Going to the Gaeltacht

I handed over the money with a polite thank you and received a friendly but firm tá failte romhat in response. I had been cycling in County Waterford and following signs for the coastal village of Ring. In the space of a few metres I was been transported into a different world where both Waterford and Ring had been replaced by Contae Phort Láirge and An Rinn. We had entered the Gaeltacht.

Nothing else seemed to have changed. The sun still struggled to shine through threateningly grey clouds. There was no physical border and the road rolled on. We passed a couple of road signs that were entirely in Irish, replacing the bilingual signs that more typical of Ireland.

An Rinn - the Waterford Gaeltacht

A few minutes later we passed a large building site with a huge banner that indicated the project was funded by the European Union and the Government of Ireland under the National Development Plan. This was just a guess, however, based entirely on the logos displayed at the bottom of the sign. A detailed explanation of what the project was and who was paying for it was set out in large letters but was completely unintelligible to me.

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Juche couture – North Korea and the fabric of the future

The economic sanctions placed on North Korea have forced the People’s Republic to develop novel ways to sidestep western technology. Step forward Vinalon, a fabric made from the unlikely source materials of anthracite and limestone? Do rocks make for natural, luxuriant fibres? Not particularly, but the raw materials are plentiful on the Korean peninsula. So why has the rest of the world failed to succumb to Vinalon’s mineral charms?

The list of crimes attributed to Jang Song Thaek were designed to leave absolutely no doubt; Kim Jong-un’s uncle deserved to be executed as a traitor to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Jang Song Thaek's trial

Jang was accused of “selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices”, being “wined and dined at back parlours of deluxe restaurants”, taking drugs and, perhaps most heinously, spending the DPRK’s precious reserves of foreign currency in casinos.

After being labelled by state media as a “traitor for all ages” and a “wicked political careerist”, it was announced that Jang had been sentenced to death, with: “the decision … immediately executed”.

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Are you U or are you non-U?

Does the way you speak give away your background in an instant? Do you pop to the loo or go to the toilet? Do you live in a house or a home? Do you enjoy a sweet or pudding and do you eat it after dinner or tea? In this world of binary class linguistics, you are, quite simply, either upper class or not. So, are you U or are you non-U?

Nancy Mitford is a writer who both understood England’s aristocracy and managed, in gilded, witty prose, to lampoon it. Her upbringing and observations ensured she could follow the finely delineated class divisions separating the truly upper class from those who are merely wealthy, fashionable or powerful. She understood you could be a billionaire, film star or even the Prime Minister and remain decidedly non-U.

Nancy Mitford

In 1954, Nancy Mitford published an article entitled ‘The English Aristocracy’ in the magazine Encounter. The piece caused a storm, elicited responses and attracted the attention of publishers. The result was Noblesse Oblige: an Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy – a 1956 collection of articles and contributions.

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Fordlandia! Where civilisation conquers the wild and untamed heart of the great Amazon rainforest. A city forged in adversity, the triumph of will and the product of the daring imagination of Henry Ford. This is America’s new frontier; a wilderness transformed by technology, labour and innovation into the prosperous hub of the world’s rubber production.

To some it was a daring vision, a glimpse of the future from one of America’s, heck, the world’s most farsighted industrialists. To others it was another sign that the wheels were metaphorically and perhaps literally coming off a once great car-producing giant.

Fordlandia (WT-shared) Amitevron at wts wikivoyage [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The United States of America is a vast country, stretching from sea to shining sea, its land richly endowed with iron ore, coal, oil, timber and rich pasture. From these natural resources she has at her disposal all the elements for the wonder of the twentieth century – the automobile. Steel, wood panelling and leather were all sourced from home – a relentless flow of goods entering Detroit and other factory towns to be turned into cars, vans and lorries.

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The Duke of Sutherland’s Railway

Few things were more powerful than a Victorian-era duke. They shaped empires, armies, estates and cities and had a particular interest in the development of the railway network. For some, this was manifested in vehement opposition. For others, it was a promise of further riches and easier access to pleasures in both the capital and countryside. Few peers have influenced the development of a railway quite as definitively as the Duke of Sutherland, for whom we have largely to thank the northern most reaches of the British network. 

After reaching the epic grandeur of the Scottish highlands, Scotland’s north-east peters away gently towards the coast. Tain, Dornoch, Golspie, Brora, Helmsdale and Wick are sandwiched between the sea to the east and desolate mountains to the west. Vital communications are provided by the A9 and the evocatively named Far North Railway.

Sutherland is wildly, stunningly beautiful but hardly profitable terrain for the railways Donald Bain [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Far North Railway links Inverness with Thurso and Wick at the very northerly tip of Britain. The leisurely journey covers over 120 miles in 3 hours 45 minutes (to Thurso) or 4 hours 15 minutes (to Wick).  The route is at first coastal before diving into the highlands to stop at Culrain and Lairg and then turning sharply westward to head back towards the sea.

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Once in Saint David’s City

The City of St Davids lies in the south-west corner of St Davids Peninsula surrounded by some of the most stunning Pembrokeshire coastlines and countryside. It is easily the UK’s smallest city by population: home to 1,797  in the 2001 census. The next smallest, St Asaph, is also a Welsh cathedral city but has nearly twice as many residents. Over the border, Wells is a bustling metropolis of 10,406 in comparison. So how is a place that would struggle to justify being called a town labelled a city?

The approach to St Davids is distinctly rural, a quiet road winding through rough, sheep studded fields. Suddenly, to the side of the road a large and seemingly new sign proclaims “Welcome – City of St Davids – Britain’s smallest City”. Its twin towns are then given as Naas in Ireland, Orléat in France and Matsieng in Lesotho. All of this is, of course, rendered in English and Welsh, with a warm “Croeso – Dinas Tyddewi” given to the Cymry.

Welcome to St Davids - own work

The divide between country and town is minimal – fields give way to a handful of bungalow lined streets until, seconds later, you are in the middle of the city. The word ‘city’, with its connotations of heaving masses, hustle and bustle, bright lights and dark alleys in particularly unsuited for St Davids. There are certainly people walking around its two main streets, but they could be counted in tens rather than thousands.

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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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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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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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