Jun
25
2013
0

Who owns the UK?

Who owns the UK? This is a perennial favourite for newspaper articles and has spawned a series of books. There is no simple answer as wealth can be measured in different ways: cash, shares, GDP and, most tantalisingly of all, land.

Land has always been an emotive issue and, even when the vast majority of people no longer work in primary industries, it continues to generate interest, debate and concern. Peasants’ revolts, riots over enclosure and the Luddite movement have given way to conservation areas, local amenity societies and ‘not in my back yard’ pressure groups.

Who owns the UK? Physical map of the British Isles By MarieStockholm (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So, back to the original question; who owns the UK? And how has ownership changed over the last century. To answer this, I’m taking ownership of land as the measure. Millions of acres, hectares and square miles of rolling, arable, pastoral, mountainous and forested land. There is no direct correlation with wealth in this list; owning vast tracts of Highland Scotland can, in terms of value, equal a single block of central London real estate.

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Mar
13
2013
0

A two pound piece

The British £2 is one of the most striking coins in circulation. As well as being the only mainstream bimetallic coin in the UK, it is wider and heavier than any other. With its golden edge and silver centre, it has become the coin of choice to commemorate events, people and institutions of national significance.

The current series of the £2 coin was launched on 15 June 1998 with the Royal Mint issuing millions for general circulation. A review of coinage carried out in 1994 had suggested the need for a new, higher denomination coin than the pound. The four-year gap between suggestion and introduction demonstrates the seriousness with which the government and Royal Mint took the task of designing a suitable new coin.

The front and reverse designs for the British £2 coin (standard version)

The Royal Mint consulted a wide range of groups, from the RNIB to channel the concerns of people with limited or no sight to the vending machine industry. Age Concern was consulted to ensure that the coin was designed to limit any confusion from the elderly and the general public were invited to express their opinions and concerns.

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Mar
06
2013
2

First places of devotion

Amongst Britain’s diverse population are adherents of all of the world’s major faiths. Religious devotion often requires a place of worship: churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and gurdwaras. A reference to the first purpose built mosque in the UK made me wonder when each of these religious buildings were first erected in Britain.

Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys is now into its fourth series on BBC Two. It continues to provide a rich harvest of facts and blog ideas to be reaped from Portillo’s deliciously awkward interviews. This week I saw him journey through Woking and visit the UK’s first purpose-built mosque – the Shah Jahan mosque. It made me wonder where other firsts might be for the major faiths followed in Britain.

Shah Jahan Mosque, Woking - the UK's first purpose built mosque - By RHaworth (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

With good timing, the Office for National Statistics had released a first cut of the 2011 census data, providing an overview of the demographic composition of the nation. The most common religions followed were (in order of number of adherents) Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism.

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Mar
01
2013
2

Coining the home nations

If you are reading this in the UK, have a look at the change in your pocket. One side features a portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II and the other continues the monarchical theme by displaying one of an array of heraldic badges, devices and national icons. Changing over the years, the choice of these designs tells us something of the importance of giving equal weight to the constituent countries (England and Scotland), principality (Wales) and province (Northern Ireland) of the United Kingdom.

Since 2008, the coins issued by the Royal Mint have featured the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, either whole (on the £1 coin) or in parts that make up an image of the whole when brought together. There are also special issues for both the £1 and £2 coin (the £2 coin will be featured in a forthcoming post).

The Royal Shield reverse designs, introduced in 2008

The pre-2008 coins carried a much more interesting array of designs. The back of the pound coin had a number of designs, providing a feast of symbols to satisfy each of the component parts of the union. The 1983, 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008 issues featured a slightly amended version of the royal coat of arms used today. But in the intervening years a more regional approach was taken.

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Feb
13
2013
0

Living in London luxury

How did Britain’s elite live in the capital once their great London houses had become either uneconomic to run or had been sold off to pay off debts and estate taxes? They would find comfort and a home away from home in a cluster of distinctly upper crust hotels that catered to their every whim.

Put yourselves, just for a whimsical moment, into the shoes of England’s aristocratic elite in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Landed families were struggling to maintain their main historic estates, with their country piles seeming increasingly out-dated and expensive to run. And what to do with the London residence? Hardly used outside of the social season and, even then, a distinctly uneconomic way to spend time in the capital.

What could the ‘squeezed upper’ do? There were, of course, plenty of guesthouses, inns and lodgings available throughout London, but these were hardly suitable for the titled. Could they downsize? Perhaps take advantage of the railways and move into the suburbs? Maybe a few did take these options, but the majority availed themselves of a new development: London’s luxury hotels.

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Feb
08
2013
0

The original HS2

The London and Birmingham Railway, opened in 1838, was the Victorian equivalent of HS2. In fact, it was far more transformative than its twenty-first century successor – horses, carts, carriages and canals gave way to steam powered locomotion at speeds that radically changed the British economy, society and people. This engineering wonder heralded the start of the modern age and was built in less than five years.

