Wednesday 29 June 2022

The place that time forgot – a journey back to Roman Britain by Ally Sherrick

When I was about eight years old, our parents took me and my younger sister on a family holiday down to Cornwall. I remember, among other things, visiting St. Michael’s Mount, exploring Land’s End and beachcombing on the white sands at Sennen Cove. But the stand-out memory was the trip we made to the ancient ruins of the village of Chysauster (pronounced Chy-zoist-er).

Set a couple of miles inland from the town of Penzance on a remote hillside nestled amid the bracken and wild grasses, the low stone walls are all that remain of a small Romano-British community which archaeological evidence suggests was probably occupied from the first to the third centuries AD when the Roman Empire was at its height.

I still have the little folded card leaflet and black and white postcards I bought on that trip – treasured possessions for a keen young historian who, inspired by the recent blockbuster exhibition of the Tutankhamun treasures at the British Museum, harboured an overwhelming, though ultimately unfulfilled passion to be an Egyptologist.

I remember running from one ruined house to another trying to imagine what life must have been like for the people who lived there and who, all those many centuries ago, had called it home.

Back then, it seemed to me that the place was at the end of the world. On a return trip this summer retracing the footsteps of my younger self, though there’s now a small ticket office and shop, English Heritage, who care for it, have thankfully ensured the site still retains the same sense of remoteness and beauty it had all those years ago.


 A walk back in time through the ruins of Chysauster Romano-British village

For the Romanised population based in the far distant capital of Londinium (London) and the south of England, it certainly would have seemed a very long way from home. As was the case in what is now Scotland, the Romans never brought the region under formal control, or made an attempt to settle there either. There are no known Roman roads in Cornwall and only three military forts and one villa have been identified to date. And the nearest Roman administrative centre, Isca Dumnoniorum – or Exeter as it is known today – was over 100 miles away.

The lifestyle of the close-knit community of around fifty to seventy people who lived at Chysauster had far more in common with that of their Iron Age ancestors who had widely settled and farmed the area for hundreds of years before the Roman invasion of AD 43. Indeed, the village itself may well stand on the site of an earlier Iron Age settlement.


 Artist’s impression of how Chysauster may have looked in the Second Century AD

The ruins the visitor can explore today are the remains of ten ‘courtyard’ houses, a design unique to this part of Cornwall where over 30 known settlements of the type have been identified. Nearly all the houses are detached with a large, unroofed central courtyard where livestock was probably kept and domestic work carried out. The families would have lived and slept in the covered rooms leading off from the courtyard. Each house also had a garden plot where they would have grown vegetables and may have kept pigs.


Ruins of one of the courtyard houses

Unfortunately, there’s nothing to tell us about the personal stories of the individuals who lived here. However they did leave behind clues to suggest how they lived. This includes a large number of spindle whorls – small stone and clay discs fitted to wooden spindles for making thread from wool – which provide evidence they kept sheep and wove cloth to wear and perhaps for trading purposes too. Meanwhile the numbers of grinding basins and quern stones used to grind grain into flour together with ancient pollen samples taken from the surrounding fields show that they grew cereal crops. 


Ancient spindle whorls. These are not from Chysauster but give a good idea of what they look like

While excavating the site, archaeologists also found a lump of tin and evidence of metalworking waste in one of the houses. This suggests the villagers possibly carried out prospecting for locally occurring tin-ore and might have smelted it down into ingots to trade for other items with surrounding communities and other people from further afield.

It’s not known why Chysauster was eventually deserted in the third century. There’s no sign of any conflict which might have caused the families living there to flee.

But perhaps the greatest mystery of all is the structure on the edge of the village known as a fogou.


The entrance to the fogou at Chysauster

The word comes from the Cornish for ‘cave’ and describes an underground, stone-built tunnel which usually dates from the late Iron Age period. The fogou at Chysauster hasn’t been excavated, but in the one at the nearby ruined village of Carn Euny, it’s possible to walk through the tunnel and into a large, circular chamber.


The inside of the fogou chamber at the ruined village of Carn Euny

In the past it was thought that such structures might have been used for storing food or valuables, or as hiding places during times of conflict. The more popular theory today is that they were probably used for some sort of ritual or ceremonial purpose.  This is just the sort of uncertainty that a story-teller can have fun with. All you need is a pinch of curiosity and the willingness to let your imagination take you where it will – a bit like my eight year old self.

