Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Oldest family firms

There's what looks like a fascinating series starting on the Beeb tonight, all about family trades and businesses which have survived for hundreds of years.  The oldest of all, which I think features in the first episode, is a firm of butchers in Bridport who have been going since 1515.  Quite incredible.  The current owner was interviewed on Breakfast this morning and said the business had survived wars, recessions, floods, fires, and the Industrial Revolution.  Not only that, but many families in earlier centuries only lasted for a handful of generations before dying out, so it's doubly impressive.

There's at least one old family firm in this area too.  Nothing that can hold a candle to those butchers, but they were around in early Victorian times which is still pretty good going.   Back in the 1840s and 1850s, when the opening of the railway sparked something of a boom in south Cumbria, Pattinsons built many of the houses in the town.  One hundred and sixty years later, the company still exists, is still operated by the same family, and still builds houses in the local area.  If nothing else, it gives a nice sense of continuity.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

War diaries online

The BBC were featuring this news item quite heavily on their Breakfast programme this morning: soldiers' diaries from the First World War are now appearing online.

The project, run by the National Archives, aims to digitise some of the 1.5 million diary pages they hold in their archives.  Apparently they've managed about a fifth so far, which still represents [hasty calculator check] around 300,000 pages of material describing life on the front lines between 1914 and 1918.

This represents a fantastic resource for anyone searching for their family history, who can read Great Uncle Albert's experiences first-hand.  But it's also a valuable tool for authors wanting to write about the period.  I know I'd have found it invaluable when I was researching the Great War for Gleams of a Remoter World, since the historical element of the novel dates from that time, and one of the main characters was a serving soldier at the Somme.

One thing I hadn't realised was that each unit was required to keep a diary of daily events.  This is obviously why so much material survives.  The reason it can be released at last is that there are no longer any surviving veterans of the war, the last one having died in 2011 (and the last British combat survivor in 2009).  Out of that rather sad statistic comes a valuable and fascinating source of information on life in the trenches, and presumably, life in general, in the early twentieth century.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Hunting for planets

A couple of weekends before Christmas we went on the traditional mad dash round the country, visiting friends and family that we wouldn't be seeing on the 'big day'.  This included a trip to the inlaws and a meal out with some of our friends from Birmingham, and it was all very pleasant.

On the way back north, we called in at the University of Central Lancashire's astronomy department to attend their annual Christmas lecture.  This year the speaker was Chris Lintott, well-known for his appearances on tv programme The Sky at Night, and he was mostly talking about the hunt for planets outside our own solar system.

Thanks to various new telescopes and technologies, the search has gone from strength to strength and we now know of several thousand such planets, including one around one of our closest neighbours, Alpha Centauri.  Rather amazingly, Chris Lintott told us that if a small probe using a solar sail or ion power was launched this year, it would reach that planet in only one hundred years' time!  A truly awesome fact.

The talk was fascinating, and although it included lots of science, it was done in such a way that it didn't bedazzle the laymen amongst us, muggins included.  We caught up with some of Dave's fellow students, and even had time for a meal at a nearby Chinese buffet.  And the best thing of all?  The talk was completely free!  I'm not sure how they manage that, but it was much appreciated and made a great evening out.