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Somebody drew my attention towards the term lukewarm yesterday, wondering why we add the word luke to warm to mean tepid. The term derives from Middle English, first used in the 14th century, when the word ‘luke’ was a adjective meaning tepid or warm. luke derives from leuk, a word first used around 1200, but with an unknown origin.

There are many suggestions for its origin however and there are many clear parallels with other langauges. It has been suggested that leuk  may have derived from the word leuk (meaning tepid/weak) in Middle Dutch or Old Frisian, a language spoken on the northern coast of modern Netherlands and Germany before 1500. It could also have come from the Old English term hleowe, meaning warm.

Modern connections are found in the Dutch word lauw, meaning tepid or indifferent, the German lauwarm, meaning lukewarm and the Danish word lunken, meaning half-hearted. Clearly the word derives from the original Proto-Germanic language of Europe.

In English, the use of lukewarm to mean “indifferent” or “lacking in zeal” dates from the 1520s.


This cliché first developed in the 18th century and means to take over somebody’s idea, fame or recognition or to draw people’s attention towards oneself at the expense of someone else. The phrase originates from the theatre at a time when new methods of creating stage thunder were being invented.

Writer and critic John Dennis invented one successful new method of creating the sound of thunder on stage for his play Appius and Virginia in 1709, however his play was a box office failure. The invention of the sound effect however proved very popular and was used immediately afterwards in a highly-praised production of Macbeth applaud.

This frustrated John Dennis greatly and he apparently said: ‘Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder’. It seems that this was the origin of the phrase, so at least Dennis created something that definitely lasted!

Yesterday in 1831, London Bridge was opened. This is a misleading statement because the bridge opened on that day was just one of several bridges referred to as London Bridge over the course of the history of London. Not only that but these London Bridges have often been confused with other more famous bridges, such as Tower Bridge. So here’s a run through of the history of London Bridge.

The first London Bridge was built by Henry II in order to memorialise famous Londoner Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been murdered 1170. Henry II built a chapel in the centre of the bridge which served as the starting point of the pilgrimage to Thomas Beckett’s shrine in Canterbury. The bridge was only finished in 1209 in the reign of King John.

“Old London Bridge in 1745” by Joseph Josiah Dodd

The bridge was eight metres wide and was supported by 19 arches. A drawbridge allowed river traffic down the river and defensive gatehouses were erected at each end of the bridge. The bridge was full of buildings from the beginning and the king sold plots on the bridge to try to cover the costs of the construction.

Over time, London Bridge became increasingly crowded and unsafe with fire being the most common hazard. By the sixteenth century the buildings on the bridge reached up to seven stories high and hung over the river. It must have been the most spectacular sight and if I could go back to see a building from London’s past it would be that bridge.

By the eighteenth century, common sense and health and safety took control. Between 1758 and 1762, all of the buildings on the bridge were demolished and then in 1799 a competition was held to design a new London Bridge. John Rennie won with a design for a bridge with five stone arches and a new bridge was built 30 metres upstream of the old bridge, which continued to be used during the construction of the new bridge. The new London Bridge was opened in 1831 and the old bridge was finally demolished.

New London Bridge in 1875

The new bridge was nearly twice as wide as the old bridge, which is amazing when you consider how much they managed to fit on the medieval bridge. By the turn of the century the bridge was the busiest in London and even had to be widened by 13 feet.

It was discovered that the bridge was sinking so need replacing and it was suggested that it should be sold. On 18 April 1968, Rennie’s bridge was sold to entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch of McCulloch Oil for US$2,460,000. There is a myth that he thought he was buying Tower Bridge, however this is untrue. The bridge was deconstructed stone by stone and rebuilt at Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

A brand new bridge was built in the same location as the Victorian bridge by architect Lord Holford and engineers Mott, Hay and Anderson.It began construction in 1967 and was opened by the Queen on 17 March 1973.

London Bridge today

The superstitious phrase ‘touch wood’ is one with many contested origins and it is still not clear which is the correct one. In the UK, many people still touch wood and use the phrase when they talk about their luck or mention their own death and want to stop their words from “tempting fate” and jinxing future good fortune. In the US the phrase ‘knock on wood’ is more commonly used.

Many believe that the phrase derives from the pagan belief that good and evil spirits lived in trees and touching the wood of a tree would gain the blessing of the spirits and stop them bringing misfortune on the speaker. The idea of the two ‘knocks’ is that one knock on the tree would ask the spirits for good luck and the second knock would thank the spirits.

