Archive | July 2015

A Bletchley Park regret

The Bletchley Girls, a recent BBC Radio 4 programme about the women who worked at Bletchley Park during World War 2, had a particular resonance with me. In 1987 my parents moved to a small West Dorset village, and their next door neighbours-but-one were a lovely brother and sister, Cecil Gould and Jocelyne Stacey, who lived together in what I think had been the old school house: Jocelyne had the upstairs flat and Cecil the downstairs one, which included the huge impressive schoolroom or hall which he had converted into his library. Cecil had been a former Keeper and Deputy Director of the National Gallery in London, and so unsurprisingly had a huge collection of books.

Jocelyne Stacey and Cecil Gould, 1993. Photograph by Jonathan Betts, reproduced in his fantastic 2006 book on Rupert Gould.

Jocelyne Stacey and Cecil Gould outside their home, 1993. Photograph by Jonathan Betts, reproduced in his fantastic 2006 book on Rupert Gould.

Their father, Commander Rupert Gould, was an extraordinary man: a science educator and Brains Trust panellist, umpire at Wimbledon, and researcher into the Loch Ness Monster. But he is perhaps best known for being the man who restored John Harrison‘s marine chronometers.

Jocelyne was a wonderful character, full of fun and mischief. Chap and I always went and had coffee with her when we visited my parents, and enjoyed a natter and a giggle. It was during one of these visits that she told us that she had served at Bletchley Park during the war: she was just about to travel to the United States to give some talks about her experiences. I was fascinated, but this is my eternal regret: I didn’t ask too many questions about her time there. This was in the late 80s, before Bletchley had really impinged on our collective consciousness as a nation, and the conversation moved on and I never steered her back to the subject. The work of all who had worked at Bletchley Park was covered by the Official Secrets Act, and many still honoured their vow of silence, all those years on, even though we were clearly in a time when it was no longer a matter of national security.

Bletchley Park.

Bletchley Park.

Sadly neither Jocelyne nor Cecil are still with us, and I never talked in depth with Jocelyne about her wartime experiences. I wish I had done so, and recorded her reminiscences. She died in 2001.

All I can find out now about her experiences are from the Bletchley Park website Roll of Honour: she worked at Bletchley from 1942, she was with the WAAF, where she was a Leading Aircraftwoman (LACW), and she worked in the Air Section. This section was responsible for decrypting non-Enigma signals from German, Italian and Japanese Air Forces, and produced intelligence reports. Cecil also worked in intelligence, for RAF Intelligence, during the war.

Thank-you, Jocelyne, and thank-you, Cecil.

I can’t recommend enough Jonathan Betts‘ 2006 book about Rupert Gould, Time Restored: The Harrison timekeepers and R.T. Gould, the man who knew (almost) everything. And of course there is Dava Sobel‘s cracking 1995 book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.

St Mary’s Church, Old Dilton

One of the things Chap and I love to do is to visit parish churches. There are some that strike a particular, atmospheric chord: redundant churches that are no longer used for worship. A good number of these churches are looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust. One of our favourites is not too far from where we live: St Mary’s Church at Old Dilton, near Westbury in Wiltshire. We love old buildings, and this one is a beauty.


St Mary’s Church, Old Dilton, Wiltshire.

This is a 14th century church situated in a quiet, out-of-the way spot near the River Biss. The community it originally served, Dilton, was a thriving wool-producing settlement, with houses, a mill and the church. However, with the decline of the woollen industry in the 17th century, the village became eclipsed by the new, thriving settlement of Dilton Marsh some 2.5 km to the north, and the much-reduced Dilton became known as Old Dilton.

With the shrinking community, St Mary’s church struggled after the new church was built at Dilton Marsh in 1844. In 1956 St Mary’s was closed for congregational use, and remained in the care of the parish until 26 April 1973, when it was declared pastorally redundant. In 1974 it was vested in the care of the then-Redundant Churches Fund (now the Churches Conservation Trust).

The church’s plan is very simple, with a 14th century porch that might be a survivor of an earlier church; the main body of the building dates from the 15th century.


St Mary’s Church, Old Dilton: the spire and south porch.

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St Mary’s Church, Old Dilton: the stumpy spire at the west end of the church.

The 14th century porch.

St Mary’s Church, Old Dilton: the 14th century porch.


St Mary’s Church, Old Dilton.

View from the road of the north side of the church.

St Mary’s Church, Old Dilton: view from the road of the north side of the church.

Inside, there is no division between the nave and the chancel. The nave is filled with 18th century box pews, some of which are built to incorporate medieval benches. The triple decker pulpit dominates the south side of the nave.

Looking from the west end towards the chancel. The font is a 19th century copy of a 15th century font.

St Mary’s Church, Old Dilton: looking from the west end towards the chancel.  The triple decker pulpit is on the right (south side of the church). The font is a 19th century copy of a 15th century font.

The interior of the church, looking towards the gallery at the north end. The triple decker pulpit is on the left (the south side of the nave).

