<a href=””>Follow my blog with Bloglovin</a>

I frequently refer to sending children up chimneys, the way the Victorians used to. Albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Some people look at me as though I am a bit mad, I’m not sure that they quite understand what I’m talking about.

I am of that generation whose houses did not have central heating when I was a young child. There would be ice on the inside of our bedroom windows in the winter. Before going to school, one of my jobs was to clean out and lay the fire. Ours was a modern house, and there was only one coal fire. There was a built in electric fire in the dining room. Aside from that, we were left to our own devices.


I would get up, go downstairs and use the specially designed rake (solid, without teeth) and ash tray to rake out all the ash from beneath the grate. The ash was cold by morning, so no risk of fire. Then I would lay the fire in the grate – kindling and newspaper to start, the coal went on top, once the kindling had got going.

All that wood and coal would cause the chimney to become covered in soot and creosote, which could catch fire (ours did occasionally) so once a year, a man would come around to sweep the chimney. He’d have a set of long wooden poles, with screw ends, so that they could be joined together and extended. The final one had a circular brush on it. Up, up, up, he would manually push the brush and poles, which must have been much harder than it looked. I do seem to recall that there was a machine that did the actual cleaning though. I would stand fascinated, watching, then run outside to see the brush come up through the top of the chimney. It was very exciting for me.

My memory of the chimney sweep is that he was a tall, thin man, who wore a tweed suit, with a shirt and tie, and a flat cap. And soot stains over him. It wasn’t uncommon for working men to wear a suit in those days: my dear old Dad, who was a bricklayer by trade, wore [an old] sports jacket, with a shirt and tie, under his khaki-coloured overalls. And take a look at the photographs at the Tower Bridge Experience, the ones where the work was being done in the 1960s – the foremen were all in suits, and some in bowler hats (no hard hats in those days). And not a child in sight to send up the chimney, so where on earth did I get that idea from?


It’s not my imagination. People had fires in their homes to warm them since way back when, and in the early days of static homes, there would just be a hole in the roof to allow the smoke out. Over time, the rich built houses made from brick and with them, proper chimneys. Think Hampton Court. Then came the Industrial Revolution. More factories burning coal meant more chimneys. Factories making lots of money meant more rich people meant more big houses meant more chimneys. It was a time of growth for the sweeps, albeit that it wasn’t a particularly well-paid job.

The whole technology had changed too. Whereas the original purpose of chimneys was to get rid of the smoke, as they evolved, the chimney because a means of creating a draft in order to help keep the fires alight, hence the chimneys became angled and smaller. And harder to clean. They were no longer straight up and down, despite how they appeared from the outside.

Bear in mind that there was no Universal Credit or JSA in those days. If you were poor or in debt you could easily end up in the Workhouse. Little boys (and, sometimes girls) who were orphaned, or whose parents were unable to afford to keep them, were indentured to Master Sweeps as apprentices.

It seems that the optimum age for them starting their apprenticeship was age 6 – any younger and they were generally considered to be too weak, any older and they would get too big before they had finished their apprenticeship. The fact that they weren’t meant to be too big probably gave the Master Sweep a good excuse for not feeding them too much.


The climbing boys were expected to clean four or five chimneys a day and it was a dangerous life. There was a danger that the boys would get stuck in the chimney (in which case the Master Sweep and other apprentices would either try pulling them out from the top, by means of rope, or from the bottom. If that failed, some of the bricks would have to be removed. The owners of the property did not want a body stuck up their chimney and one way or another, it had to be removed.

The sweeps would get cuts and grazes in the early days of their career, particularly on their knees and elbows, so the Master Sweeps would stand them next to a hot fire and rub in a brine solution, using a brush, to harden the skin. Sounds delightful.

Owing to the lack of space in the chimney, the boys would take off a lot of their clothes, sometimes going up the chimneys naked to sweep them. As if this wasn’t enough, the boys didn’t get paid, the boys had to sleep on soot covered sacks, rarely got to wash, and in late teens or early twenties, would often suffer from Chimney Sweeps’ Carcinoma. The sweeps called it Soot Wart. Whatever you call it, it sounds awful.

