Tag Archives: Shire Books

Shire Book of the Month – British Pigs by Val Porter

A clearly smiling Large White

What is it about pigs that singles them out from other farm animals?  Chickens make good noises and lay eggs, sheep are stupid but feel nice, cows are a graphic designer’s wet dream and give us milk and pursuant dairy products, but pigs are different.  Pigs smile at you, they wriggle when you scratch them and, particularly the smaller ones with long noses, are hairy, intelligent looking and you get the feeling that they truly belong in the English landscape.

The Shire Book of British Pigs by Val Porter is a glorious celebration of this animal’s transition from wild boar to domesticated pig. It starts by explaining the basics of pig keeping and the history of farming and gives detailed information about the various breeds and how they come to look as they do.  Most British breeds have, at some point, been cross-bred with Chinese stock which has resulted in the squashed snouts.

Old English pig from 1842

The pictures in this book are so glorious they’ll make you weep; whether they are photographs of existing pigs or paintings and etchings of animals commissioned by proud owners and stockmen from the past.

Like many domestic farm animals, the drive for intensive, high speed farming homogenised pig breeds and had them shut away from public view. In the decades after the war animals were raised in large-scale, purpose built buildings where the only interest was how much bacon, pork and sausages could be made as quickly as possible.

Thanks to the renewed interest in rare breeds, slow food and local farming, there has been a concomitant awareness of animal welfare and pigs are appearing in our fields once again.  The rare breed is making a comeback and it is quite usual to see Tamworths, Gloucester Old Spots, British Saddlebacks and Oxford Sandy and Blacks rootling around happily in the fresh air.

This book also covers the New Pigs on the block.  Pig breeds continue to evolve and the farmers are interested in make the breeds hardier again so that they can manage an outdoor life.  A pig with a fleecy coat is a sight to behold and I wonder how many people were aware of the, now extinct, Lincolnshire Curly Coat?

Pennywell Mini pig - so gorgeous you could just eat them ... except not these because they're pets, tiny enough to fit in Paris Hilton's handbag.

Porter’s clear and appealing writing style draws you in to the life of these delightful animals.  She has written more than forty books about livestock, farming and self-sufficiency and her enthusiasm shines through. If you like pigs, read this book.  If you like eating pigs this book can only enhance your gastronomic experience.


Filed under Animals, Livestock, Poetry, Literature, Music and Art, Reviews, Shire Books

Shire Books of the Month: ‘Royal Weddings’ and ‘Discovering the Folklore & Traditions of Marriage’

William & Kate - clearly in love

Weddings being all the rage at the moment, it seems fitting to review these fascinating books on Royal Weddings and the Traditions of Marriage  Whether one is a Royalist or not, there is something tremendously hopeful about a marriage, in the belief that no matter what else is happening, people fall in love and decide  to get married.  Months of preparation ensue as couples opt for the full blown ‘fairytale’ bash or a quiet ceremony in the Register Office

Henry V & Kate de Valois - clearly strangers

Marriage between the high born and the low born historically served different purposes.  Up until the last hundred years, marriage between royalty existed to consolidate the power of the monarch and stabilise the relationships between countries who might otherwise have posed a threat.  Love was not even considered and young aristocrats were often betrothed when they were little children and even underwent a ceremony to cement that commitment.  That is not to say, however, that love didn’t sometimes develop in spite of the business-like arrangements.

Nowadays, we expect our royal families to be in love with their chosen partners (let’s forget Charles and Diana who appear to have conformed to the ‘stability’ model) and we expect the wedding to be a spectacle in which the whole nation takes part.  But looking back through the centuries royal weddings have taken place at venues as different as York Minster to hurried late night ceremonies in locked rooms.

Henry I was the first Norman king to marry on British soil and married Edith of Scotland in 1100 at Westminster Abbey to both demonstrate his claim to the English throne and to endear himself to the downtrodden masses.

In 1464, the youthful Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville in a secret ceremony at her father’s manor.  Henry only mentioned it to his advisors when they announced plans to secure a more politically profitable match.

George V sweeping away German title & tradition. Cartoon from 'Punch' by L Raven-Hill, my great grandfather as it happens

Royal Weddings’ charts the social and political backdrop to a thousand years of matrimonial monarchs and gives a fascinating perspective on the changing ideals and interdependency of royalty and the people they ultimately serve.

“But what about we ordinary mortals?” I hear you cry.  In many ways our story is more rich and juicy than anything the royals can cook up because tradition and folklore varies so widely from region to region.

