Steeped in history: from Malta to Queen Mary’s Mansion in Yorkshire

When I studied history at school it was often delivered parrot fashion – reciting dates, battles, Kings and Queens – or from musty-smelling books wrapped in brown paper. There were occasional highlights such as making a book about the Romans and their customs (I still have my little cardboard effort somewhere) but, on the whole, it was one-dimensional and flat. But now I can’t get enough of it. Piecing together, and making sense of, the present through studying who and what went before is endlessly fascinating.

Visiting the island of Malta in November I was captivated by a timeline in the museum of archaeology in the capital, Valletta. That morning I had visited a 6000-year-old underground burial chamber at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Only discovered by chance in 1902 by construction workers, scientists estimate that more than 6000 people were buried here. And, to put it in perspective, the tombs pre-date Stonehenge, the Acropolis and the Colosseum.

For three days I became a timeline obsessive, immersed in the multi-layered history of this rocky Mediterranean island, each of the many occupiers leaving their mark on the culture, language and architecture from the Romans to the Carthaginians, the Arabs, Italians, Sicilians, the Knights of St John, who arrived from Rhodes in 1530, the French (during the Napoleonic occupation) and, of course, the British. It was a British colony from 1814 to 1964, and served as a strategic military base in the Second World War.

Malta was love at first sight for me. As  the taxi from the airport negotiated Valletta’s labyrinth of narrow streets near my hotel, I was enchanted by the painted wooden box-frame balconies, like mini greenhouses, on the sides of buildings, the retro shopfronts, the many churches, statues of saints seemingly on every street corner and the plethora of plaster saints adorning doors along with brass door knockers designed variously as dolphins, lions, mythical figures or in the shape of the Maltese Cross.

One of my favourite places was the Casa Rocca Piccola, a privately owned palace that has been in the de Piro family for nine generations. Full of treasures including an 18th Century sedan chair, a Venetian glass chandelier, a cabinet of fans, a  private chapel,  a portable chapel (the kind the aristocracy took to their summer residences), silverware,  several Maltese clocks – these were only owned by the aristocracy who had staff to wind them several times a day –  and the ‘summer’ dining room laid up for a banquet with fine lacework mats, silverware, candelabras and cut glass.

From there it was an orgy of Baroque gold at St John’s Co-Cathedral with its frescoed barrel vault ceiling and marble tombs underfoot, each one commemorating a Knight of the Order.  I got a bit bogged with the audio guide meaning I took too long working out which side chapel was which. By the time I got to the Oratory with the two Caravaggio paintings it was closing time. No sympathy from the guard who suggested I took photos of the paintings with my phone, presumably so I could enjoy them over my dinner for one later! Damn!

In Mdina, once the capital of Malta, and derived from the Arabic word Medina, I skipped the Cathedral – no more audio guides – and instead sat for ten minutes in the Carmelite church admiring the stained-glass windows and relaxing into the pealing of the midday bells. Then, by chance, I discovered Palazzo Falson, a private museum housing the collection of Frederick Golcher OBE (1889-1962), a philanthropist, artist and researcher of Swedish descent, educated in Britain. I marvelled at the collection of Bohemian glass including a double-ended Victorian scent bottle (perfume one end and smelling salts the other), the snuff boxes, fob watches, model ships, Dutch still life paintings, table top cabinets inlaid with marquetry, and closer to home in the UK, Staffordshire figures.

One room at the Palazzo Falson was given over to weapons and armour, but nothing compares to the Palace Armoury in Valletta which ranks among the world’s greatest arms collections, and spans the reign of the Knights from the 15th Century till the arrival of Napoleon in 1798. Fashions changed, and as designs got more sophisticated suits of armour allowed for greater movement. Actual armour and weapons used in the Great Siege (against the Turks) in 1565 sit alongside shields, swords and muskets captured from the Ottomans. Fascinating stuff.

Every time I return to Britain, I wallow in history and often visit a castle or historic building – it’s kind of de rigueur! This time, I got to stay in a Grade II early 17th Century stately home in Yorkshire. Goldsborough Hall gets a mention in the recent Downton Abbey film; HRH Princess Mary, the Queen’s cousin, lived here in the 1920s.  I was there for the wedding of my niece Anna to Simon. The service was in the delightful adjoining church of St Mary the Virgin, where, regal, relaxed and radiant, my niece swept in to Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major.

