‘Henry Wowler and the Mirror-Cat’ to Donnas Peterson for her to illustrate and lay out for printing! That means we’re on track for a summer release, including a launch programme of readings and cat ceramic classes at Peterson Pottery Studio in Grimsby – ideal summer holiday activities for the family. Further details will follow; meanwhile it’s been lovely to collaborate on such a fun project, and we can’t wait to see the book printed and bound. I hope ‘Mirror-Cat’ will appeal to cat-fans of all ages, and Donnas’ wonderful, funny artwork really brings the story to life, (as will the ceramic merchandise she plans on making). As Herstory’s most potentially commercial venture to date, I’m naturally very excited; and while I’d welcome financial success, the pleasure of creating this book has been a reward in itself – I feel we can be justly proud of it, irrespective of how many copies it might sell. Watch this space for updates!