Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Suited for Winter: Prada Menswear 2012

Blustery winds and cool mornings have had me reaching for the central heating switch at home, and dusting off my winter coat. Although the fashion world works months in advance, and despite the fact that I might have read Vogue's September issue last month, I'm only now giving serious thought to what I'll be wrapping myself up in during the coming cold months. And yet this post isn't even about womenswear, because today, in a blog-first, I'm instead turning my eye to menswear.

Gary Oldman, Jamie Bell, Garrett Hedlund & Willem Dafoe for Prada
Prada's Autumn/Winter 2012 Menswear campaign, shot by David Sims, makes me very happy for a number of reasons. Firstly, it features some of my most favourite actors, and secondly, they look sharply turned out. But there's a third reason, too: Messrs Oldman et al are the kind of men who would ooze cool whatever they wore, but the sleek tailoring of the Prada collection elevates them into the stratosphere.The collection is heavily influenced by the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, mixing the strong tailoring of the period with elements of quirky Steampunk.

The key points of the collection:

Double-breasted: These days, you're most likely to see a double-breasted suit on the likes of the Duke of Edinburgh, and featured in the (*ahem*) 'Classic' section at Mark & Spencers. It's a difficult look for a gentleman to pull off, with the double row of buttons often having an unfortunate widening effect across the midriff. Here, though, both the slightly elongated length and higher lapels of the jacket worn by Willem Dafoe make for a more flattering cut, reminiscent of late nineteenth and early twentieth century lounge suits. 

Men About Town: A 1909 Harrods Advertisement.
Military Style: Jamie Bell also sports a double-breasted jacket, combined with high-waisted trousers, and while it looks good on him within the confines of the editorial, I'm not convinced this is a look many men would be willing to wear. Not unless they were off to a Victorian-themed battle re-enactment, that is.It also has shades of a Downton Abbey Footman's uniform about it, too, dare I say? Yet despite the military influence to this look (which I always love to see),this outfit definitely has more of a film costume feel to it than anything else.

Is Jamie Bell possibly hoping for a Footman role on Downton Abbey...?
Tailored Overcoats: Again, double breasted, looking equally good buttoned up or down. The double-breasted look becomes much more flattering as the length of the coat increases. By cleverly elongating the silhouette, attention is taken away from the buttons across the midriff, creating a sense of balance and proportion. Special mention has to go to Gary Oldman's striking red brocade version with grey fur-trimmed lapels,not unlike the hunting attire of a country gentleman. 

Steampunk Pocket Details: There are some excellent details to be spotted in the front pockets - crisply folded pocket squares,bejewelled and cameo pins, bright buttonhole flowers, round sunglasses and (my favourite) big, thick pens fixed to front pockets with an elegant clip.

Use of colour and print: Along with the neutral blacks, whites and greys, there are handsome contrasts in deep reds, luxurious purples, stripes and striking prints on waistcoats and jackets alike.

The Smoking Jacket/Trenchcoat Hybrid: What better way for a Victorian gentleman to relax in his library, than to don a comfortable smoking jacket and silk cravat to fend off autumnal chills? Prada's take is to combined the relaxed tailoring and comfortable printed silks of traditional smoking jackets, and add the structure of a trenchcoat belt. 

Oscar Wilde, Smoking Jacket Aficionado, 1882
Buttoned Up (but no tie): Shirts are pristine white or grey, with an impeccably starched stiffness reflecting the most formal of Victorian and Edwardian portraits. There is, however, the very distinct absence of a tie, but top buttons are staunchly fastened. The quirky touch here is again, something I don't feel would be adopted for mainstream wear; throughout the shoot, co-ordinating turtleneck tops are worn underneath shirts, peeping out over the top of the collar. To me, it seems like a modern take on the starched and elaborately arranged early nineteenth century neckties, pioneered by Regency style icon, Beau Brummel.

