The Sign of the Signet

Nicola here, and today I’m talking about a specific type of jewelry. Apparently, the signet ring is having a fashion moment. The popularity of TV shows such as One Day and Saltburn, where some of the main (male) characters have worn signet rings has drawn attention to it as a signifier of power and status, as well as an accessory.

The signet ring has been a considered a sign of wealth and status in British society for hundreds of years. A traditional one would be engraved with your coat of arms, family crest or initials. The picture shows the one that was given to me when I was born. I’m not an aristocrat but my parents thought it would be nice for me to have one. It’s tiny though, so it doesn’t fit me now, but it has a sentimental value.

The signet ring was originally designed not only to mark the wearer’s bloodline but also to seal documents with wax. The metal design would leave a permanent mark in soft wax or in clay and so was used on a multitude of legal documents. In its day, the stamp of a signet was considered more authentic than a signature, which could easily be forged. Seals were used as early as 3500BC and it was the Ancient Egyptians who attached a seal to a ring as a joint sign of prestige and legal power. The first signet rings were made from stone or from ivory but the Bronze Age was the beginning of the metal signet ring as we know it today. (The picture is an Egyptian Finger Ring from the Walters Museum.)

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Happy New Lunar Year

Happy New Lunar Year. Welcome to the Year of the Dragon.
A few days ago, millions of people around the world celebrated the beginning of the Lunar New Year. To some it’s known as Chinese New Year,  in Vietnam Tet, and in Korea, Seollal. There are other names in other cultures and my apologies if I’ve missed yours out. I also apologize for generalizing about the traditions followed. In China, it’s also known as the Spring Festival, the name introduced in 1914 by the republican government. 

For those who celebrate it, the Lunar New Year is a fresh start. In the days leading up to it, houses are cleaned from top to bottom to make way for good luck to come. Windows and doors might be decorated with red paper cutouts and lucky tokens, red being regarded as a lucky color. New clothes are purchased to be worn in the new year and small red envelopes containing money will be given. (Photo by Maud Beauregard on Unsplash)

Celebrations traditionally start on the eve of the first new moon between the 21st January and 20th February, often with a big dinner with special foods, auspicious dishes and dumplings. It’s very much a family affair, where ancestors and the elderly members of the family are honored. In the days following, people will visit relatives and friends, often exchanging gifts.

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Anne here, and today, I’m taking an easy way out (as I race towards a deadline) by  riffing off an article I recently read about Monopoly, the board game with which I’m sure we’re all very familiar. When I read this article I got a big surprise. You see, I’d always assumed it was first invented in the UK, because here in Australia we all grew up with the English version.

In fact, it’s pretty common for Australians visiting London to visit some of the monopoly squares. “Hey, I’m on Park Lane,” (which we all know has got to be pricey. <g>) I had no idea there was even an American version, set in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and it turns out that not only was it the original version, but there are hundreds of different variations, including Dog-opoly and Cat-opoly, as well as all kinds of variations in many different languages. (Photo above by Maria Lin Kim on Unsplash)

Monopoly was first patented in the USA December 31, 1935 by a man called Charles B. Darrow. But his version was based on a game invented by an American woman called Lizzie Magie, who in 1904, patented a game called The Landlord’s Game, which was, at its heart, an educational tool to teach players about taxes, and which effectively opposed the values implicit in the later game of Monopoly, where the grabbiest landlord wins. The Landlord’s Game became very popular with university students, and Darrow first came across it when his friends Charles and Esther Todd introduced him to it. (More detail here.)

Apart from the shock that the version that I knew so well was not the original, what fascinated me as I read on were the many ways in which Monopoly has been adapted and used. For instance During World War II, British intelligence created special Monopoly game boxes that they sent to British prisoner of war held in Nazi camps, containing not only the original board, but maps, compasses, small metal tools such as files, real money, and other objects useful for escaping. They were distributed to prisoners by fake charity organizations created by the British Secret Service. (Photo above by Robert Linder on Unsplash )

The maps were the crucial items. Paper maps were too fragile and also cumbersome and so they printed them on silk. Silk maps wouldn’t tear or dissolve in water as easily as paper ones and were light enough to stuff into a boot or cigarette packet. Best of all they didn’t rustle. (That’s a silk map below. Read more about this here.)