From there – dodging the rain – it was back to the hall for drinks in the Library complete with oak panelling, stag heads, Chesterfield sofas and copies of Country Life dotted around. After much feasting, drinking, dancing and merrymaking, we ascended the oak staircase framed by stained glass windows to our various rooms. My bedroom was named The Duke of York, thankfully not after the current Duke of York, he of Pizza Express in Woking notoriety, but after Albert (aka Bertie), second son of George V, who later became George V1, the king with the stammer featured in the film The King’s Speech. Luckily my brother, Charlie, had no such problems and delivered a masterfully crafted Father of the Bride speech; clever, moving and funny.

The next morning it was wonderful to wake up to views over parklands and grounds laid out in the style of Capability Brown during the 1750s.  A right royal occasion indeed, and suitably historic on all levels.

Budget living and bargains

You get what you pay for I thought as I walked into the Airbnb place I had booked in Torquay (my sister always thinks of Fawlty Towers when I mention Torquay but I am of course referring to the township at the start of the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia).

After an almost constant stream of Airbnb guests since the first week of December and having started a new job the week before last, I was ready for a break, one where I was the guest. For $65 a night and dogs (Bertie) allowed, I guess I shouldn’t complain but it did look and sound nicer in the description and pictures. In fact, it was definitely more Fawlty than Five Star: the kitchenette and bathroom were more or less one and the same with the sliding door to the toilet and shower jammed at three quarters shut (I’m glad I was alone; I’m bladder shy at the best of times); the mini bar fridge froze my salad; and a laundry trough sink doubled up as the place to wash teeth, hands and dishes. It reminded me of a unit I rented in 1770 (the place not the year!) in Queensland where it was the same situation in reverse. I had to do the dishes in the hand basin. And in both places I had to unplug the kettle before I switched on the toaster. See what I mean about the Fawlty-ness?

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The bedroom was OK in a very no-frills way with views over the nondescript garden of scrubby grass and a Hills Hoist washing line. It was all rather cobwebby behind the bed, the cupboards in the same brown wood as the toilet door were also jammed, and a sad sedum with leggy roots sat in a glass bottle on the window sill. Never mind, I got to work and doctored the bed as I have a Princess and the Pea sensibility when it comes to mattresses. So I padded out the firm mattress with a spare duvet and the egg box foam topper I had brought from home.

Spot the sad sedum...

Spot the sad sedum…

You may laugh but there are legions of people out there who struggle with mattresses when travelling from home. I did a Google search on it and found my way to Tempur Pedic travel toppers that roll up into a handy bag. For a mere $599 plus shipping I could have one delivered to my door. That’s not financially feasible right now so the $15 egg box topper from Kmart was rather a steal.

Thanks to therapy in the form of the first episode of Series Five of Downton Abbey and a lighting a nice candle to brighten the place up – not to mention my homemade salad (before the minibar got to it) – I nevertheless felt like I was on holiday, albeit one more akin to camping.

Although the place lacked frills and finesse and had no views, it was a case of Location, Location, Location! It was situated right across the road from the beach. So the minute we arrived Bertie and I dashed down to the dog beach and both swam and lay in the sun. The next day the temperature dropped from the mid thirties to about sixteen degrees and we had thunder and lightning. Not to be defeated I headed to the op shop to hunt for an outfit to wear to a Studio 54 themed party. After a bit of rummaging I found a silk and satin LBD and a pair of fringed cowboy-type boots. I reckoned the boots in particular looked more 70s than noughties. Amazingly, they were in my size, brand new (with the original price tag still attached) and really comfortable.

The next morning – still cold, breezy and wet – I was walking Bertie on the beach and realised ‘we’ must have lost his ball the previous day. Not to worry Bertie, I said. We might well find an old ball somewhere. Minutes later we found an orange and blue ‘chuckit’ dog ball and thrower lying in the sand. I looked around but there was nobody to claim it so I picked it up, much to Bertie’s delight.