Soot is carcinogenic, and it was common disease in sweeps. It seems that soot particles would get caught in the skin around the scrotum. As we already know, personal hygiene was not a criterion for the job, so the soot would often stay in close contact with the skin.  A cancerous sore would develop.  It usually didn’t develop until the sweep was in his late teens or early twenties and was usually fatal.

The law did change in 1788, to give sweeps more protection, and over time, more laws were passed to improve their working conditions, although much of it was ignored for sometime.  Mechanical brushes replaced boys going up chimneys and building regulations changing the construction of chimneys were changed.  Eventually, it changed to being the man I remember and nowadays, it’s a far more technical job, involving diagnosis of hazards and repair as well as cleaning.

It is still considered lucky for a bride to see a chimney sweep on her wedding day, so some sweeps hire themselves out for this purpose, which is far more pleasant end to the story.

© Susan Shirley 2018



27 October 2018 was Black Cat Appreciation Day. I am a long-time lover of black cats (and dogs) and am always upset by the fact that Black cats (and dogs) are less likely to be rehomed than other colours. Why? It seems that one of the more recent reasons is that they (allegedly) don’t look so good in selfies (of course, I disagree, but then, I am totally biased). Or is that their connection with witches and bad luck persists?

They weren’t always considered unlucky

In Ancient Egypt, up to about 310AD, black cats were considered to be far from unlucky. All cats were considered to be sacred an worshipped. In fact, they were believed to be descended directly from the Gods. That is clearly a genetic trait that has passed on, at least to my cats, who expect that same level of adoration and are relentless if I don’t deliver the goods.

In medieval Europe, perhaps because of their nocturnal nature, cats were believed to be associated with witches and the supernatural. In Christian cultures, white is the colour of good and purity, black is the colour of the dark side…

At around this time in Europe, witch-hunting was big business (a story for another day but women – it was generally women – who were accused of witchcraft were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. In England, they were put is a ducking stool, and plunged into a pond. If they survived, it was considered to be proven that they were witches, and they’d be burned alive, their cats with them. If they drowned, they were innocent, although too late for them.

As if all that wasn’t enough, in 1233AD, Pope Gregory IX (who had clearly been a mouse in a previous life) declared that black cats were an incarnation of the devil! The Christians (hmm, struggling with this a bit, seems a contradiction to me) gathered up all the black cats they could find and burned them alive at village festivals.

There were a number of other beliefs about black cats and witches, perhaps the most common being that they were “witches’ familiars,” and helped them in their pursuit of witchcraft. (Trust me when I tell you this is not true. Many, many times, I have pleaded with my black cats to magic me a shed load of money. I am still waiting.). They were also believed to be in touch with the underworld because they went out at night. Again not true. My girls curl up and that bed and only budge when I move.

And in some places, it is different

I was brought up to believe it’s good luck when a black cat crosses your path, which is also true in Japan and there are other places where they are believed to bring good luck:

  • In Italy, if you hear a black cat sneeze, it is supposed to bring a streak of good luck. (Gotta tell you folks that in 17 years of owning black cats, I’ve never heard one sneeze.)
  • It is considered lucky to own a black cat in Asia.
  • Black cats are supposed to be good luck at sea, according to European tradition.
  • In Scotland, a black cat appearing on your doorstep is a sign of prosperity.
  • In Japan, black cats are believed to bring good luck, especially to single women, as they are supposed to be a lure for the right man…
  • In Russia, black cats are considered lucky.

In my house, cats rule, not just the black ones, although my personal belief is that black cats have a louder purr than others (I used Titan’s purr as my ringtone for many years). If you can’t love them, don’t be cruel to them.


© Susan Shirley 2018



I moved over to hosted blogs a few years ago.  I thought it was a good move.  And it was ok, until recently, when I discovered I had white pages.  I rolled back to when it was all working, but my hosting company was less than helpful – basically, they wanted me to pay more money to them.  Not happening.  So, here I am, back on


I’ve transferred all my blog posts over (I will probably have to do this with another one, too), so everything from now on.


