Fort & Folly

Humber Estuary

Spurn Head Spit may now be significant as a natural habitat, but this sliver of shifting clay has military value too.  The Humber gives access to a number of major docks (though even in total they handle but a fraction of the traffic seen on the Thames) and so for an invading force coming by sea it provides an attractive objective for a fleet of ships, and so Spurn would make a convenient muster point for ground forces to disembark and attack Hull from both sides.

This was demonstrated in the late 14th century when Henry IV landed his forces here at the port of Ravenspurn (referred to by Shakespeare in his histories as Ravenspurgh) before going on to depose his cousin Richard II.  Seventy years later Edward IV repeated the act when he sought (and achieved) restoration to the throne which was then held by Henry VI.  There is no longer any trace of Ravenspurn.  It is one of 30 settlements along the East Yorkshire coastline that have been consumed by the North Sea in the centuries that have followed.

Jump forwards to the First World War and the estuary’s strategic importance resulted in new plans for its defence.  Construction work began in 1915 of two forts in the mouth of the river.  Each would be garrisoned by 200 troops and provide artillery fire to deter any waterborne forces.  Due to the challenges of their construction on sandbanks (one of which was a few meters underwater) they were not completed until the war was already over.

World War II saw the forts reinstated and this time face enemy fire, though a very different enemy to that envisaged when they were built.  They were regularly targeted by German aircraft who were perhaps seeking to destroy the new defence that they provided; a boom stretched between the forts and on to Spurn Head with a net to prevent attacks from the Nazi U-boat fleet.  

Spurn Head had two further forts, also constructed in the First World War, and placed at either end of the “head”.  These coastal artillery batteries were augmented by smaller gun emplacements in between.  At the southern end the fort is well preserved but a different tale is evident at the northern fort which has been completely devastated.  Foundations have been overturned, revealing the imprint of sandbags long since turned to solid concrete.  Bricks are scattered liberally and reveal the “LBC” makers mark (London Brick Company) that was evidence of the capital’s dominance.  Huge slabs of concrete stand at a variety of different angles and crumble around the edges in surrender.

No navy wrought this destruction with large calibre shells.  No land forces planted charges to undermine the defence.  This is the work of a greater power; the sea.  For centuries man has sought to battle this invader too and stabilise the shoreline, but in recent years the decision has been taken to let nature take her course; the spit will move, break and reform from time to time as a result, but to try to prevent it would always be a losing battle.


Putting Down New Roots

Thank Marco Polo for bringing noodles back from China and inspiring all those wonderful pasta variations.

Asian traders in the shadow of Palazzo San Giorgio, where Marco Polo was held prisoner.
Asian traders in the shadow of Palazzo San Giorgio, where Marco Polo was held prisoner.

Or maybe not.

In a recent programme for the BBC, ancient historian Michael Scott suggested that Arabs brought strips of semolina similar to tagliatelle to Sicily a century earlier.

With only a 100 miles or so of the Mediterranean separating Sicily from North Africa it’s not surprising that Italy becomes the route of choice for many wanting to migrate to Europe, and as far back as the 11th century BCE there were Phoenician settlements on the island.  Centuries later, another Phoenician colony, Carthage, was to become the greatest enemy of Ancient Rome.  Cue Hannibal and elephants.  With the fall of the Roman Empire, Germanic tribes moved in from the north, but they were resisted in the south by Islamic armies drawn from southern and eastern Mediterranean states.  In the same decade that England feel to William of Normandy, another Norman invasion took Sicily.  It’s hardly surprising that Italy didn’t really unite as a country until Garibaldi.  Too many historic differences and interests in the mix.

Ghandi was inspired by leaders of the Unification movement and is commemorated in Porto Antico
Ghandi was inspired by leaders of the Unification movement and is commemorated in Porto Antico

For many that eventual unification was a disaster.  (Remember that line in my last post about how Southern Italians distrust their Northern compatriots?)  In the early years of the new nation, resources were allocated to industrial rather than agricultural areas, industry being seen as the key to future prosperity.  Unfortunately this policy favoured the northern cities, and attempts at greater agricultural productivity were thwarted by damage to the soil.  Soon the threat of poverty forced many to see abandoning their new country as a means of survival, and so began what became the largest voluntary migration the world had witnessed.