Another interpretation of the phrase is that it is Christian, possibly adapted from the pagan original. The wood could refer to the Cross and thus touching wood meant that you were requesting the blessing of God.

However old the original custom is, it appears that the established phrase is relatively modern. The first recorded use of ‘touch wood’ is in 1899 and ‘knock on wood’ in 1905.

By Richard Denning

I am delighted to be a guest on Lovely Old Tree. I am a Young adult sci-fi, historical fiction and historical fantasy writer. This post is part of a blog tour celebrating the release of my historical fantasy novel, The Last Seal. The Last Seal is set during the Great Fire of London in 1666. So it was suggested that I write a post about what a visitor to the capital would see if they went on a tour in that summer of 1666.

London was originally a Roman settlement at a convenient crossing point over the Thames. Indeed London Bridge in its various incarnations has been built on the same spot by Romans, Saxons, Vikings and as far forward as the modern age. The Roman walls were later the sites of medieval city walls that defined the city’s boundaries for centuries. Places like Westminster and Holborn were separate towns and villages. Gradually, however, the population grew and spilled out of the city, merging with these satellite villages until by 1666 it had reached Westminster around the bend of the Thames.

If you had been used to country villages and small market towns then visiting London would have opened your eyes. In today’s terms the city was not large. It population was in the order of 350,000 to 400,000 or so which is only the same as say modern day Coventry but that still made it the largest by a long way in England at that time and the third largest in the world after Paris and Constantinople. Most of these people lived outside the old city of London in the suburbs but around 80,000 resided within the old Roman and mediaeval city walls.

Within those walls there existed something of the order of 14,000 houses, 100 parish churches, 50 Company or Guild Halls, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Bridewell Palace, Newgate and other City prisons, the General Letter Office, and seven city gates and the great bridge itself of course.

Entering the city via that bridge would have left an impression both wonderful and gruesome such as recorded in 1598 by a German visitor to London:

On the south is a bridge of stone eight hundred feet in length, of wonderful work; it is supported upon twenty piers of square stone, sixty feet high and thirty broad, joined by arches of about twenty feet diameter. The whole is covered on each side with houses so disposed as to have the appearance of a continued street, not at all of a bridge.

Upon this is built a tower, on whose top the heads of such as have been executed for high treason are placed on iron spikes: we counted above thirty…

Fortunately during the reign of Charles II this practice died out. Nevertheless the sight of 200 and more shops perched on the bridge would have been something to see. It is estimated that as many as 4000 would have lived on the bridge alone.

Once in the streets of London however some visitors were less than impressed, with John Evelyn – a contemporary of the famous diarist Samuel Pepys complaining that London was a “wooden, Northern, inartificial congestion of houses’

This description is not that far wrong. For the City was an overcrowded warren of narrow, winding, cobbled alleys lined with towering tenements maybe 7 stories tall, huge warehouses and hundreds of places of work – foundries, butchers shops and chandlers. In some cases the buildings leant so far forward as to meet the houses opposite them. Most houses were wood and thatch and very few were made from stone. Moving around the city would have been difficult enough with the dense population doing battle with the crush of carts and hackney carriages in an age with no traffic control.

London was the largest consumer of goods in the nation as well as the largest producer and was above all a thriving trade hub. There were several markets around the city and dozens of areas of commerce but the focal point for merchants was the great Royal Exchange at Cornhill where traders from around the world would trade goods from as far away as the far east – James I having established trading links with Japan. The population in general would be more interested in the heaving markets along Cheapside with its meat and other goods or the fish markets at Billingsgate or maybe trinkets and sweets from Westminster Hall. The noise from the population and all the traders calling out their wares must have been a din.

Many of the goods on sale were made in hundreds of locations around the city. Right there in the same streets that people lived and walked, animals would be slaughtered and their blood drain down to the river. Their hides would be cured in cauldrons of urine collected from all over the city with the fumes belching out to mix with the smoke from foundries and the stench from vats where carcasses were being rendered into glue and candle wax. The stench must have been incredible.