It felt like I was having mini lottery wins, and to celebrate I went for breakfast at Mobys, a most delightful cafe on the esplanade. Earthy, friendly and quirky with lots of different nooks and crannies, I sat on a sofa on the deck with Bertie by my feet, ordered a delicious egg and bacon sandwich and pot of English breakfast, and read my book. Bliss!

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By lunchtime that day I was visiting a friend in the next door township of Anglesea. After lunch at the General Store, we called in at the Baptist’s Second Store where I found a lamp for my guest room, a table runner and a coffee table all for $30. The coffee table is one of those varnished brown jobs. With a light sand and a few coats of chalk paint I plan to transform the LBJ just as I did the drop-leaf table that my neighbours passed on to me a few months ago. Then – yes there’s more – when I got back to Melbourne a friend told me that his daughter was having a garage sale on Saturday morning. He mentioned that there were bar stools for sale amongst other things so I was there by 8am. The bar stools look great in my kitchen. Possibly a wee bit high but I’m not tall so that suits me. Taller and broader guests will simply have to sit side saddle! Convinced I was on a winning streak I bought a lottery ticket on Saturday. Needless to say that didn’t come off – not yet! Better stick to the day job.

Owning your (my) own style

I haven’t seen my house for a few weeks but the renovations are nearly finished and I’m dissatisfied already! But only in my head, you understand. I think it’s a case of renovation envy. It all started when I visited a lovely new friend in Anglesea – she’s a writer and artist – and had lunch in her beautiful home. You can see her artist’s eye at play everywhere; the triangular patterned tiles echoing the earthy shades of terracotta and blue on the walls and in the boxed shelves, the art on the walls, the huge (and well-fitting windows) framing views of gnarled and forked gum trees, the marble-top kitchen and chunky pottery dotted around, the funky butter dish, the lime green weighing scales, the brightly coloured mosaic tiles in the bathroom beautifully toned in with the sink, a colourful Mexican-looking ceramic bowl. And then there’s the wood burner with the sliding glass front warming the room and adding another stylish touch.

If only I’d seen her house before I chose the white subway tiles from Bunnings, I thought going all Discontented Pony (anyone else familiar with the Ladybird Books story from childhood?), and maybe I should have persisted in getting the shelving unit in the living room re-done the way I wanted. And then what about my kitchen bench top fiasco? In truth the kitchen tops are the only part of the renovations that have gone a bit ‘off message’ and it’s one of those situations where it’s not really anyone’s fault. My builder – and I can’t praise him enough; he’s absolutely meticulous, punctual, professional and gentle with it – noticed that the laminex pattern I had chosen was 30 per cent more expensive than the standard range. So he hunted around and found a match from another company. He showed me the sample when I went up to the house at the end of March, and I approved it.

What neither of us noticed (the sample was the size of a match box) is that it had a strange indentation which, over a large area, looks like a series of scribbly scratch marks. While it’s not what I would have chosen, I’m going to make the best of it. The bottom line is that changing it would stuff up the budget bottom line by $2000. And once all my things are dotted around – yellow lemons on my grandmother’s green cake stand, my Italian ceramic fruit bowl (also featuring lemons), my blue and white candlesticks and all the other paraphernalia and memorabilia currently stacked floor to ceiling in various cupboards, the strange scribbles will fade into the background.

My spare room cupboard packed to the gills

My spare room cupboard packed to the gills


And that’s the thing. My style is my style. Although I am a little restricted by a modest budget, my choices reflect who I am and where I hail from. I’m not an artist with an eye for the Tuscan look and triangular tiles, but I am a homemaker through and through, and the interior of my house is a somewhat eclectic mix of classical English meets country cottage meets suburban Melbourne. I’ve got some treasured antique pieces from both my grandmothers, a fair few bits of charity shop chic, a bit of IKEA and lots of pictures on the walls, none of them which could be described as modern or abstract. So when I embarked on renovation plans, my aim was to keep a classical, if slightly quirky, look. Hence the claw foot bath, black and white tiles and hand-crafted cloche light in the bathroom, and the white painted shelving unit on either side of the fireplace so I can – at long last– display all my treasures from an antique ginger jar to more modern glassware, favourite books, tea cups, jugs and ornaments.