The Regency Collar in action: Alexander MacKenzie by Sir Thomas Lawrence, c.1800
In conclusion, the ad-campaign is the winning combination of a beautifully groomed stellar cast, slick,the clean tailoring for which Prada is rightly famed, strong historical references, and the fun of the Steampunk genre.

Prada campaign images courtesy of The Pursuitist.
Harrods Advertisement courtesy of
Downton Abbey image courtesy of Spoiler TV.
Oscar Wilde image courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A Costume Drama with the Downton Abbey Cast

As well as being some of the heaviest monthly publications you'll buy all year, the September issues of the glossy fashion magazines are dripping with eye candy. After summer spreads advocating the lightest beach wear, September's autumn/winter previews are a heady assault on the senses, rich with colour and texture. The fashion editorials are also often spectacular and inventive in their own right, too, with evocative stories played out through pages bursting with couture creations.

I'll largely ignore summer magazines and hold out for the September issues. Along with the November issues, published in time for Christmas, they are my favourite fashion reading of the whole year. Not only that, they make the prospect of colder weather and shorter days much more palatable when faced with the kaleidoscope of future fashion trends.

Today I want to share an editorial special I came across in Love Magazine, by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot. I mentioned eye candy at the start of this post, and this photoshoot sums up the term perfectly. It also combines my love of creative fashion photography with another love of mine - period drama, and in particular, Downton Abbey. While I eagerly await Series Three, I'm very pleased to see the Ladies Mary, Edith and Sybil (and dastardly footman Thomas, too) dressed and made up to ethereal perfection, in a provocative editorial laden with historical references. 

Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith) artfully wrapped in pastel tulle with frothy pink hair and headdress - a modern, pop take on the vertical eighteenth century hairstyle of choice - the pouf

Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) resplendent with amazing electric blue pouf and floral accessories. Modern-hued eye make-up provides contrast to pale, Georgian style white foundation and matte-stained lips, all framed with a black widow-like veil.

There is something of a 'Forbidden Garden' theme about parts of this shoot,as evidenced by Jessica Brown-Findlay (Lady Sybil). Deathly pale skin plays up voluptuous cherry red lips and raven locks dishevelled and entwined with flowers. And then, of course, there's that beautiful Vivienne Westwood corset.

Yet more poufs swathed in net; their elaborate construction this time acting as a foil for naked bodies covered casually in bed sheets - Downton girls Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael are joined by a male model,also (bizarrely) coiffed in an eighteenth century style.

Inspiration isn't only found within the eighteenth century. There are some slick modern touches with a twist of Gothic and a little vintage style glamour thrown in for good measure. Here below, Laura Carmichael and Rob James-Collier strike a pose (while the model extra appears to have passed out).

In sharp contrast to the Lady Edith we see on our screens, Laura Carmichael (below) reclines in evening wear, confident and poised,cigarette nonchalantly in hand.

Jessica Brown-Findlay has the look of a Gothic heroine (below), here in a Victorian style nightgown. It's a beautiful shot, made even more striking in black and white.

And finally, back to eighteenth century inspirations: Michelle Dockery (below), wearing a vintage corset from the National Theatre Costume Hire, looks to the heavens (and that electric blue hair). The red tinged eye make-up has the strange look of bloodied tears; maybe Michelle is feeling the pain in that super-tight corset...? 

It's a beautifully shot, creatively imagined editorial; surreal and fantastical in places and sharp and glamorous in others. Not only does it showcase beautiful couture pieces, but also the acting talents of the Downton Abbey cast. Roll on Series Three, I can't wait! 

Images courtesy of Oh No They Didn't!

Friday, 27 July 2012

Happy Olympic Friday!

Captured at my local train station on a glorious Summer's day (yes, really! No...honestly!)
The preparations have been made and the waiting is over: today is the day that the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games officially opens. To everybody involved in whatever capacity, I wish the very best of luck, and for myself and the rest of us spectating, I wish a truly jaw-dropping Opening Ceremony and an exciting two weeks of sport. 