Finally, to let you in to a little secret. This might just be the approximate time, though not the exact place, in which my upcoming novel is set. All to be revealed in early 2023!

Writing Prompt

Imagine you live in a small settlement like the one at Chysauster. One night, something happens. Something that threatens you and your family and which means you need to hide. You’ve never been into the fogou before. Perhaps it’s normally forbidden. But now it might be your only chance of survival. What does it feel like running through the darkness to get to it? Then stooping and crawling inside? Who are you with? What are you feeling? Did you have to leave anyone or anything precious behind? And most important of all, will you manage to get out alive?

Watch this week's vlog on Youtube here

Ally Sherrick is the author of books full of history, mystery and adventure including Black Powder, winner of the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2017, The Buried Crown and Tudor-Set adventure, The Queen’s Fool. She is published by Chicken House Books and her books are widely available in bookshops and online. You can find out more about her and her books at and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick




Tuesday 21 June 2022

Windrush Day by Jeannie Waudby


Empire Windrush by Sophie Bass

On June 22 1948 almost 500 British citizens from the Caribbean disembarked from the Empire Windrush at Tilbury dock. They had travelled for 30 days to answer Britain’s call for help to rebuild the country after the Second World War. Between 1948 and 1971 many others from the Caribbean went on to help build the new NHS and work in public transport, manufacturing and construction, among other things. Many of those on the Windrush had served in the Allied forces during the war. Windrush Day celebrates the contribution of the Windrush Generation and their descendants in making Britain stronger and richer in many ways.

Black Cultural Archives

Difficult challenges faced the Windrush Generation when they arrived: hardship, separation from family and racism. Sometimes history reaches out into the present, and this happened in 2018 with the Windrush Scandal. A series of racist immigration laws passed over 30 years combined with the ‘hostile environment’ to lead to unjust arrests, detention and deportation of commonwealth citizens’ children who were wrongly classified as illegal immigrants. To learn more about this, and the experience of the Windrush Generation as children, I looked at three children’s books and visited the Black Cultural Archives in Windrush Square, Brixton, where there is a timeline of the history of Black people in Britain from the Romans until the present.



John Agard's Windrush Child illustrated by Sophie Bass

John Agard’s beautiful picture book, luminously illustrated by Sophie Bass, begins with a child’s footprints in the sand and ends with footprints in the snow. It captures the journey to Britain through the eyes of a little boy. His beloved teddy goes with him, but not his beloved Grandmother, who he carries with him in memory, photos and letters while he is ‘stepping into history’. The words and illustrations work seamlessly to convey his homesickness, adventure and hope. The book ends with ‘a mind-opening meeting of snow and sun.’


Coming To England by Floella Benjamin

Floella Benjamin’s autobiographical book ‘Coming To England’ spends the first half of the book in Trinidad, and vividly captures the food, flowers, holidays and fun of family life through a small girl’s eyes. But when her parents leave to work in Britain, the children have to go to different relatives until there is enough money for them to follow their parents. When they finally leave for England, as unaccompanied children on the ship, they are full of excitement. They have spent years in school learning about Britain, the ‘Motherland’. So it is a very big shock to encounter unfriendly, even hostile people once they arrive. The freezing winters, poor housing and absence of blue sky are hard to get used to. But family remains a source of strength. In the Afterword Floella Benjamin writes: ‘I hope this book will go some way in helping people to find their identity, to discover where they come from, to gain self respect and feel proud of themselves.’


Windrush Child by Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah’s Windrush Child is a moving historical novel for young people. It’s the story of Leonard, who at 10 years old leaves Jamaica with his mum to join his dad in England. They travel on Leonard’s mum’s British passport because in 1958 they are both British citizens. Life is not easy in the one room they live in. Leonard encounters bullying and prejudice and misses his grandma back in Jamaica. He makes friends with two Irish children who live downstairs but he and his dad face hostility and racist violence. Leonard grows up to make a home and a life for himself and his family. I don’t want to give away the story, so here is what Benjamin Zephaniah says in his Author’s Note: ‘Now I use my words to give voice to people like Leonard, the main character of this book. He’s just doing what people have been doing for thousands of years, moving around the planet. When people move they always have to deal with the trauma of leaving the country of their birth, and then the struggle to fit into their new home.’