In fact the older I get, the more I love antiques, not just the look of them but the stories behind their design, creation and use. I’ve been watching a British program on SBS called Antiques Uncovered hosted by an historian and an antiques expert. In the last episode they went to Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire to look at the history of tea cups, sofas, Georgian glassware, chandeliers and more. It’s all a bit broad brush as they cover so many items in one program, but I particularly enjoyed the bit about the history of porcelain. The Chinese, of course, developed porcelain in the tenth century, but it was not until the British discovered the magic ingredient, Cornish soapstone (talcum powder), that porcelain or, ‘White Gold’ as it was known, became all the rage in the eighteenth century. And it said something about your class as to whether you drank from translucent china which held hot water without leaking, or from a rough, porous earthenware cup. The upper classes could pour the hot tea straight into the cup and then add the milk, whereas the lower classes had to put the milk in first to prevent the cup from shattering. That’s why the ‘right’ way is still considered to be the tea first method.

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It’s like Downton Abbey – I’m an unashamed fan (although the last double bill episode of Series Four was terribly implausible and a big anticlimax) – it’s all about class and what’s going on Upstairs and Downstairs.

To that end, I also saw a program featuring Downton producer Julian Fellowes going behind the scenes at another of England’s huge stately piles, Burghley House. Burghley was built by William Cecil, treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I. He was the one who ordered the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The house is still owned and run by his descendents today. It was a fun program looking at parish records, letters and diaries to unearth some of the stories of the lords and ladies and their servants. As Fellowes said, “we’ve all got ancestors that were giving or taking orders. History belongs to all of us.”

Reaching fever pitch about sales pitches

I recently signed up to a free online dog training course. More fool me. There was nothing free about it. It started harmlessly enough with a couple of emails with some treat-size tips on how to stop a dog jumping up, but as the days progressed the tips and tutoring, supposedly dangled as carrots under my nose, were lost among paragraphs of waffle, sales pitch hype and endless calls to action: Exclusive offer! Sign up as a member today and receive a 60% discount! But hurry, offer limited! And, if I signed on the dotted line, I would receive three books normally valued at $100, a 30-day money back guarantee and MUCH MORE! Plus, they claimed to have some sort of copyright on the secrets to dog training; I wouldn’t find them anywhere else, not on this planet, in Outer Mongolia or in Outer Space. But I did need to sign up first. Well, forgive the pun, but I didn’t jump at it.

Affiliate marketing schemes use the same technique and lure you into reading screen after screen of repetitious copy full of impossible promises, testimonials and videos.  I once watched a clip of two dudes in expensive shades sitting by a swimming pool explaining how they had gone from rags to riches.  For ten minutes they kept telling us that they would soon tell us how they did it. There was even a stopwatch on the screen counting down to their Big Bang revelation which, of course, never came. Because you had to sign up first.  It’s like waiting for the next episode of a television drama – you know the ones that end with a tantalising scene such as a dead body or a lovers’ tiff – so you have to tune in the following week.

I’m an even grumpier old woman when it comes to telemarketing calls.  I don’t mind if they’re honest but it’s the “I’m not trying to sell you anything” that gets me. YES they are.  When one of the charities I support called me a few weeks ago, I patiently explained I was not in a position to increase my monthly contribution (I work in the sector and know they were calling to ‘upgrade’ me). They insisted it was nothing to do with money, thanked me profusely for my ongoing support and then told me about a new programme desperately in need of funds. If I could just increase my contribution by $5 a month…

However, I was nice – very nice – to the young Indian guy who came round with the (free) government-issued Smart Power Boards – the ones that turn your TV off automatically rather than leave it on stand-by. It’s a tough job knocking on doors and making sales so I was pleasant, chatty and even offered him a cup of tea. I asked him to plug my DVD into the normal socket so it would not switch off while in record mode.  Later that week, when I sat down to watch an episode of Downton Abbey (and I LOVE DOWNTON ABBEY) the screen was blank as the guy had plugged the DVD into the wrong socket. Arghhhhhhh!!  Once again, I was left hanging in suspense.