Now, on the face of it, saying something like, "I'm really excited about the Olympics," may seem like the most innocuous statement someone could make, and yet I'm finding that in some quarters, it isn't. In fact, it's proving quite incendiary. For every voice that agrees with my own feelings about the games, there comes, at times, a louder and sometimes positively furious stream of negativity. Now, I understand perfectly that the Olympics are not everybody's idea of a good time. Just as I suspect I might melt at the sight of a single episode of the X Factor or Britain's Got Talent, so too would some people when taking a glimpse at an Olympic event. 

Sport aside, I've both heard and read varying degrees of negativity about the games, from shrugging apathy to outright contempt, and that's fine, honestly, if that's how you feel.

There are many, many news articles bemoaning the 2012 Games, and it seems that at times, the press have been baying for blood. I, too could fill page after page with criticisms about incompetent organisation, but like any major event, there are always issues to pick fault with, and always negative statements to be made. 

Does it become almost easier to criticise than to celebrate? Is it justifiable to remark on the amount of public spending contributing to the Olympic Games while forgetting the countless other uses of public money that circle the drain of complete waste? And isn't it easier to talk about the evils of corporate sponsorship when you forget that most of us buy into these huge, global companies day after day on our trips to the supermarket?

The Olympic Games is first and foremost about sport - about watching athletes perform at the highest level, and at the very peak of their powers. To concentrate only on the negative while forgetting the whole reason for the event in the first place takes away from the dedication these athletes have put into their pursuits and doesn't give proper credit to their superhuman efforts.
So today, on the day the world looks to my historic, contradictory, infuriating, beautiful capital city, I'm not afraid to say that I'm excited, and that I'm happy, genuinely happy that the Olympics Games are being held in London. I'm looking forward to watching the best of the world's athletes, and I'm also looking forward to an Opening Ceremony that encapsulates everything wonderful about the country I call home. There's nothing wrong with entertaining, nothing wrong with forgetting your troubles and being swept along in a joyful moment. So please don't pity me for taking so much pleasure in this event, because I'm not going to let you - I'll be too busy enjoying myself.

Photo by me.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Seeing Britain From Above

The Britain From Above  project was launched online yesterday; a fantastic collaboration between English Heritage and the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and Wales, making a massive collection of aerial photographs taken in Britain between 1919 and 1953 available for public viewing.

Thousands of images covering the length and breadth of the country have been restored and catalogued, and are a wonderful testament to the skill and daring of the aerial photographers involved in the creation of the Aerofilms Collection.

If you visit the Britain From Above website, beware. You'll probably disappear down a rabbit-hole like me, and emerge a good while later. The website is a well-designed experience, designed to promote discussion, as well as to help the project team identify a number of images with mysteriously unknown locations. 

You can create a profile to engage with other users and offer opinions as to photo locations, as well as being able to search the huge database via an interactive map and search tool. And if the map proves somewhat overwhelming, you can also browse several well thought out categories and sections.

This is a fantastic project that gives us the chance to view famous landmarks, beautiful countryside - and even our home towns and cities - from a point of view we don't usually enjoy. They are a massively important historical and geographical record of Britain; a fascinating, evocative and spectacular portrait of how much our landscapes have altered in many ways, but in others, remained firmly the same.

Here are a few of my favourites...