Last week, the government announced its proposed route for the new high speed railway link north of London. The line will split into a Y shape, with the western spur heading through Crewe, Manchester Airport and ending up in Manchester. The eastern side will stop at an East Midlands parkway (to serve Derby and Nottingham), Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre (to the chagrin of Sheffield City Council and its Chamber of Commerce) and Leeds.

Construction of the first stage of High Speed Two (“HS2”) from London to Birmingham will start in 2017 and open in 2026. The second phase, as outlined above, is intended for completion in 2032. Britain will therefore have the start of a high-speed rail network just in time for the 200th anniversary of regular passenger railway services heralded by the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830.

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Feb
04
2013
0

Ambergris – floating gold

Ambergris is a rare and precious gift from the ocean. It is a waxy substance found floating on the sea or sometimes washed up on a beach. For hundreds of years it was a vital ingredient in producing perfumes; it is a natural fixative that ensures sweet fragrances linger long after they are dabbed to the skin. But it can be described another way: the indigestible parts of squid mixed with intestinal faeces excreted or vomited by sperm whales into the ocean.

Last week, a large slab of ambergris was found washed up on the beach at Morecambe, Lancashire. It is an usual discovery, but not unprecedented: last year, a young boy found a massive hunk of Ambergris on a beach in Dorset. Such a lucky discovery has been described as akin to finding gold but, in reality, it is much more valuable than that: the Lancashire lump is valued at up to £100,000 and the Dorset dollop at just over £39,000. Unsurprisingly, it has been labelled as ‘floating gold’, and it is literally a treasure for beach combers.

So what is ambergris? The Oxford Reference Encyclopaedia describes it as: “Musky, waxy solid formed in the intestine of a sperm whale. It is used in perfumes as a fixative for the scent.” No one would suspect an ultimate use in the perfume industry for fresh ambergris. When regurgitated or defecated, it retains a foul odour combining rotting fish and faeces. It is only after a lengthy aging process (taking ten to twenty years) that it acquires the sweet, musky smell that makes combining it with perfumes possible.

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Jan
30
2013
0

The Great North Sea Flood

Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of a flood so devastating it became known as the Great North Sea Flood (or, in Dutch, the Watersnoodramp – the flood disaster). On the night of 31 January 1953, a major storm caused the North Sea to overflow the surrounding low lying coastal areas and to surge upstream, devastating flood plains in England, Scotland, the Netherlands and Belgium. In total, 2,551  people died on a night that would, in particular, change the Netherlands for ever.

It was a cataclysmic combination of natural forces that produced the storm tide that would submerge vast swathes of land adjoining the North Sea. A high spring tide ensured the sea level was already higher than normal. When combined with a severe ‘European windstorm’, the sea frothed and surged until the water level reached 5.6 metres (18.4 ft) above the mean sea level.

A wall of water, taller than a double-decker bus and just under the height of a two-storey terrace house, swamped the low-lying areas of East Anglia, the Fens, Zeeland and West Flanders and deluged higher ground that was usually spared flooding.

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Jan
28
2013
1

Reach for the lasers

Lasers! The future condensed into a single beam of penetrating light. What did I know about lasers? Next to nothing. What do I know now? A little bit more, including the surprising fact that laser is an acronym.

Someone asked me to write about lasers. Ahem. You could easily write everything I knew about lasers on the back of a fag packet. A small fag packet. In fact, even if you wrote in unusually large letters and left generous spacing between words there would still be room to draw a few doodles around the edges.

You see, science writing is far, far from my métier. I had to study separate sciences all the way to GCSE and gleefully jettisoned in favour of the soft, fluffy and human disciplines of history, English, geography and politics. But a request is a request, and, in this case, the requestor is unusually charming.

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Jan
25
2013
0

Singing for Communism

In an era when the Communist countries of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe sought to rival the west in everything, how did they respond to Eurovision? Did they mockingly highlight its kitsch naffness as demonstration of all that was wrong with capitalism? Or did they manage to create something even more awful behind the Iron Curtain?

The Cold War was a period of sustained tension, hostility and rivalry between the USA and its NATO allies and the communist east directed by the Soviet Union. It was a period of time marked by opposites, contrasts and intense competition – west versus east, capitalist versus communist, the free market versus command economy.

The intensity of the rivalry ensured that developments or projects in one camp were matched as closely as possible by innovation on the other side. In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was formed as a defence club for the western democracies. It was to be replicated in the east by the formation of the Warsaw Pact in 1955. The European Economic Community (EEC) was actually preceded by the east’s Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), itself a Soviet-led response to the USA’s Marshall Plan.

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