© Susan Shirley November 2018


As a young teenager, I lived in Sharpthorne, West Sussex, not far from the Bluebell Railway. And yet, my first visit to the railway was a few weeks ago. I went with a friend, Sheena, and had an enjoyable day out.

We took the train from Victoria to East Grinstead station The Bluebell Railway is next door. We had plenty of time before the next train, so had a cup of tea in the old railway carriage that doubles as a tea room. Pink geraniums in hanging baskets outside finished off the 1950s effect.

Tea carriage

When our train came in, it uncoupled from the carriages and reversed back to the other end of the train. We wondered if there was a turntable to rotate the engine but it appears not. It coupled up and the tender reversed along. We boarded, Sheena found the bar, bought us a mini bottle of wine each and so our journey began.

The Bluebell Railway runs from East Grinstead to Sheffield Park. It stops at Kingscote and Horsted Keynes on route, although not all trains stop at Kingscote. Apart from East Grinstead, they were all built in 1882 in the ‘Queen Anne’ style

All the stations have appeared in television shows at some time or other.

The Bluebell Railway has quite a history, with a line opening in around 1878. Worth noting, too, that most people would have had to walk to their local station. I imagine for most of them, that would have taken more than ten minutes… I remember my Mum telling me that she had a ten mile walk to and from school every day…

In 1954, the powers that be decided to close the line. Although challenged by local residents, the closure took place. It happened a few weeks earlier than scheduled, due to a rail strike. Then, as now, people power prevailed, and a bitter battle between British Railways and the users of the line began. It lasted for three years. The line re-opened in 1956, but British Railways challenged the Act that has caused it to be re-opened. The Act was repealed and the line way closed again on 17 March 1958.

Horsted Keynes Station

Almost a year later, the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society was born, with the aim of re-opening the whole line. Sadly, the plans came to nothing. It wasn’t until 1974 when the society managed to buy the freehold for West Hoathly station, by then demolished, that they started to work on re-opening the line to East Grinstead. The society bought the freehold for Kingscote Station in 1985, which enabled it to press on with its plans.

In April 1994, the society successfully completed the section of track between Horsted Keynes and Kingscote, which included re-laying the section through the Sharpthorne Tunnel. This is 731 yards long (668 metres) and is, I am reliably informed, the longest stretch of track through a tunnel on any UK heritage line.

All the stations on the Bluebell Line are well-maintained and appear to be decked out in the style that they would have been back in their hey-day, as in this photograph below…. Where is Jane Marple? However, that is only part of the story. Sheffield Park station has been restored to look like a Victorian station. Horsted Keynes resembles a Southern Railway station from around the 1930s and Kingscote from the 1950s. East Grinstead itself, where I took this photograph is supposed to be restored to the 1950s and 1960s.

When the train stops at Sheffield Park, there is a museum, a gift shop several places you can buy snacks. There is also a big pub where you can buy a meal and have a drink. All very nicely done.

You can get to East Grinstead on a train out of London Victoria. A standard adult fare on the Bluebell is £19, although it is cheaper if you book online in advance. For more details, see the link below:


© Susan Shirley 2018


Having a drink recently with some colleagues, we got to talking out the ‘old money’ – LSD. Pounds, shillings and pence. Of course, my colleagues laughed when I referred to it as LSD; they were younger than I and were thinking of something else.

The UK changed from LSD to decimal currency on 15 February 1971. I was struggling to remember the origins of the old coinage. I remember ha’pennies and my Mum used to talk about farthings. And, of course, there is the brides’ rhyme for their wedding day:

Something old, something new
Something borrowed, something blue
Silver sixpence in your shoe

We had LSD in this country since the Norman Conquest, but it was Henry II who introduced the system we had up until 1971. We called it LSD because the pound (L or £) was derived from the word Libra, a Roman unit of weight. The s was a shilling, denoted /- (the slash is also known as a solidus). The d was for the pennies, from a Roman coin called the denarius.