"The Three Graces', Liverpool, 1928 - The Royal Liver Building, Cunard Building & Port of Liverpool Building

Blackpool Tower, Pier & Beach, 1920

Central Station & Albion Street, Manchester, 1921

Conwy Castle, North Wales, 1927

Etruria Pottery Works, Stoke-on-Trent, 1928

Gay Street & The Circus, Bath, 1920

Holy Island, 1947

Kensal Green, London, 1921

Snowdonia, North Wales

St. Paul's Cathedral, London, 1921

View over Worcester

All images courtesy of the Britain From Above project.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned: Dressing Down, Seventeenth Century Style

The fantastically titled, The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned exhibition opened at Hampton Court Palace on the 5th April this year. Running until the 30th September, it tells the story of "beauty, debauchery and decadent art in the late Stuart court." In the sumptuous setting of Hampton Court Palace, visitors will be guided through the royal apartments of Queen Mary II, have a chance to view portraits of leading royal and court figures (including King Charles II's infamous mistresses, Barbara Palmer and Nell Gwyn), and learn about the fashionable (and often turbulent) lives of the glitterati who surrounded the monarchs of the late Stuart dynasty, from Charles II to Queen Anne. 

With such a wealth of late seventeenth century glamour on display from artists like Sir Peter Lely, what immediately sprung to my mind were the seductive portraits of court beauties in variations of an informal kind of gown. Sleepy eyed and loosely attired, the women in these images give us an excellent insight into a popular style of aristocratic dress in that period...or rather undress.
Sir Peter Lely, Elizabeth, Countess of Kildare, c. 1679, Tate Gallery
Known as a 'nightgown', this was a more informal type of dress used by aristocratic wives and royal mistresses alike for entertaining friends and (perhaps more importantly) lovers, in the more relaxed setting of one's boudoir. This wasn't the seventeenth century equivalent of answering the front door in your pyjamas and slippers - definitely not. This kind of gown was not a nightdress in the real sense of the word. Made of silk and constructed along the same lines as a more formal gown, it could be laced tightly or loosely, depending on personal preference and occasion. With a low-cut neckline, they could also be worn without a corset, too. It isn't difficult to see why the royal court beauties (and in particular, Charles II's mistresses) favoured this style so much.
After Sir Peter Lely, Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, c.1666, National Portrait Gallery
In her latest TV series for BBC 4, Harlots, Heroines & Housewives: A Seventeenth Century History for Girls, the brilliant historian (and Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces - including Hampton Court) Lucy Worsley gives viewers an illuminating and practical demonstration of the nightgown, dressed by fellow historian, Joanna Marschner. (See the video at the foot of this post). In her own words, she describes the gown as feeling " it could quite easily just, sort of, fall off," thus giving your lover, as the two historians discuss, exactly the view you would "...both wish for." It's also worth pointing out that this was definitely not an egalitarian fashion. It was not the kind of gown worn every day by those women whose work was physically demanding, and for a maid-servant to appear before her own mistress in such a way would have been socially unthinkable. As unfair as this seems to modern sensibilities, the nightgown was a trend for royalty and aristocracy only, and in the title words of the exhibition at Hampton Court, the 'wild' and 'beautiful' ladies and courtesans who inhabited the gilded cage of Charles II's court. 

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Q&A: Books

Before I begin today's post, I do have to apologise to The Pampered Sparrow,who posted the below quiz on her favourite books and reading habits. The rules state that you must tag people to take up the challenge, but, well, she didn't tag me - no, I saw this and thought it was such a good idea, I'd join in, too, so I hope she doesn't mind! I enjoyed reading The Pampered Sparrow's answers, and I'm always interested to hear what other people are reading. So, here are the rules of the game, and my answers below:

1. Post these rules.
2. Post a photo of your favourite book cover.
3. Answer the questions below.
4. Tag a few people to answer them, too.
5. Go to their blog/Twitter and tell them you've tagged them.
6. Make sure you tell the person who tagged you that you've taken part!

Part of a beautiful complete set of Jane Austen's books - a brilliant Christmas present from my parents.
What are you reading right now?
The Rose Garden, by Susanna Kearsley

Do you have any idea what you’ll read when you’re done with that?
I’ve got A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, by Barbara Tuchman lined up and waiting. It’s rare for a book classed as a narrative history to be praised by academic historians, but this book was recommended to me by a professor at university, and it’s been on my shelf ever since. Covering war, uprising, famine and plague, Tuchman makes easy and enjoyable reading of some heavy material.