Bookshop at Black Cultural Archives, Windrush Square, Brixton

I’d like to end with some words by John Agard at the back of his Windrush Child. Talking about the hardships facing the Windrush Generation after their arrival in Britain, he writes: ‘But despite many challenges, including racism, they went on to build strong communities: friends were made, stories shared and unfairness challenged. Caribbean culture had a powerful and positive impact on British culture, and Britain is a much better place because of the Windrush Generation.’


Windrush by Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips

Moving from one country to another is a very big thing – perhaps you have experienced it yourself. All of the books we looked at focussed on the home left behind, maybe forever. Think of the front door to the first home you can remember. Imagine yourself standing in front of it with your bags and suitcases, having closed it for the last time. Describe the door and the doorstep, the path, road or pavement. What is the weather like? What noises can you hear – birds, traffic, sea? What smells are around you – flowers, fumes, cooking? What is the weather like? If you knew you would never return, what would you miss most about this home?

Further reading:

The Windrush Scandal:

Benjamin Zephaniah talks about Windrush Child: Benjamin Zephaniah on new book Windrush Child: 'We have to learn from the past'

David Olusoga’s film The Unwanted – The Secret Windrush Files (TV special 2019) on BBC iplayer

Windrush by Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips


Wednesday 15 June 2022

Evolution, extinction and the island of Madagascar by Susan Brownrigg

Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world but 600 million years ago it was part of a super continent called Gondwana!

Today the island is only 250 miles from the east coast of Africa and is very special because of its biodiversity with approximately 90% of its plants and animals being endemic - not naturally found anywhere else in the world.

 The island of Madagascar is now 250 miles off the east coast of Africa

The island is probably best known for its lemurs - these prosimians are primates that evolved before monkeys and apes. They range from the tiny mouse lemur, to the bouncy sifaka to the strange nocturnal aye-aye.

Lemurs - along with other animals and plants are thought to have reached the island after it broke away from Africa. Some may have used a land bridge that is thought to have sunk into the Mozambique Channel 40 million years ago, while others may have crossed on natural rafts such as hollowed out tree trunks.

 The aye-aye is a nocturnal lemur. Illustration by Jenny Czerwonka.

The island had many different habitats and as they spread out, over time they slowly adapted to their new environment and developed into new species. In evolutionary biology this is called adaptive radiation - just like with Darwin's Galapagos finches.

An estimated 2,000 years ago the first humans arrived on Madagascar. The island was very different to today and was mainly forest. Those early settlers would have seen dwarf hippopotamus, giant tortoise, huge 'elephant birds' and 16 species of giant lemur all which are sadly now extinct.

The giant lemurs including one that was as big as a gorilla that browsed the ground for food and another similiar to a huge koala as well as the giant sloth lemur that hung from tree branches!

Evidence of these 'megafauna' is known because of found fossilised bones. But in 2020 an international team of scientists including Dr David Burney and Dr Julian Hume made a very exciting discovery in Western Madagascar - a cave painting which seems to include an image of a giant sloth lemur!

This cave painting is believed to depict a giant sloth lemur © Burney et al 2020
There were several species of elephant bird (aepyornis) that were three metres tall! Their eggs were bigger than those of the dinosaurs and fragments of shell can still be spotted in the south of the island.

 Elephant Bird by illustrator Jenny Czerwonka
These enormous birds are believed to have been hunted to extinction - bones have been found with cut marks evidence of butchery - and their eggs would be an important source of food too. The eggs are bigger than a human egg and are the equivalent of 180 chicken eggs!

WRITING PROMPT: There are lots of creature feature films featuring gigantic animals on the rampage including Godzilla, King Kong and Tarantula! Can you create your own mammoth sized beast? Will it be a megasnail, a ginormous bat or a huge goldfish! What chaos would your creature cause?

Susan Brownrigg with her replica elephant bird egg
Susan Brownrigg is the author of Kintana and the Captain's Curse, and the Gracie Fairshaw series. (Uclan Publishing) Find out more at 

Wednesday 8 June 2022

First in Flight by Catherine Randall

I was recently lucky enough to spend a few days on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the United States. The Outer Banks are a long string of barrier islands stretching along the coastline, with the Atlantic on one side and the sheltered waters of the Sound on the other. These days the Outer Banks are a popular holiday destination, due to their long, unspoilt sandy beaches and it was these same beaches and dunes which made the Outer Banks the site of one of the biggest breakthroughs in human history. It was here in December 1903 that the Wright Brothers made the first ever successful powered flight.