When Henry II introduced this system, it was based on Troy weights, an old system of weighing precious metals. A penny was one pennyweight of silver, and 240 pennyweights of silver. Thus, there were 20 shillings to the pound, and 12 pence to the shilling, 240 pence to the pound, but it didn’t stop there, as in most currencies, there were other coins, and some of them had nicknames:

Farthings (a corruption of “fourthings” – a quarter of a penny)
Ha’pennies (a corruption of “half pennies”)
Threepenny bits (three pence. I was rather fond of these 12 sided coins with a portcullis on one side)
A groat (Fourpence)
A tanner (a six penny piece)

A shilling was also known as a “bob” (has anyone heard of “bob a job week?”)
Florin (two shillings)
Half a crown (two shillings and six pence)
A crown (five shillings)
A 10 shilling note, before that a half Sovereign coin.
£1 was called a Sovereign aka a “quid.”
A Guinea (£1 1/- or £1 and 1 shilling, it was called a Guinea because it was originally a gold coin, made from gold from the Guinea coast)

Even when we changed to decimal currency, we still had nicknames, some of which had been around since LSD:

Currency Nickname Cockney Rhyming Slang
6d tanner Tartan Banner
£1 nicker
£5 fiver Lady Godiva
£10 tenner Paul McKenna or Ayrton Senna
£25 pony
£50 Half a ton
£100 Ton
£500 a monkey
£1000 a grand

Adding up in the old currency was fun – you had to add the penny’s column in 12s, the shillings column in 20s. I am sure it improved our maths. Will we revert to LSD after Brexit? I doubt it. It would be an added complication. Alas, I fear, libra and denarius, as well as shillings, are lost to us forever.