What 5 books have you always wanted to read but haven’t got round to?
Sepulchre, by Kate Mosse
The Uses and Abuses of History, by Margaret Macmillan
The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

What magazines do you have in your bathroom/lounge right now?

, InStyle, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, National Geographic.

What’s the worst book you've ever read?
The Silmarillion, by J.R.R Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien. See below for my thoughts on The Lord of the Rings, then multiply the dry and heavy feeling mentioned below by a hundred to imagine the soporific effect The Silmarillion had on me.

What book seems really popular but you actually hated?
The Lord of the Rings – technically a trilogy, but they are often lumped together in one volume, and I’m afraid that’s how I found the whole experience of reading it: lumpy. Now, The Hobbit, I love -Tolkien wrote it for his children, and it’s a magical story with everything I loved to read about as a child – dragons, dwarves, elves, giant spiders, wizards, spells, a creepy cave-dwelling creature, and lots of descriptions of fantastic meals.The Lord of the Rings, however, for me, is stilted and as dry and heavy as a month old cake. I once read that poor Tolkien got so fed up with writing the trilogy, that he took several years off before completing it. It was much the same when I read it, too. In the end I think it took me about a year to get through, and it felt like a really hard slog. Never again.

What’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone?
Silent in the Grave, by Deanna Raybourn. It’s the first in a series, set in the late Victorian period, and centred on the adventures of Lady Julia Grey. The first book opens with the grisly death of Lady Julia’s husband, and follows the investigation from start to finish. It’s pacey, twisted and dark, but with elegant comic touches. I’ve virtually vacuumed up all of her books so far, and it also helps that I know her to be a thoroughly lovely and gracious lady, too.

What are your 3 favourite poems?
Sonnet 116, by William Shakespeare – the most beautiful testament to enduring love.
If, by Rudyard Kipling – a favourite of my Dad’s, and hearing him recite this regularly (and loudly) has ingrained my appreciation of it!
Stanzas For Music, by Byron – hopelessly romantic, but with a lovely rhythm as you read it, too.

Where do you usually get your books?

Lots of places – online at Amazon and The Book Depository, out and about at Waterstones and WH Smith, and at the countless independent bookshops I wander into.

Where do you usually read your books?

Anywhere with a comfortable chair.

When you were little, did you have any particular reading habits?

If reading anything and everything at top speed can be classed as a habit, then yes!

What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn’t put it down? 

This will make me sound very dull, but these days sleep usually wins any fight I have to stay awake when reading at night.
Have you ever “faked” reading a book?

No way. It leaves you wide open to looking like a complete fool if someone tries to start an in-depth discussion with you about it!

Have you ever bought a book just because you liked the cover?

I know cover-art these days is meticulously thought out by marketing wizards, and I’m a sucker for an interesting cover, but of course, what appeals to my eye doesn’t necessarily appeal to someone else’s. There are some beautiful and eye-catching covers out there, and if I’m in a book shop and see something I like the look of, I’ll stop, pick it up and read the blurb on the back. Sometimes I even have a cheeky flick through the pages -but never break the spine. That’s an unforgiveable act on an un-purchased book, and a privilege expressly reserved for the owner – So, in summary after all that rambling, no, a cover alone will not persuade me to a book, but it’ll certainly hook me on the line.

What was your favourite book when you were a child?

I had too many to single out, but some have stayed with me into adulthood, I love them that much. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, and all of Roald Dahl’s children’s books are still on my shelves today.

What book changed your life?

There haven’t been any single earth-shattering, dramatic changes in my life as a result of reading one certain book, but great words have the power to pass on knowledge, change a mood, and inspire thoughts (and sometimes actions), both large and small.

What is your favourite passage from a book?
If pressed to choose, it would be Captain Wentworth’s love-letter to Anne Eliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion,
“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
F. W.
I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never.” 