St Mary’s Church, Old Dilton: the interior of the church, looking towards the gallery at the west end.

Over the northern side of the chancel is a gallery, which was used as a schoolroom, and which is accessed by a separate door on the outside of the church. Another gallery is situated at the western end of the nave. The chancel has a very long and simple communion table, dating from the 17th century. The plain glass in the windows is modern, replacing what would have been the medieval coloured glass.

View from the west gallery of the chancel and the gallery on the north side of the church.

St Mary’s Church, Old Dilton: view from the west gallery of the chancel with its plain communion table and the gallery on the north side of the church.

The west gallery and box pews.

St Mary’s Church, Old Dilton: view from the pulpit of the west gallery and box pews.

The nave aisle on the north side of the church.

St Mary’s Church, Old Dilton: the nave aisle on the north side of the church, and horribly incongruous fire extinguisher.

St Mary’s has no electricity, and so no intrusive modern light fittings. At Christmas, candlelit services are held. They must be extremely beautiful. I have always wondered whether St Mary’s has been used as a filming location for a period piece, as the marks of the modern world on it are so light, but haven’t yet found anything to suggest that it has. It is certainly a very atmospheric and special place. Chap and I were lucky enough to do some work on the conservation of this church a few years ago: masonry work, replastering and limewashing.

Sadly the church has to be kept locked (a depressing sign of the times). The key is held by a neighbouring householder: details are on one of the church doors.


The Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Old Dilton, Wiltshire Neil Skelton, 1986, Redundant Churches Fund.

Churches Conservation Trust website.

How Pluto got its name

I was so happy at the recent fantastic news from the New Horizons probe as it flew past Pluto and showed us what the dwarf planet really looks like (it’s incredible to think that only a fortnight ago, we had a blobby pixelated view; now we can see features 1 km in size). It’s yet another amazing achievement by NASA.

Pluto, photographed by the New Horizons probe on 13 July 2015.

Pluto, photographed by the New Horizons probe on 13 July 2015.

I listened with interest to the 15 July episode of the BBC Radio 4 Inside Science series that was dedicated to the recent Pluto news. Among the items was a small feature on how Pluto got its name. I had heard this story before but it still gives me pause for thought: Pluto was named by an 11-year-old English schoolgirl, Venetia Phair (née Burney) (11 July 1918 – 30 April 2009). 

Venetia Burney, aged 11.

Venetia Burney, aged 11.

So how did an English schoolgirl come to name the planet?

Pluto was discovered on 18 February 1930 by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who was working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Tombaugh was searching Planet X, a hypothetical planet beyond Neptune, the existence of which had been predicted by Percival Lowell and William Pickering. Pluto’s discovery was made public on 13 March 1930. At the time, Venetia lived in Oxford, with her mother and maternal grandparents. Her grandfather, Falconer Madan (1851 – 1935) had previously been the Librarian of the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford, and at the time was a noted scholar of the life and works of Lewis Carroll. Over breakfast on 14 March 1930, Madan read out about of the discovery in The Times.

The short piece in The Times, 14 March 1930, that

The short piece in The Times, 14 March 1930, that Falconer Madan read out to Venetia Burney at breakfast. This news was tucked away on page 14 of the newspaper.

Here’s a transcript of part of a 2005 BBC interview with Venetia:

My grandfather said, ‘I wonder what they will call it?’ and I said, ‘Why not call it Pluto?’ or words to that effect, and my grandfather, on his way to the Bodleian Library, he dropped a note in at Professor H. H. Turner‘s house. Now he was an ex-Astronomer Royal, so Professor Turner cabled it out to Flagstaff, and I of course thought no more about it and didn’t hear anything about all of this, but the suggestion was taken as a good one, for various reasons, Pluto being a dark planet, god of the Underworld, and various other points, like P L for Pluto, P L for Percival Lowell. And so about three months later I heard that I was responsible for naming it, but I dare say other people thought of it even earlier but didn’t have the backup to cable and suggest it.

Unbeknownst to Burney, on 16 March Turner cabled the suggestion to the Lowell Observatory:


Turner's cable to the Lowell Observatory. Lowell Observatory Archives.

Turner’s cable to the Lowell Observatory. Lowell Observatory Archives. Venetia’s name has somehow become mangled into Vebtia Nurney.

On 24 March the selection was made: every member of the Lowell Observatory was allowed to vote from a shortlist of three names (the other two were Minerva and Cronos), and Pluto won every vote. The announcement of Pluto’s name was made on 1 May 1930, and Venetia’s place in astronomical history was assured. She was invited to watch the launch of New Horizons from Cape Canaveral on 19 January 2006, but had to decline because it was too far for her to travel at her advanced age.

Venetia Phair in 2006.

Venetia Phair in 2006.

Venetia was wonderfully modest about the whole matter: on being asked in an interview with NASA whether people in her home town (Epsom) knew of her role in history, she replied ‘ … on the whole, it doesn’t arise in conversation and you don’t just go around telling people that you named Pluto.’ Great British understatement at its finest!