© Susan Shirley 2018


My trip to the US was a long-time ago, or so it seemed, and I wanted to go away to celebrate my next birthday.
I was chatting about it to my mate, Theresa (aka Hot Chocolate, as she is oft referred to in this blog)
“Where are you going?”
“To the Isle of Wight. I haven’t been there for a very long time.”
“Isle of Wight? Where Kim lives?”
Kim is an ex-colleague.
“Who you going with?”
“On my own.”
“Do you fancy some company?”
T and I worked together for years, and we know each other well. We know each other’s little quirks. We both like the odd glass of wine. Going away together really was a no-brainer. In fact, the only reason it hasn’t happened before is that we couldn’t do it when we worked together. I explained that I‘d already booked the hotel and that I could get the booking amended, etc. Game on.
T and I met at Waterloo Station. Under the clock that has been the start of so many relationships, covert meetings and who knows what else? Armed with a couple of cappuccini, a bottle of fizz for the train and enough clothes to keep a full battalion of soldiers going for several months, we boarded our train for Portsmouth Harbour.
I hadn’t been to Portsmouth since the mid 90’s and I knew things had changed. I also knew I didn’t remember it well. Presumably, something to do with alcoholic haze. Looking online, I hadn’t been able to get a real feel for the distance from the station to the ferry port. I thought we might have to get a cab…. Not realising that they are so close as to almost share an umbilical cord. No cab was necessary.
We were booked on the 13.15 crossing but were there early enough for the 12.15. Fortunately for us, the very nice young man let us board straight away. I suppose it would have been different if they’d been fully booked…
We arrived in Ryde about half an hour later and got the little train to Shanklin, where we were staying. All our paperwork told us that we couldn’t check into the hotel until 15.00 so we and our suitcases (my large suitcase and Theresa’s more moderate sized one) went for a mooch about the town. We found a pub called the Falcon which looked ok, and, outside, it said it served food.
Inside, the music was good, but no food, so a couple of glasses of Pinot later, we were on our way. We walked the full length of the High Street, up and down to a little pub called The Crab. We walked past it the first time around because, as the famous thatched roof was being re-thatched and it was hard to see, but soon realised our mistake and turned back.
We were glad we stopped off here, for several reasons. Firstly, it was proper pub food, nothing too fancy, but good, old-fashioned food. Secondly, we were among only about half a dozen customers when we entered, so when we ordered food, it arrived quickly. Thirdly, the barman, Dave, was an absolute sweetheart. He was also a Manc, so he and T had a lot to talk about. (I may have neglected to mention her northern heritage before.)
A bottle of wine between us, half a roast chicken with corn on the cob and proper, fat chips…. Heaven for two hungry girls. Dave gave us directions to our hotel, so off we trotted.
The hotel receptionist (who also turned out to be the manageress) was very helpful. She gave us a bus timetable and map, a local street map and some other info about things to do on the island. We settled in our room and promptly fell asleep for several hours. It’s one of the things that Theresa and I have in common, we both like to sleep. We rest when we need to. It makes spending time together much easier when you don’t have to comply with conventional behaviour.
We went for a drink in the bar but decided it was still too early to sleep after our mammoth afternoon nap, so we went for a walk down to the seafront. A midnight stroll is always pleasurable, especially when it’s windy and not too cold. It was very quiet and there was not much to see, but that’s the way I like it, it gives my imagination a chance to work overtime.
We crept back into our hotel around 1 am, like a pair of naughty schoolgirls and went to bed. Properly this time.
Breakfast the following morning was served between 07.00 and 09.00, so we went down about 08.00 and settled down for a Full English. We swapped a few things and probably ended up each having a full meal. Back to the room to get our gear and off we trotted for the buses to take us to Osborne House.
I was pleasantly surprised with the buses on the island, they were punctual and the bus drivers were very friendly. We also bought a 48-hour pass which cost us about £15; considerably more economical than buying individual tickets.
We had to get a bus to Ryde to go to Osborne House, so travel was a couple of hours. It was worth the journey. There is a lot to see.
We started our visit at the Swiss Cottage, built by Albert for his children. It sits in its own gardens, mostly vegetable, that the children used to tend themselves. Nowadays, it’s a museum with a range of collections from stuffed birds to crystals to collections from the Far East.
Osborne House
Moving on from here, we went to the beach. It was warm and peaceful here, easy to see why Queen Victoria loved it so much. Her bathing machine has been restored to its former glory. The bathing machine had a changing room and a veranda in which the Queen could change into her swimming costume in private. It would then take her into the sea (it ran on rails) where she had a dip and then return to get changed in private.
From there, we walked up to the main house. We were both absolutely stunned by the beauty of the gardens. The colours of the flower beds both complemented and contrasted at the same time. Lots of purples, greys and reds. I’m not good with the names of flowers, I think there was a Salvia in there somewhere, but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. Of course, alongside the flowers was the architecture. It is stunning, very grand, and built in the style of an Italian Renaissance Palazzo, by the same company that built the main façade at Buckingham Palace. After being a home for the Victorian Royal Family, it had a couple of other iterations, as both a Royal Naval College and an officers’ convalescent home before being taken over by English Heritage. It was a lovely visit.
The following day we went inland, to a craft village at Arreton Barns, describing itself as ‘the island’s largest centre for arts and crafts.’ It was a popular little place, with quite a lot for children to do. The pub there, the Dairyman’s Daughter, did a lot of lunches which looked to be extremely good value – had we not already had a massive breakfast, I dare say we would have participated too.
That evening, we found a fantastic restaurant, Morgans. The food was excellent, the best belly pork I’ve ever had. You can see my review of it here:
The following day, we came home. We had enough time to get the bus back to Ryde, rather than the train, thus using our bus tickets. We walked up from the bus station to the ferry port – it’s not a long walk and there wasn’t too much traffic, so it was easy enough. The pontoon is designed for two-way traffic. The pedestrian path is quite narrow, so when there are people going both ways, one of you has to walk on the road.
Time for a coffee before our ferry, then a train ride home, back to normal life. Until the next time.
© Susan Shirley 2018


It was still hot in the Big Apple. Very hot. Still 95 degrees, and that was early in the day as we were on our way to breakfast.