The company that produced these maps  was John Waddington Ltd. a company that was used to printing things on silk, for instance programs for grand celebrations and royal occasions. They were already printing maps on silk for airmen to carry. As well they were the  printer and board game manufacturer that happened to be the U.K. licensee for the Parker Bros. game Monopoly. Fascinating, eh?

That’s it from me today. I hope you enjoyed this brief dive into a short history of Monopoly. If you want to know more, click on some of the links in this post. Do you play Monopoly? Which version do you have, and do you have a favorite token? Mine was always the horse or the dog.

Machu Picchu!

Pat Rice in Machu PicchuPat here:

I spent a good part of October in South America. IT Guy and I are fascinated by ancient civilizations, hence our trip to Egypt last year. This year, we finally made it to Machu Picchu, not nearly as old as Egypt but with a lot of uncanny similarities, which is what fascinates us. As much as I would like to study the origins of the Incas, I simply don’t have the time to devote. Should I ever retire… I’d probably keel over in a coffin. So let’s not go there. We just visit and admire.

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A Taste of the Baltic

IMG_4375Nicola here. Last month I was fortunate enough to go on a cruise of Medieval Baltic Cities of the Hanseatic League with Fred Olsen cruises. We chose this particular cruise because the destinations were fascinating; I’ve been interested in the history of the Baltic region for decades and a number of my distant ancestors came from that area. This was the perfect opportunity to get a taste of the Baltic. Mary Jo has also blogged about her Baltic Cruse experience but a big difference for us was that these days the itinerary doesn't take in St Petersburg. Instead we got a couple of stops in other places.

Our cruise departed from Rosyth in Scotland. We got off to a good start because as soon as we arrived at the cruise terminal, I spotted the ruins of Rosyth Rosyth_Castle _Fife _where_Oliver_Cromwell's_mother_was_born Castle somewhat incongruously fenced off on the edge of the naval dockyard. I had to hop out for a photograph and to discover more about the castle. It turned out that it was originally a tower house rather than a full-scale castle and had been built in the 15th century on an island in the Firth of Forth that was accessible only at low tide. It was built for Sir David Stewart and remained in that family until the late 17th century. As time went on, the castle was unoccupied and the stone used for other building projects. In the 20th century, land reclamation on the Forth river bank led to it being marooned within the dockyard. It’s a shame that it has never been restored but it was a treat finding it here at the start of our holiday. The pictures shows a drawing of the castle by Thomas Pennant. The image is available from the National Library of Wales, Public Domain.

Kaart_Hanzesteden_en_handelsroutesFrom the ruins of Rosyth Castle our cruise took us across the North Sea, calm as a millpond in exceptional warm and dry weather, to our first stop, which was Gdansk in Poland. On the way we were treated to several lectures introducing us to the history of the Hanseatic League, an organisation that was founded by German merchants to protect and promote commercial activities in Central and Norther Europe. The League had an incredibly complicated history – inevitably the story involved trading rivalries, wars, piracy and politics. The map shows the main cities that developed as part of the League. (Attribution: Doc Brown, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.)

We explored Gdansk on foot, strolling the pavements and old alleyways to admire the architecture. Although the city has some original buildings that survive Gdansk
from the medieval period, a lot of it was destroyed in the Second World War and has been rebuilt in the earlier style which has created a stunning landscape of streets, squares and waterways which has got a fairytale feel about it. When we had walked around for several hours and needed a rest we took to the skies on a big wheel so we could see a different view of Gdansk from the air!

IMG_4334Our next port of call was Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland. Visby was one of my favourite places on the entire cruise, the best place I’d never heard of before the trip. A walled medieval city with lots of twisty narrow streets and ruined churches, it also had a beautiful cathedral, a beach and a stunning botanical gardens. It's a world heritage site and one of the best-preserved medieval city in Scandinavia, but even more importantly, Visby also had the best cinnamon buns that I have ever tasted! We walked all the way around the city walls, admiring the castellated towers along the way, and exploring the twisty medieval alleyways. It was the sort of place where you felt you could easily have stepped back in time! I later discovered that there is a series of crime novels by Swedish author Mari Jungstedt that are set on Gotland and in Visby which I thought I might look out for.

Meanwhile, back on the ship there was the opportunity for tea-testing, wine-tasting, lessons in Martini mixing and more talks, book club meetings, spa visits Martini and, of course, sitting on deck and looking at the view. Bliss!