What are your top five favourite authors?
Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Tracy Chevalier, Deanna Raybourn, Philip Pullman.

What book has no one heard about but should read?
I’d never go so far as to say I’ve read a book that nobody else on the planet has (or appreciates), but Charlotte Bronte’s Vilette is a book largely overshadowed by Jane Eyre (another favourite), and yet just as good, I think. It doesn’t have the same intense drama or epic love story, but like its heroine, Lucy Snowe, its quietness is its best virtue. She travels to the fictional city of Vilette in Belgium, to teach at a girls’ school. It traces the story of Lucy’s experiences at the school, and the various characters she meets there. Deeply shy and self-contained, Lucy is also troubled – leading to many encounters and visions in Bronte’s gothic style. It’s a strange, unusual and bittersweet story.

What 3 books are you an “evangelist” for?
The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, (This is cheating slightly, but still) The ‘His Dark Materials’ Trilogy, by Philip Pullman, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier.
What are your favourite books by a first-time author?
Wall & Piece, by Banksy - Some people think Banksy is a street-artist, others think he’s a vandal. I fall into the first camp, and love flicking through this first compilation of Banksy’s graffiti-art – subversive, clever, funny and brilliant.
My Last Duchess, by Daisy Goodwin - The story of a wealthy American heiress during the 1890s, who marries an English aristocrat - the brilliantly named main character, Cora Cash, must contend with an overbearing mother, hostile in-laws, a beautiful but rickety mansion and a secretive husband if she is to make a success of her new life in England.

What is your favourite classic book?
It has to be Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

Five other notable mentions?
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman, Green Darkness, by Anya Seton, Notes From a Small Island, by Bill Bryson, Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and lastly, one none-fiction – Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser.
Lastly, I won't tag specific people to take part in this Q&A, but if you feel like sharing, please do - and please let me know!

Monday, 23 April 2012

Shakespeare & St. George

It's an oft-remarked upon oddity here in England, that more fuss is made of Ireland's national party day - St. Patrick's Day, than that of our own dragon-slaying patron saint, St. George. I love a St. Patrick's Day party, but I do find the lack of English celebration a little sad. The Welsh have St. David and the Scots have St. Andrew, and, along with the Irish, their patron saints and their distinct identities are fiercely and resoundingly celebrated on their respective days. 

Today is St. George's Day, and beautifully coinciding with it is the birthday of William Shakespeare. So, what could be more fitting than a Shakespeare quote about England? Well, nothing - except for maybe a few English photos to go with it.

Happy St. George's Day, and Happy Birthday, Bill!

"This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars...
...This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself...
...Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world...
...This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall...
...Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
...This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."
King Richard II, Act 2, Scene I

Photos: Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire; The Peak District National Park, Derbyshire; The Bullring, Birmingham; Charlestown, Cornwall; York Minster, York; Lichfield, Staffordshire. All taken by me. 

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Staffordshire Hoard, Archaeology and Me

Decorative Stylised Seahorse
This isn't the first blog post I've devoted to the subject of The Staffordshire Hoard (see here...and here), so you could say that I'm something of a fan. And I'm certainly not the only one to be smitten by the astonishing discovery of over 3,500 items of Anglo-Saxon gold in a Staffordshire field in 2009. Initially unearthed by one man and his metal detector (Terry Herbert), a thorough excavation was then undertaken by archaeologists. Cleaned and spruced up, the first wave of jaw-dropping artefacts went on display in Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham to an unprecedented number of visitors. The hoard (and the mystery surrounding it) has completely captured public imagination - and mine.
Zoomorphic Mount
This coming Saturday, the 22nd April, sees a series of talks about the Staffordshire Hoard kick off at its permanent home, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. This Sunday, Dr Kevin Leahy will speak about The Finding of the Hoard - The Early Days, between 2 and 3pm. Just under a month later, on the 20th May, Dr David Symons and Deborah Magnoler will give a talk on Conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard. On the 22nd July, Warfare & Violence - The Making of Mercia will be the subject of a talk given by Dr Morn Capper, and finally, on August 19th, Prof. Nicholas Brooks will be speaking on The Hoard as a Window onto England in the Age of the Conversion to Christianity.
Gold, Cloisonné and Glass Sword Pyramid
The Hoard has recently crossed the Atlantic, firstly on display in the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C, and then on a tour of the US, attracting more than 50,000 visitors. These remarkable golden items have become a global phenomenon, and while everyone has their own reasons for being so taken with the Hoard, here are mine (and a little background, too).