On the second day, we visited Tiffany the Empire State Building, interspersed with a few pit stops because of the heat. Tiffany because I had some birthday money left over and wanted to buy myself something and it’s a ‘must do’ in New York. (Actually, it’s a ‘must do’ anywhere, in my opinion. There is a look and feel in them that I love.). As we were walking along Fifth Avenue, we popped into Saks, largely because it was air-conditioned and we needed to cool down. We managed to get a bit of a make-over – we were both ‘glowing’ when we got there. Like most stores, the cosmetics section is at the front and the assistants took pity on us. Either that or we looked so bedraggled that we were lowering the tone. The lovely ladies gave us some more water before we continued on our journey.

The last time I’d been to New York I had wanted to visit the Empire State but the weather was bad and the winds were too high. Like so many tall buildings, they close the viewing platforms in weather like that, so this was to be my first time.

View from the Empire State viewing platform

The Empire State Building is an example of that beautiful Art Deco design that was prevalent in New York in the 1930s. One of the things that about New York that sets it aside from other cities. The Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world until 1970. It’s still an imposing sight.

It was built as an office block, although as its opening coincided with the Great Depression, much of it was empty for some time. The observation decks were opened to the public, for a fee, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that it actually started to make a profit.

There is, understandably, a lot of security there, and you get to the viewing platform by taking a series of lifts (they don’t want random people popping into the office areas, do they?). There is a lot of information about the building inside the public area at the top of the building. If you feel so inclined, you can have your photograph taken with someone dressed up as King Kong.

Nowadays there is a bar on the ground floor, as well as the ubiquitous gift shop and a drug store. We had a couple of drinks in the bar, to fortify ourselves before stepping outside again.

The next day was our last, and we visited Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building, another Art Deco skyscraper. I’d stayed further along in East 42nd on my first visit to NY, but I hadn’t been inside, so it was a treat for me too.

The Chrysler Building was the tallest building in the world for only 11 months before the Empire State took over. It was the headquarters of the Chrysler Corporation from 1930 until the mid-1950s. An interesting fact about it is that the corporation didn’t pay for it, Walter P Chrysler paid for it himself. He wanted his family to inherit it rather than the company.

There are no tours, but the ground entrance floor is open to the public and is stunning. Lots of marble and engravings and some useful facts. And it was cool.

Some interesting, little-known facts about the Chrysler Building:

1. There used to be a Speakeasy near to the top of the building. Called the Cloud Club, it was originally built for the Texaco company which occupied 14 floors. It was closed in the late 1970s to make way for more offices.

2. Walter P Chrysler had an apartment on the top floor. There was also another apartment on the 61st floor. This was where photographer Margaret Bourke-White, famous for her photographs of Skyscrapers, lived.

3. In the early days of the building, there was a water-bottling plant in the basement.

4. The observation deck on the 71st floor closed to the public in 1945.

5. There was a car showroom on the first two floors.

6. The top of the spire is filled with reinforced concrete.

7. Everyone (me included) thinks that the top of the building is made from hub caps. Not so. It’s actually a German-made sheet of metal crafted to look that way.

8. The Chrysler Building and the building at 40 Wall Street were in competition to be the world’s tallest building before the Empire State was built. Thus the spire was constructed in secret, in four separate pieces. It took about an hour and a half to put them on the top of the building.

From here, we walked a short distance up to Grand Central Station. Grand Central opened in 1871 as Grand Central Depot. It wasn’t until February 1913 that it opened to the public as Grand Central Terminal, which is still its correct title. One of its most stunning features is the astronomical ceiling in the main hall, designed in 1912.

Grand Central Terminal

Surprisingly, what should be east is west and vice versa on the ceiling. The ceiling was allowed to fall into disrepair, started to leak and within 11 years it was in a very sad state. It wasn’t until 1944 that work was undertaken to repair and restore it. In fact, a completely new mural was painted, in much less detail than the original.

That said, it is still a beautiful concourse and well worth a visit. Especially as there are coffee shops and places to eat in the surrounding areas. We didn’t have time to hang around here, we had a ‘plane to catch.

© Susan Shirley 2018