Amazingly, Venetia’s family also made other contributions to the naming of celestial bodies: in 1877 her great-uncle, Falconer’s brother Henry Madan named the two Martian moons Phobos and Deimos.

Venetia has had a few tributes: an asteroid, 6235 Burney, is named after her, as is the American band The Venetia Fair, and perhaps most fittingly, one of the scientific instruments on New Horizons, a dust sensor, bears her name: the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (VBSDC).

The Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (VBSDC). Now a very long way away from erth.

The Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (VBSDC). Now a very long way away from earth; at one time in July 2015 just 12,500 km from Pluto.

Further information:

NASA’s New Horizons website

18 July 2015 io9 article summarising the New Horizons story so far

13 January 2006 BBC article about Venetia Phair

17 January 2006 NASA interview with Venetia Phair

MP3 of the above NASA interview

In the garden

Yesterday I spotted this wee beastie lurking in one of our flower beds, our biological snail control:

Mr Frog eyeing up his lunch.

Mr Frog eyeing up his lunch.

We garden organically, and so the hedgehogs and frogs and toads are such welcome guests, not only because they are beautiful creatures, but also because they munch the slugs and snails. We’re trying to become more environmentally-minded in our garden, encouraging our native wild flowers from which the bees like to feed, and giving up trying to grow plants that the slugs find tasty and strip back to stems. So no more hostas for us.

The scarlet tiger moths (Callimorpha dominula) have been about for about the last fortnight. Chap found this newly-emerged specimen on our path.

Newly-emerged tiger moth.

Newly-emerged scarlet tiger moth.

We put him up out of the way on the honeysuckle, which is in full glorious bloom right now. The scent is intoxicating.

The roses are also looking and smelling fabulous right now. This one is a David Austen rose, Rosa ‘Heritage’.


Rosa ‘Heritage’.

The heavy blooms droop slightly. Pick them up to smell the flower and in our garden you are greeted with these little fellows, flea beetles:

Flea beetle central.

Flea beetle central on Rosa ‘Heritage’.

The Viking bird pendant from Hattula, Finland

I recently got this fab vintage piece for my Etsy shop, with its goofy face and its jiggly, dangly legs, and tried to find a bit more about it.


The bronze bird pendant necklace by Kalevala Koru, based on a silver Viking bird pendant from Hattula, Finland. For sale in my Etsy shop: click on photo for details. (NOW SOLD).

I knew it was made by the Finnish jewellery firm of Kalevala Koru of Helsinki, one of the largest jewellery firms in Finland, and a further google truffle told me it was designed by Kimmo Virkkunen. I also learned that it was based on a late Viking-era hoard find. My ears pricked up. I love me a hoard.

Here’s the original on which the modern iteration is based:


The Viking-era original sheet silver pendant. Note it doesn’t have any legs.

The caption in Finnish on the National Board of Antiquities webpage translates as ‘The bird-shaped pendant in silver is decorated with filigree. The pendant is part of a silver treasure found in Luurila in Hattula’.

A further google truffle tells me that the hoard was found in a field, part of a farm called Luurila in the municipality of Hattula in south-central Finland, near the village of Pelkola. The farm is on the south-west shore of Lake Renkojärvi. It is thought that the hoard was originally buried in a leather bag or some other container that had disintegrated; the ploughing of the field had spread the contents over an area of about 25 m². In 1906, after a few coins and a pendant had been found in the field, the site was excavated by the National Museum, and produced a significant number of finds.

The pendant dates from between 800-1025 AD, and the hoard was buried around 1040 AD. The hoard comprised silver necklets, pendants, and strap mounts, carnelian and glass beads, and 126 silver coins, including Anglo-Saxon ones from England and Byzantine ones with Kufic Arabic. The coins allowed the date of deposition of the hoard to be established to a very close date.

The pendant is made of sheet silver, with a filigree decoration. The bird’s legs are missing, but the suspension loop from which they presumably would have hung survives. The modern version by Kalevala Koru gives the bird the long, webbed feet of a waterfowl. Given the preponderance of lakes and inland waterways in Finland (there are over 55,000 lakes there, according to Wikipedia, which rather knock the 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire into a cocked hat), and the shape of the bird’s body, this does not seem like an unreasonable interpretation. It reminds me of a coot (Fulica atra) or a moorhen (Gallinula chloropus):

A coot ( Photo by Marcus Rowland.

A coot. Photo by Marcus Rowland.

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus). Photo by Tony Hisgett.

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus). Photo by Tony Hisgett.

but as the moorhen doesn’t have webbed feet I guess the Kalevala Koru one at least can’t be that.

Most of the information on the hoard in this post comes from Anglo-Saxon Coins Found in Finland by C.A. Nordman, published in Helsingfors in 1921 and which has been digitised and made available on the web by the University of Illinois as part of its Brittle Books Project. Hurrah for UIUC!