The people of London would have several concerns other than day to day existence. The nation was at war with the French and Dutch and there was a lot of anxiety about foreign spies. At the same time there was worry about plots by both Catholics wishing to make England “papist” and republicans looking to overthrow the King. Superstition was rife. It had not escaped notice that the year -1666 – contained the number 666 which had biblical significance. Indeed that and such omens as eclipses and comets had more than a few people convinced that they were living in the last years and God’s judgement was at hand.

A visitor to the city would have been aware that it was still suffering from the effects of the great plague of 1665 to 66 which had killed 1 in 4 Londoners. At its height in the summer of 1665 1000 people a day were dying and even in September 1666 the plague had not died out. Indeed it is believed that it took a disaster of epic proportions to finally destroy the thousands of rats that carried the fleas which were the host of the contagion. It took the Great Fire of London.

London was a city which was extremely vulnerable to fire. This was due to the cramped buildings made of wood, warehouses full of combustibles which increased the fire risk and huge stocks of gunpowder, much of which was left over from the English Civil War. It really was only a matter of time before a fire started – and then a disaster would occur.

So there we have it – London in 1666: a heaving congested warren of wooden houses. A thriving metropolis. Loud, smelly and busy and just a little bit paranoid and waiting for the great fire that would rip out its heart. It is this city in which my novel is set – a novel of gunpowder and sorcery in 1666!

To read the first part of The Last Seal visit my website.
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The Last Seal is a young adult historical fantasy novel set during the Great Fire of London and is part of the Praesidium series by Richard Denning. When it comes to reviewing new books, I certainly can’t claim to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction, but what really interested me about this book, and the reason I was asked to review it, was the historical element. So my aim is to look at it from a historical perspective and judge how well it makes history exciting and accessible – the main aim of Lovely Old Tree! And in short: The Last Seal does this very well.

The plot follows the fortunes of Ben, a schoolboy at Westminster, who having lost his parents in a fire, feels depressed, lost and intent on escaping the tedium of school life. He does this by playing truant and wandering off into the hustle and bustle of 17th century London and this action, which appears unimportant, catapults him into a terrifying and exciting adventure.

He meets Gabriel, a bookseller with a more thrilling job as member of the Praesidium; Tobias, a doctor with a score to settle; and Freya, an orphan thief with more intelligence than the other three put together. This group of very different people soon find that they are immersed in a battle between the Praesidium and the Liberati and have to risk their lives to save London, and the world, from the release of the evil demon Dantalion. And Ben finds that his role in history is far larger than he ever thought possible.

Now, I have a notoriously short attention span when it comes to novels and it takes a lot to really keep me engaged, but I honestly found it hard to put this book down. The pace of the story is perfect. The characters are introduced at the right rate so that you really get to know them and care about them. The excitement and tension of the plot rises incrementally throughout so that you really cannot wait to turn the page and find out what happens next.

The characters are also very well presented and described – and they are likeable, which I consider to be a very important factor. They are also very different people, thrown together by circumstances and therefore they give us a very interesting rounded picture of the people of 17th century London. They are varied by gender, class, age and background, therefore the interactions and tensions between them (for example between Tobias and Freya) keep the story stimulating.

Additionally the characters have their flaws and secrets that keep them from becoming stereotypes. Ben does not fall into the trap of being the standard poor orphaned hero; neither does Gabriel become the wise benevolent wizard. Through a combination of guilty secrets, childish anger, self-interest, greed and stupid mistakes, all of the characters are convincing and engaging and develop naturally throughout the story.

Now it might sound from the plot that the book is mostly fantasy with little history involved, and I must say that I did worry about this. The first chapter is set in 1380 with the first attempt to release the demon and although it is exciting, it focuses on the battle and the magic spells. However my fears were soon laid to rest when I got into the main plot as the historical detail is really fascinating. Denning weaves the true story of the Great Fire of London into the plot so that, despite the magic, the story is believable, which is a very difficult thing to achieve. The path of the fire, the number of days it lasted, the buildings it destroyed and the things people really said and did all fit into the story of The Last Seal. The fact that the Praesidium and the Liberati are secret societies (so the public would never have known what happened during the fire) means that, as far as I’m concerned, the story of Dantalion, Ben, Freya, Tobias and Gabriel could be true!