Many people have been absorbed by the recent TV series ‘My Big, Fat Gypsy Wedding’ and whatever one’s views about that community, their traditions and expression of their culture serve as a perfect example of the different roles marriage has to play in communities with different needs and expectations.

Discovering the Folklore and Traditions of Marriage’ takes us through love and courtship, preparation for the big day, the wedding day itself and the celebrations, as well as the social implications of being obliged to be together forever.  I wonder if the marriage ceremony would include the words “’ till death us do part” if they had known that future couples might live to be 90 or more?

After the Stag Night. Great bunch of lads...

Fleet Weddings, Gretna Green, Besom Weddings, Penny Weddings, Wife Selling – it’s all in here.  Throwing stockings was the forerunner of throwing bouquets and it was done when the newly married couple were actually in their marriage bed.  Who would consider having a ‘Rough Band’ banging saucepans to be a lucky thing and yet Chimney Sweeps still advertise their services to appear at weddings.

The Wartime Housewife never married (but lived ‘o’er t’brush’ with two bastard children), but after reading this book, she might just consider it.  But only if she can re-enact the scene from the Mayor of Castorbridge and, having got drunk on ‘furmity’, her husband promises to sell her and her children to a passing sailor.

If you want your wedding to stand out, you will find everything you need in here to make your day a truly historic occasion.

Seriously interesting - even if you're not the marrying kind

Royal Weddings is also available as an e-book


Filed under Behaviour and Etiquette, Family and Friends, History, Life in general, Slider

Shire Book of the Month: Ice Cream by Ivan Day

I chose ‘Ice Cream’ this month because, on this balmy Spring day, the images in it made me long for summer and sandals and eating ice cream outside and the remembered sorrow of dropping a Mivvi on the dusty ground.

There is something rather wonderful about ice cream.  Even though you can buy it anywhere and there are hundreds of different brands, styles and flavours available, the jingling tune of an ice cream van is a sound filled with excitement and expectation.  Even if you disapprove of eating in the street, eating a 99 dripping with syrup as you walk along on a hot day is still, somehow, a proper treat.

The Shire book of Ice Cream is a proper treat in itself.  The Introduction entices you, like a Penny Lick, into the history and manufacturing process of ice cream.  The facing photograph of a moulded ice cream swan surrounded by fruit is extraordinary, particularly when you realise that confections such as these were first seen at the end of the 17th century.  And this is where the story really begins.

Chilled sweatmeats, made by mixing snow or ice with fruit juice or dairy products, were being eaten as far back as the Romans, Persians and ancient Chinese.  The first Slush Puppies if you will.  True ices however, didn’t come about until an artificial method of freezing was discovered using chemical salts with crushed ice.  This process was first described in 1530.

Ice cream was, for a long time, only for the rich as only they had the facilities and the skilled cooks to prepare them.   It was a difficult process and very labour intensive and Ivan Day takes us through the development of the early ice cream equipment and the paraphernalia which went with it.

Ice Cream Maker 1768

As technology progressed, the book describes how manufacturing changed to bring ice cream to the masses and how ordinary people initially responded to it.  Food is so often an indicator of the prosperity and class structure of a country and something as simple as an ice cream pudding can illustrate in an instantly understandable way how society shifts and settles and how simple pleasures become available to all.

Ice Cream Maker 1930

But to understand how nothing actually changes, who do you think created  Parmesan ice cream or made ice cream to look like a cooked ham?  Did I hear you mutter ‘Heston Blumenthal’?  Wrong.  How did the invention of the wafer stop people enjoying saliva and slime with their ice cream?  Who wouldn’t want a bit of Hokey-Pokey?

Well I’m not telling you.  You’ll have to read the book.


Filed under Poetry, Literature, Music and Art, Reviews, Shire Books

Shire Books and The Joy of Lavatories (as well as many other subjects of note)

We are blessed in Market Harborough, as we have a Waterstones, an independent bookshop – Quinns, and a couple of excellent second-hand bookshops.  As you go through the door of Quinns, there is a rack of Shire Books which will have any right-minded person drooling and cooing at the boggling array of deliciously English subject matter.

Shire Books was set up in 1962, producing low-priced, factual paperbacks on the most astonishing range of subjects which catered for the enthusiasms and niche interests of ordinary people all over the country.

The only problem was, that despite the indisputably interesting content, they began to look really dull and old-fashioned in their layout and with black and white photography and illustrations.

