Dr Merryweather’s Tempest Prognosticator and other curiosities…

So, I’ve been on my travels for the last couple of weeks. I tend to take off for two weeks every Easter and just explore an area of the UK, spending a night or two in one place before I wander onwards somewhere else. This year I explored Lincolnshire and the Yorkshire coast, two areas which were completely strange to me. I’ve been to York once, and never set foot in Lincolnshire before, so I was clearly overdue a visit. I always come back not only relaxed but brimming with story ideas (I want to write about shipwrecks and lifeboatmen now, because the RNLI museum in Whitby moved me to tears).  Later this weekend, I’ll post again to talk about the impending release of the Closet Capers anthology, which contains a rather sweet and daft story of mine, but for the time being I’m going to blather about my trip.

I’m a crazed photographer on these trips, because you never know what might come in useful as a reference photo. I’ve selected some of the quirkier shots to share here, under the cut because this will be a bit photo-heavy, including the aforementioned prognosticator, a leech barometer (no, really).

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Firstly, the Fens. This is a vast and eerie stretch of countryside which runs from Cambridge to Boston in Lincolnshire. It was once marshland, but was systematically drained in the early modern era to create seemingly endless flat arable fields. It’s still in constant danger of flooding and every town and village has a water tower (and a windmill, many still in working order). As the land drained, however, it began to shrink, and sink to below the level of the rivers. The rivers are all contained by embankments, but the land is still shrinking. The little country roads are all lumpy and uneven where the ground beneath is still compacting. The two metal pillars here are the Holme Fen posts. This is the lowest point of the UK at 2.75m (9ft) below sea level. The post on the right is the older of the two, and supposedly comes from the 1851 Great Exhibition. It was driven into the ground by a local landowner at that time, when the top of the post was level with the ground. By 1957, so much of it was exposed that it became unstable and had to be reinforced. The second pole was added alongside it at that time.

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Here, in the back room of the Rutland County Museum, which is otherwise most full of antique farm machinery, I found the old town gallows, tucked between a baker’s cart and the town bier. The gallows was first used in 1851, and was not a good investment for the town as it had too low a drop to cleanly finish off some criminals. It also had a placard quoting a letter from a clearly still traumatized gentleman who had been a pupil at the public school in the county town of Oakham. He and his classmates had been marched along to watch the first execution on the new gallows by their headmaster, who thought it would provide an excellent moral lesson for the small boys in his charge!

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Skegness, the sort of British seaside town which decided that its windswept climate was its unique selling point, and advertised itself (very successfully) throughout the twentieth century with the slogan Skegness! It’s so bracing!. Here, I’m standing on the southern side of the promenade, known as South Bracing, and seeing some of the effect of the strong winds which had been lashing the coast all week. As my landlady put it: ‘When the rest of the country had snowstorms, we had sandstorms.’ And, yes, it was very bracing and so unbothered by the weather that I was utterly charmed by the place.

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A cathedral cat! This is Lincoln cathedral on a quiet Saturday morning, and this tabby wound around the ankles of every tourist who wandered by. The inside of the cathedral was very austere, but the highlight for me was the simple tomb of Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt’s mistress and later wife, and a woman whose love story really did change the course of British history (Anya Seton’s Katherine, although showing its 1950s values a little strongly in places, is still a compelling novel about her).

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I’m not going to reveal the exact location of this, because it felt a little too secret. I took a day just to wander around the North Lincolnshire countryside, as I’ve got vague plans to set a novel in the Isle of Axholme and wanted to walk the land before I made any firm decisions. During that walk, I stumbled across a tiny pool labelled as a Holy Well on my map. It was guarded by a bright-eyed little robin and in the copse opposite, almost hidden from the path, someone had created a home for fairies. There were a couple of little doors set into the trees, plastic butterflies hanging off the branches, some carvings and pictures stuck up. It felt like the latest modern version of a very ancient impulse.

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This is the River Hull, looking very grey and modern and soulless. The story here, though, is about those two faces on top of the column. The original plaster casts of these are in the Maritime Museum in Hull, along with the story of this young couple. Their names, according to reports from the time, were Memiadluk and Uckaluk, an Inuit couple from the Cumberland Sound, aged 17 and 15. The most detailed information came from a reproduction newspaper report from the time, so it’s difficult to untangle their story. They were brought to Hull in 1847 on the whaling ship Truelove, commanded by Captain John Parker, who also had a cast made of his head which is in the display in the museum with theirs. Supposedly, the girl Uckaluk was orphaned and because of the extreme poverty of the area at the time, begged the captain to rescue her from starvation. He refused to take her on board unless she was a married woman, so she and her childhood fiance were married the night before the ship set off back to England and he came too. The ship’s surgeon inoculated them against smallpox, and they were brought back to Hull where they were displayed in their native clothing in various places and at a number of lectures. Captain Parker’s stated aim was to raise awareness in England of the poverty in that region of the Arctic, which I think the British had laid claim to and then blithely ignored. When the Truelove headed off on its next whaling trip in 1848 they were on board, being taken home. Sadly, the surgeon had not thought to inoculate them against measles and an outbreak on board ship killed Uckaluk. Her husband was returned home with many gifts.