One of my favourite things about the book is the description of 17th century London. The Royal Exchange, St Paul’s Cathedral and London Bridge are described in such detail that it really transports you to what it would have been like at the time. I love the way London locations keep being mentioned, helping me to reimagine places I know back in time. Old London Bridge:

Made of stone, with a dozen and more arches, it was impressive enough, but upon it an entire town had been built. Dozens of houses, shops and taverns of timber and stone crammed upon either side and soared three or more stories high. At either end was a fortress-like gatehouse that was locked at dusk and opened each dawn. The southern gate bore a grizzly display of the severed heads of more than a dozen criminals and traitors which, after their execution, were impaled on spikes as a warning to all who saw them.

The most successful thing about the inclusion of this historical description is that is does not read like 17th century London is a foreign country. The description does not treat the vast differences between historical London and present-day London with awe or surprise. The city is described as though by Ben or another contemporary and this really makes the history come alive as the reader feels a connection with London whichever era it is in.

The book is aimed at young adults, so is an easy read, but personally I quite like that factor. Ben and Freya are both young people and I often find superfluous language irritating in stories that are meant to be exciting adventures. With that audience target, you may occasionally find that the passages where characters have to explain their backstory or the backstory of the secret societies can be a little jarring and deliberate. However I would say that this is a common problem in plots where centuries of backstory play a key role.

I did thoroughly enjoy this book but I would say it is not for everyone. The historical elements are certainly strong enough to interest a history fan like me, but you really do have to be prepared to suspend disbelief and accept the magic and fantasy in order to fully immerse yourself in the book. I’m only able to do this because I allow myself to accept the premise that this story could be the truth behind the Great Fire of London.

In this way then, The Last Seal is not like other historical fiction as the fantasy element is very strong, but if you enjoy both then it is a brilliant read. I would definitely recommend this book, particularly for those interested in getting a good overview of 17th century London, in an entertaining way.

The new 2nd edition paperback is now available with a new cover design. You can also read the first three chapters free here.

About the author:

Richard Denning was born in Ilkeston in Derbyshire and lives in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands, UK, where he works as a General Practitioner (family doctor). He is married and has two children. He has always been fascinated by historical settings as well as horror and fantasy. Other than writing, his main interests are games of all types. He is the designer of a board game based on the Great Fire of London.

As part of the BBC College of Journalism’s Art of the Interview season, The Radio Times is holding a competition to decide which television and radio interview has been most influential over the last 60 years. Their shortlist includes Frost/Nixon, Parkinson/Emu, Winfrey/Jackson, Bashir/Diana and Paxman/Howard. There is also an interesting video on the BBC News website where David Sillito interviews David Frost and looks back at some of the most famous interviews on the shortlist. David Frost:

I think the essence of a good interview, in addition to vital things about the interviewer having done his homework and things like that, I think that in the end most of all it’s to do with the relationship that’s established between the interviewer and the interviewee.

That’s really the test in the end – whether you think that you’ve got the real person coming through and you can say,’ I never thought I’d hear so and so say that’.

David Frost and Richard Nixon

Three years after his resignation, Richard Nixon was interviewed by David Frost for a total of 28 hours and 45 minutes and the interviews were edited into four parts and broadcast in the USA and a few other countries in 1977. The first episode got the largest television audience for any political interview in history. In what Frost now describes as ‘a euphoric moment’, Nixon came out with the famous lines:

I let down my friends, I let down the country, I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it is all too corrupt and the rest. Most of all I let down an opportunity I would have had for two and a half more years to proceed on great projects and programmes for building a lasting peace.

The story of the interviews has been made into a 2006 play written by Peter Morgan and a film adaptation in 2008.

Michael Parkinson and Meg Ryan

Hollywood actress Meg Ryan clearly wasn’t used to the British television interview style when in 2003 she was quizzed by Michael Parkinson for 20 minutes about her erotic thriller In The Cut. She gave one word answers and was visibly upset and uncomfortable. Parkinson describes it as his ‘most difficult TV moment. She since said about the interview:

I don’t even know the man. That guy was like some disapproving father! It’s crazy. I don’t know what he is to you guys, but he’s a nut. I felt like he was berating me for being naked in the movie. He said something like, ‘You should go back to doing what you were doing”. And I thought, are you like a disapproving dad right now? I’m not even related to you. Back off, buddy. I was so offended by him.

Martin Bashir and Princess Diana

In 1995, Diana Princess of Wales was interviewed on Panorama by Martin Bashir about the failure of her marriage to Charles. In the hour long talk she admitted her affair with riding instructor James Hewitt and spoke about her husband’s affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles.