But then in 2007, the owner retired and sold the company to Osprey Publishing.  In 2008 a major revamp of its list of titles as well as an overhaul of content and cover designs, was undertaken, resulting in the gorgeous and irresistible collection of books on sale today. Even the paper they’re printed on feels lovely. And they’re still cheap.

I have taken the reckless step of obtaining the current Shire Catalogue and, because I am a dangerous obsessive, I have typed up the list (leaving the catalogue untouched for posterity) so that a) I can remember what I’ve got and b) I can mark the books with which to treat myself each month.

The First Six

My latest purchase is entitled ‘Privies and Water Closets’ (making this a Bog Blog?) and the front cover features a delightful illustration c.1814 by Martinet of Paris, of a large gentleman with a rather strained expression, sitting on a commode.  The book contains a beautifully written, lavishly illustrated history and technology of the lavatory, beginning with an interesting explanation of where we get our words for ‘toilet’ from.

I am allowing myself two Shire Books per month and I now have four weeks to agonise about which two to buy next.  Shall it be:-

British Family Cars of the 1950s and 60s?
British Pigs?
The Victorian Workhouse?
Old Medical and Dental Instruments?
Fields, Hedges and Ditches?
Women of the First World War? or
Nailmaking?   Who wouldn’t want to own a book about nailmaking?

Then again, it’s still February, and March is only a matter of days away…


Filed under Collecting, Leisure, Poetry, Literature, Music and Art, Reviews

Going Green, Man

Green Man in my bathroom

A while ago, I mentioned that I had put a Green Man up in my bathroom and some of my readers didn’t know what that was.  Contrary to what you might think, it is not the decomposing corpse of someone who upset me, but an archetypal image found in churches and cathedrals.

Green Men appear in various guises; faces with greenery issuing from the nose, mouth or eyes, faces from which leaves are growing and faces disguised by leaves and foliage, often interpreted as ‘Jack in the Green’, another prominent figure in early English mythology.   ‘Green Man’ isn’t really a very helpful description and in their architectural context none of them is green and only a proportion of them are men.  Foliate Head would be more accurate but this has never really caught on.

Until relatively recently, it was generally accepted that the Green Man was a pagan symbol that has survived into the Christian period.  However, our understanding of pre-Christian and indeed the history of Christianity has advanced so much in the past fifty years and there seems to be evidence of foliate heads turning up in Mesopotamia, India and Nepal.  Many symbols which found their way into Christian iconography have their origins in classical and eastern mythology, but often the meanings change according to the time, much as words change their meanings over time.

Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire

Carvings of Green Men first appear in churches in the 11th and 12th centuries and their use as ornamentation has been subject to many interpretations.  These churches were built by wealthy patrons who directed exactly what they wanted in terms of structure and iconography and they were as much influenced by fashion as we are today.  This new style of architecture brought with it a new language of ornament which was primarily religious in content, but not always.  Images of demons and monsters are common warnings against sin and the inherent dangers of mortality and some of these images were copied from illustrated religious manuscripts.

Rich ornamentation was often applied to key focal points such as doorways, roof bosses and window surrounds.  The chancel arch was also a favourite spot for didactic scenes or images as it separated the nave (the secular part of the church) from the chancel (the sacred part of the church).  But foliate heads are also found anywhere where there is elaborate carving such as fonts, misericords and bench ends.

By the end of the 19th century, the Green Man had declined in popularity and architects had started to incorporate them into secular buildings such as a stone representation at St Enoch station on the Glasgow underground railway built in 1896.

York Minster, North Yorkshire

From a modern day Pagan perspective, the Green Man has become a symbol of the fusion between man and nature and a reminder not to lose sight of our connection with the earth and the natural cycle of life and death.  It has also assumed a more masculine character suggestive of the ‘wild man’, the hidden spirit of nature who could leap forth from us at any time.  For Neo-Pagan this is a powerful symbol of re-connection with nature at a time when the material world seems to have triumphed over a more natural existence.

I love looking round old churches and there is always a slight thrill when one comes across one of these foliate heads peering down from a cloister vault or peeping out from the tiny carved seat of a misericord, which would once have been obscured by a monk’s bottom.  Whether a Christian warning, a Pagan hangover or an expression of the cosmopolitan tastes of their commissioners, the Green Man is a solid reminder of the communion between man and the beautiful world in which we live.

For more information about Green Men, get your hands on a copy of the beautifully written and illustrated Shire book ‘The Green Man’ by Richard Hayman.


Filed under History, Poetry, Literature, Music and Art, Religion