The Wright Brothers Memorial on Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina

The dream of achieving human flight is probably as old as humanity. Throughout the nineteenth century, a succession of inventors and engineers had worked on solving the three great problems of aircraft design.

LIFT – generating an upward force greater than the weight of the plane

THRUST – propelling the plane forward

CONTROL – stabilising and controlling the plane’s flight

By the end of the 1890s, progress had been made on the problems of LIFT and THRUST but nobody had worked out how to control an aeroplane once it was in the air so that it didn’t roll from side to side or pitch forward, or continually veer from right to left.

It was American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright who in 1899, after observing the flight of birds, realised that stabilised flight could be achieved by warping the wings of the plane, inventing a system which allowed the pilot to twist the tips of the wings, as a bird does, through a system of pulleys and cables.

The Wright Brothers - Wilbur and Orville

The Wright brothers ran a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, but from 1899 onwards they devoted themselves to the goal of human flight, spending their summers on the coast of North Carolina, where the huge sand dunes just south of the town of Kitty Hawk, at a place memorably called Kill Devil Hills, were the ideal setting for hundreds of experiments with kites and gliders. The location provided three things that they needed – plenty of wind for lift, sand for a soft landing, and privacy. They didn’t want other people copying their design!

Reconstruction of their 1903 Flyer, viewed from the back

In 1901 they built their own wind tunnel so that they could collect their own scientific data on aereodynamics. In 1902, after hundreds of test glides, the brothers felt sure that they had cracked the problems of lift, control and stability. The following year they designed their own engine and the first effective aircraft propellers and in December 1903 they returned to Kill Devil Hills, finally ready to test out their new flyer.

The pilot in the 1903 Flyer was positioned lying down, between the wings

On 17 December 1903, surrounded and supported by men from the local lifeboat station, Orville Wright climbed into position in the flyer. The flyer was designed so that the pilot lay down between the wings, controlling the machine with a stick and a lever, and controlling the warp of the wings by swinging a cradle with his hips. On the first flight the flyer only stayed aloft for 12 seconds, going 36 metres before pitching into the sand. The brothers took it in turns to make three more flights, getting used to the controls. Each time they spent longer in the air, flying further, until on the fourth flight, Wilbur piloted the flyer for a distance of 260 metres in 59 seconds.

The lift-off point of the first flights is marked by the First Flight Boulder on the left, with four other boulders marking the length of the first four flights

Today, this site is the Wright Brothers National Memorial. The First Flight boulder marks the lift off point for the four flights, and the four flight markers show the length of each successive flight. You can also see reconstructions of the sheds where the brothers lived and worked each summer, and on Kill Devil Hill – like the surrounding area, now sown with grass – there is a huge monument to the brothers, rising up impressively above the flat surroundings. In the Visitors’ Centre, you can see a reconstruction of the original flyer, and on the other side of Kill Devil Hill is a sculpture of the complete scene of the very first flight, complete with sculptures of admiring locals, including the man taking the photograph that is shown here! He had apparently never used a camera before.

The photograph taken of the very first flight. Orville is in the Flyer, Wilbur running alongside

Of course, the Wrights’ achievement was just the beginning for human flight. If you are interested in the history of flying, there are loads of other people you can research, including the French aviator Louis Bleriot, the first man to fly across the English Channel, and the pioneering American aviator Amelia Earhart. Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. Five years later, she disappeared with her plane during an attempt to fly around the globe – but that’s for another blog!

WRITING CHALLENGE: For your writing challenge this week, imagine that you are Wilbur or Orville Wright and write a letter to a friend back in Ohio, telling them about this incredible thing that has  just happened – you have achieved the first ever powered flight! You might want to tell them how hard you worked and the problems you had to overcome. Will you confide in them what you plan to do next?

 Alternatively, imagine you are one of the local people watching – how does this make you feel? Does it make you want to be part of the adventure of human flight? Has it ignited a dream for you too?

The White Phoenix by Catherine Randall is an historical novel for 9-12 year olds set in London, 1666. It was shortlisted for the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2021.

Published by the Book Guild, it is available from bookshops and online retailers.

For more information, go to Catherine’s website:

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