She was open with very private details about her life and uttered the famous words ‘there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded’. Bashir was accused by Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of York, of ‘tricking’ Diana into revealing secrets about her private life.

If you’re visiting Warwickshire, the two historical attractions that are most eagerly advertised are Warwick Castle and Kenilworth Castle and they are both worth a visit. However do not assume that they are similar as although they both have fascinating histories, the experience of visiting each castle is massively different. I have visited both and although the experience differs at different times of the year, from the perspective of somebody interested in history, I would recommend Kenilworth over Warwick any day, and I’d like to explain why. Firstly a short explanation of the history of each castle:

Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle originally consisted of a burh built in 914 to protect the small settlement of Warwick. A motte and bailey was then built by William the Conqueror in 1068 and the first Earl of Warwick, Henry de Beaumont was appointed and his family held the castle until 1242. During the 13th century the castle was rebuilt in stone and over the course of the following centuries several improvements were made. In 1572 Queen Elizabeth I visited the castle. James I granted Warwick Castle to Fulke Greville who was murdered in 1628 and who’s ghost still apparently haunts the castle tower. During the Civil War, the castle withstood a siege and royalist soldiers were imprisoned there. During the 18th century the castle was developed into a country house with extensive work done on the dining room, conservatory and gardens. Queen Victoria visited the castle in 1858 and in 1978 the Tussaud’s Group bought the castle.

Kenilworth Castle

The Norman keep at Kenilworth was built in the 1120s by Geoffrey de Clinton, Henry I’s treasurer, and it was greatly improved by King John in the early 13th century with the enlargement of the lake surrounding the castle. It began to be transformed into a palace by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and was a favourite of Tudor kings and most famously Elizabeth I. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester had the castle in 1563 and spent time and money radically developing it into an impressive Renaissance ‘prodigy house’ for the Queen to visit on her progresses. At the beginning of the Civil war the Parliamentary army took Kenilworth and in 1649 it was ordered that the castle should be dismantled to avoid its use by other armies. Over the following years the mere was drained, interiors stripped and buildings demolished and the rest fell into decay. In 1665 it was returned to the crown and given to Laurence Hyde, the son of the lord chancellor, the earl of Clarendon, and it remained with the Clarendon until the 20th century. Tourists began to visit the castle from the late 18th century and by 1937 it was a full-time tourist attraction.

Now the first thing to point out is that the information I’ve provided here about Kenilworth I found out on my visit, while the Warwick information I’ve had to grab entirely from the internet. My day at Warwick castle taught me next to nothing about its history as there were no information panels, audio guides or leaflets full of fun facts. Kenilworth castle provided me with a fantastically detailed audio guide with so many stops I almost ran out of time. There is also a museum in the old stables next to the cafe which tells you everything you need to know to get the best out of the beautiful ruined castle. I learnt loads at Kenilworth and when it comes down to it, that’s what I’m there for.

Warwick on the other hand is aimed at kids and designed as an ‘experience’ rather than a real historical castle. It has walks through the castle rooms and dungeons with models of medieval people everywhere, it has an 19th century section with amazing rooms and actors paid to pretend we’re all guests at some Victorian party, it has archery, tournaments, birds of prey, and when I was there, an entire marching band! So although I have a big problem with the lack of history, I can’t pretend that Warwick castle doesn’t provide a good day out, especially if you’re with children.

Then again, Kenilworth is a real ruin and when I was there children were playing hide and seek in the many nooks and crannies of the massive castle. To be honest, give a child a wooden sword and a ruin to play in and they can have more fun than they ever would with all the falcons, actors and costumes in the world.

So overall, while on paper Warwick offers far more attractions, if you’re interested in history Kenilworth castle is infinitely superior – you get to see more of the castle up close, you learn more, and you’re not distracted by entertainers. And on top of that, children will have fun there in a far more exciting, natural and cheap way. If that doesn’t clinch it how about this:

  • I visited Warwick castle in beautiful April sunshine; I visited Kenilworth castle in January with temperatures of -2 and I STILL prefer Kenilworth
  • Warwick castle adult ticket price is £29.40; Kenilworth is £8!

Warwick ultimate castle refers to itself as ‘Britain’s ultimate castle’ – a claim I’d definitely question. I reckon this might say something about the difference between Merlin Entertainments Group and English Heritage in how they choose to run a historical attraction.

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