The whole story is so run through with colonialism and privilege and irony that unravelling it all would be a fascinating and important task. Someone needs to write a serious historical novel about that (not me, because I’d get so obsessive about the research I’d drive myself insane). The picture above shows the point where the ship anchored and the couple came ashore into busy, industrial nineteenth-century Yorkshire.

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Okay, there’s nothing historically significant or meaningful or morally complex about this one. It’s just a big fucking wave, in Scarborough’s North Bay. Hidden behind it on the headland is the ruins of Scarborough Castle, if that counts for anything 🙂

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And this is just another cool bit of coastline, on the north side of Flamborough Head. Chalk coasts erode in dramatic ways.

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This is the Whitby museum, which is the kind of place I didn’t think still existed outside of Neil Gaiman’s imagination. It has a couple of side rooms, but most of its collection is crammed into one room. I’m standing in the center here, looking back towards the dinosaur fossils mounted in one corner. Around me were cases of string puppets, flint arrowheads, jet jewellery, wax dolls, scrimshaw, embroidery samplers, and assorted loot from every corner of the erstwhile British Empire. There’s supposedly a hand of glory in there somewhere, but I never found it. Perhaps it stuck on top of a display case somewhere between the totem pole, the samurai armour and the spinning wheel.

I did manage to find this. This is Dr George Merryweather’s patented leech barometer, also known as the Tempest Prognosticator, or to give it its full title, the ‘Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph conducted by Animal Instinct’. Well, it’s a replica made in 1951 following the original instructions, as the real thing disappeared long ago. Invented in 1850, it was based on Dr Merryweather’s observation that leeches were extremely sensitive to changes in atmospheric pressure. Each jar contained enough water to make it a comfortable home for a leech. The leech would stay there unless disturbed by a change in pressure, which would cause it to squirm up into the tube above, which by a complicated process caused the bell at the top to ring. As one leech alone could be mistaken, a full ‘jury of philosophical councilors’ were provided. They were set in a ring around the bell for two reasons: firstly so they could see each other and not suffer from loneliness, and secondly to increase the resemblance to an Indian temple. The more leeches rang the bell, the more likely it was that a storm would occur. Simplicity itself.

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There’s a lot of information about this marvelous machine online: Whitby Museum and wikipedia, with quotations from the original creator.  I’m pretty sure Dreamspinner has a steampunk call coming up: surely someone is tempted by this creation *hopeful eyes*

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This is looking down from the cliffs just south of Whitby, at a relatively modern wreck. This coast is an incredibly dangerous one, and wrecks are still common. In the days when Captain Cook was an apprentice here, Whitby trained sailors were renowned for their skills and boys came from all over England to study in the local schools, where sailing was part of the curriculum, and take up apprenticeships. Ships built in Whitby crossed the world during the age of exploration and a lot of those apprentices went with them.

Many ships were also wrecked as they tried to enter Whitby harbour. This same stretch I’m looking down on here was the end of a WW1 hospital ship, the Rohilla, which broke into three on these rocks. It was on its way to the front and only 229 people were on board, most of them medical staff. 85 of them were lost in the wreck but lifeboats saved the rest. The Whitby lifeboat was too damaged to continue the attempt after two runs, but by then other lifeboats including the one from Tynemouth had reached the ship and continued the rescue.  One of the five nurses rescued had survived the wreck of the Titanic two years earlier.

Another bleak story comes from 1861. During a terrible storm that February, multiple ships got into serious trouble on the approach to Whitby. The lifeboat had already been out and rescued the crews of four wrecked ships. On their last launch, towards the collier Merchant, the lifeboat was overwhelmed by the waves and capsized. Twelve of the thirteen lifeboatmen drowned. The only survivor was the youngest member of the crew, Henry Freeman, on his first launch. The crew had been sent a sample cork lifejacket, which he had been given and which kept him afloat long enough for those watching from the shore to rescue him.

Freeman stayed on the lifeboat crew for over forty years after the tragedy, spending more than 20 years as coxswain of the Whitby boat. In 1881, his crew were called out to a wreck in Robin Hood Bay six miles south of Whitby. The seas were too high to launch from Whitby so they had to transport the boat across country. Unfortunately, it was January and the roads were under 7 feet of snow. 60 volunteers began to to dig out the road in front of them as 18 horses pulled the boat to the launch point. More men came to help with every farm they passed until they had 200 volunteers helping to clear the road. Two hours after leaving Whitby, they launched and were immediately forced back to land. The coxswain asked for more volunteers to help row and they went out again and rescued the entire crew, some of whom were so exhausted by then they had to be carried ashore.

(Lots more on the history of the lifeboat here.)

And finally, here’s the sight that most people come to Whitby for: the ruined medieval abbey that stands on the clifftops above the town.

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See why I always come home with my muses quivering?

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