Riga in Latvia was next on our itinerary, where, as well as the medieval history there was also some very fine art nouveau architecture to admire. I didn't take to Riga quite so much as I did the other places; it seemed very busy and noisy to me and the centre of the old town didn't impress me as much as some other places. That said, this was the one day when I wasn't feeling 100% (possibly I had overeaten the night before at the "all you can eat" buffet) plus it was very hot for walking around. One thing I loved, though, was the parks, which were absolutely beautiful and a haven of green space and cool water amidst the busyness.


Kuressare Castle2Estonia was a country I hadn't known much about until this cruise and we visited two places, Saaremaa and Tallinn. Saaremaa is the largest island in Estonia and I found it absolutely gorgeous. The capital, Kuressaare, has the most glorious moated castle that you can imagine as well as the obligatory attractive old streets. Here we had a tour guide who was not only very knowledgeable and interesting on the historical buildings and other sites on the island but also gave us an insight into what it had been like growing up on the island in the Soviet era.  This was fascinating and made me realise how easy it is if you come from somewhere like the UK to take your freedom and self-determination as a country for granted. Her talk really made me think about how precious our freedoms are and how we should always remember that.

We had been told that in the town hall in Kuressaare was ho,e to an extraordinary painted ceiling from the 17th century that was well worth seeing. Nicola and the painting Unfortunately we wandered into the wrong building and a bemused receptionist with perfect English had to re-route us to the correct place. Once we had found it, though, we had to agree that it was an amazing picture which had apparently been found in an old house during the 20th century, restored and relocated to the town hall. There are lots of mysteries about who commissioned it and what it means – definite inspiration for a story! Here I am admiring from the best position – lying on the floor!

Visiting Saaremaa also gave us the opportunity to take a walk in the countryside which, again, was absolutely beautiful. The port was near an old fishing village where all the old cottages had been converted into modern, upscale homes on the sea shore. I should also mention the culinary speciality we enjoyed on this part of the trip – Estonian Rhubarb Crumble Cheesecake. Yum! 

TallinnPart 2 of our Estonia trip was to the capital, Tallinn, which is a place I have wanted to visit for many years. Tallinn is also a World Heritage Site and one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. It's also a very popular destination so we were lucky that we arrived very early in the morning and so were able to explore the old streets and amazing buildings before it got too hot and too busy. Everything about Tallinn was just magical from the old castle on the hill to the city walls and the ancient buildings. History bliss!

It wasn't all medieval stuff on the cruise, however. Whilst we were in Stockholm I mixed my old history fix with some a bit more modern but still retro – the Abba Museum! This is a fabulous interactive museum of all things to do with the iconic Swedish pop group which I remember so well from my childhood in the 1970s. It was great fun to sing along to their songs in a karaoke but that video definitely isn't for sharing!

We were coming to the end of our trip and after a wonderful sail through the Stockholm archipelago, we were heading towards the German town of Warne Warnemunde, which had an old-fashioned seaside vibe about it. We took a bit of a rest day here, with some time on the beach, shopping along the waterfront and climbing the old lighthouse for a great view out to sea! This was another place where the once-basic fishermen's cottages have been transformed into something rather more fancy as boutique hotels and residences!

And then it was our last day, with an early morning visit to Copenhagen in Denmark. Copenhagen is right up there at the top of my list of places I'd like to visit again. The old trading area of Nyhavn looked very picturesque in the sunshine and we wandered along all the waterways, ending up at the Little Mermaid, one of the most famous tourist sites in the city. In fact the Little Mermaid is so Instagram famous these days it's impossible to get close to her for a selfie because of all her fans! It was a little weird to see that; a small statue surrounded by people all wanting their photo taken with her. 

RosenborgOne of my favourite castles of the trip is in Copenhagen, Rosenborg, which looks exactly like a fairytale castle should and is at the top of my list of things to do on a return visit. And I suppose that is one of the few downsides of a cruise. You only get a few hours in each place you visit, enough to get a taste of somewhere but not enough time to immerse yourself in the history, culture or other aspects of a country. But sometimes a taste is just what you need to whet your appetite for more! Not only am I planning a return visit to a number of destinations but I'd also love to do another cruise sometime. The ship was small enough to feel friendly and very comfortable but big enough to offer all sorts of amenities – and great food, and it's a very relaxing way of seeing something of the world.

Is there anywhere in the world you would particularly like to visit? How do you prefer to travel? Air, sea, road trip or armchair?