Genoa of course, being in the prosperous north, wasn’t so badly affected by the social and political unrest, but as Italy’s largest port it had a vital part to play in that mass migration.  Naples and Palermo were the ports of choice, being based in the south, but with 13 million Italians leaving over a 35 year period between 1880 and 1915 it was a case of any port in a storm, and vessels such as Ferruccio, Konig Albert, and St Michele loaded up with passengers in Genoa.  Some went further afield and sailed from France.  Roughly one in three of those who left were headed for America.

Conditions on the transportation ships varied according to the wealth of the passenger, but considering most of this migration was driven by poverty, most faced very cramped accommodation – if you’ve seen the film Titanic you have a reasonable idea.

For most of those leaving it was the right decision – Italians have done well in many of the countries that received them, including the UK.  Given our current phase of xenophobic politics I wonder if we’d be so welcoming now, and now is important because migration is once again a hot topic for Italians.

In Maddalena young African men beg with caps
In Maddalena young African men beg with caps

That narrow gap between Africa and Italy is still there, and the tiny island of Lampedusa, once a popular holiday destination, has seen itself transformed into a holding destination for those seeking a better life in Europe as Italians actively rescue thousands trying to make the crossing in all manner of unsuitable craft.  Sadly many don’t make it to this new Ellis Island.

As European politicians argue over how to handle the challenge (and Britain chooses to close her eyes and ears while shouting “Brexit” above all else) it was gratifying to hear the Mayor of Palermo, who having seen 400,000 migrants arrive in Sicily (which includes Lampedusa) over 2 years, go on to say:

Welcome, is the best guarantee for safety


Out of Obscurity

One of the things about living in the UK is that its relatively easy to map out what Winston Churchill described as A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, the Celts who populated these islands were joined by the cosmopolitan militia and auxiliaries of the Roman Empire, who were in turn pushed aside by migrating Angles and Saxons, interfered with by pillaging Vikings, and then subjugated by the French when Harold Godwinson saw off the Norwegian threat but not the Norman.

And that’s pretty much it until we began empire-building and found that people from our colonies arrived here to join our population, but throughout our racial intermingling one thing remained constant; Britain.  Being an island race our borders have remained largely unchanged other than when the Republic of Ireland achieved independence.  Yes the kingdoms that made up Britain have pulsated as battles were fought over demarcation lines between England and Scotland or Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex and the other Anglo-Saxon lands, but the inhabitants are nevertheless seen as British.

_PW_4653-EditContrast this with Croatia.  Their declaration of independence from Yugoslavia was a bloody one, but why were they so adamant that they were different?  Yugoslavia was a 20th Century construct, but one that the Croatians originally signed up to.  Why do they see themselves as different to the Serbs?  Or Bosnians?  My first introduction to the tribal nature of the region was Alistair MacLean’s Force 10 from Navarone; a fun read for a teenage boy but I doubt it can be considered reliable source material!

_PW_6509The divisions go back a long way.  Those who settled in this area in the period following the end of Roman influence had a choice of influences between Rome to the West and Byzantium to the East.  The Croats chose Rome and Catholicism, the Serbs chose the Orthodox Christian tradition.  Bosnia went its own way and chose an independent Bosnian church.  Religious divisions are nothing new.

_PW_6228Like the inhabitants of the UK, the Croats may well have their roots elsewhere, with some theories pointing to Iran, whilst historical records suggest a group of “Red Croats” living in Dalmatia (the Adriatic Coastline of what was Yugoslavia) with “White Croats” migrating in from lands further north between Czechia and Poland.  The red and white chequerboard on their coat of arms is coincidental in this respect, though a fitting symbol if the nations is built from the merging of these two groups.

Add in the impact of rule from the Venetian Republic, Austria-Hungary, Communists and Fascists and you can see why the politics of this beautiful coastal region has been so confused over the years._PW_5363

This then will be my first posting based on my experiences of a brief visit to the country and there’ll probably be about a dozen so I’ll put them up monthly.  They’ll be full of my usual ignorance, curiosity and prejudice and hopefully a decent picture or two.  They’ll also be coloured no doubt by centuries of changing identity.

Lopud, Elaphiti Islands, Croatia




A Mediterranean Drinking Culture (Venezia 91)

Tony Blair believed that the relaxation of licensing hours in the UK would lead to a more mature attitude to alcohol amongst my countrymen, that by lifting the rush to drink heavily before closing time there would be less drunkenness on our streets.  I think that’s still work in progress.

Bars are everywhere in Italian cities, but I have never witnessed anything nearing what might be termed “anti-social behaviour”.  Perhaps when we see alcohol as a source of refreshment rather than a source of intoxication we will achieve his goal.