I studied History and Archaeology as an undergraduate at university. I loved it, and had the fantastic good fortune to study and live in North Wales; an area of the UK famous for its incomparable natural beauty, and its rich archaeology. Happily ensconced between the mountains and lakes of Snowdonia National Park and the tiny, windswept island of Anglesey, studying archaeology in context came as no difficulty. There were the Medieval castles - Conwy, Caenarfon and Beaumaris. There were Roman forts - Segontium and Caer Gybi - and there were Neolithic burial chambers like Lligwy. There was (and is) so much archaeology to experience, you could walk in any direction and trip over a historic site. Add to this the fact that Ireland is a short trip from Holyhead, Angelsey on a high-speed catamaran, and you'll hopefully see just how lucky I was. I've stood in horizontal rain and gale-force winds, on mountains, hills, cliffs and beaches; I've scraped and brushed my way around excavations, spent hours staring at aerial photographs, scratching my head over radar surveys and carefully handwriting catalogue numbers onto pot-sherds. Science, combined with solid historical research and an open mind can unlock the secrets of the past. Mysteries can, and have been solved, but it takes time and patience to put together the jumbled up jigsaw pieces archaeology presents us with.
Zoomorphic Helmet Cheek Piece
Then we come to something that completely puzzles and confounds; a Hoard. And that's one of the reasons the Staffordshire Hoard holds me captive, because, try as they might, experts cannot conclusively answer the question of why the Hoard came into being. A Hoard, as the very name tells us, is a sizeable stash of precious metal, and the possible reasons behind their existence usually centre on the Hoard being a votive or ritual offering. This is considered to be the meaning behind a deposit of Iron Age metalwork at Llyn Cerrig Bach, a small lake on the island of Anglesey. Pieces, including swords, horse harnesses and slave chains were analysed and found to have been deliberately broken before being deposited, and thus interpreted as having a religious or symbolic significance.
Gold and Garnet Pectoral Cross
Even so, the exact meaning behind the Llyn Cerrig Bach Hoard is still murky - as with the Staffordshire Hoard. A striking feature of the artefacts found in Staffordshire is that they have a strong connection to warfare. They were items made for battle - sword and helmet fittings, shield bosses and horse harnesses. In his early interpretation of the finds, Dr Kevin Leahy wrote,

"This is not simply loot – swords were being singled out for special treatment. If it was just gold they were after, there would have been the rich fittings from sword belts...It looks like a collection of trophies, but it is impossible to say if the hoard was the spoils from a single battle, or a long and highly successful military career. We also cannot say who the original, or the final, owners were, who took it from them, why they buried it or when."
Seax (Sword) Hilt Plate
Dr Leahy also writes that "This will be debated for decades," and I agree. While expert analysis and interpretation can cause the past to give up long-dead secrets, there are some cases still remaining stubbornly enigmatic. Those jigsaw pieces don't always slot neatly into place. We might get a near fit, but we'll never know for sure. There are those who would sniff at this, but for me, this makes the Staffordshire Hoard all the more amazing - and completely enchanting.

For more information on The Staffordshire Hoard, visit the website here.
To book any of the talks listed above, click here.  

Images courtesy of The Staffordshire Hoard website.