The Bolton Strid

This is the Bolton Strid. Many call it “the most dangerous river in the world”. And they’re not wrong: if you were fall in the specific bit of the river shown in the picture, your chances of dying are around 95%.

The Strid is part of the River Wharfe in Yorkshire. As you can see from the picture below, the river is fairly broad a few miles north of the Strid.

River Wharfe

So here’s the thing: as it narrows to a space an adult could easily jump over, all that water has to go somewhere. In this case, it goes down, and over the centuries the current has dug trenches as deep as 40 feet (12m) in some places. This means the river effectively turns sideways through the Strid.

But here’s the killer: the first 4 feet (1.2m) of water in the Strid move at a leisurely pace: around 5mph (8KM/h) on a normal day. So ducks can take-off, land and float down the river without a problem. But underneath that there’s another layer running between 25-30mph (40-48KM/h). It’ll sweep you off your feet in an instant, and if you get pushed into one of those 40 foot deep trenches… you’re not coming out. Ever. Not alive, anyway. No amount of human muscle-power can outswim that current, and even if a fully-equipped rescue team watched you fall in, there’s just NOTHING they could do to rescue you.

Red Pistachios?

Red pistachios don’t exist anymore – in the US anyway – because of politics.

Pistachios are native to the Middle East, and Iran used to grow about 98% of America’s supply. The traditional method of harvesting them is to cut down the grape-like bunches and store them until needed. But storing “wet” pistachios for more than 24 hours creates an unattractive (but harmless) mottling on the shell, which Middle Easterners “fixed” by staining them that unnatural shade of red.

Not surprisingly, importing Iranian pistachios was banned in 1979 due to the hostage crisis, so California farmers got into pistachios in a big way. Those farmers learned that, if you put the nuts in an industrial dryer within 24 hours of harvesting, the shells didn’t stain, so there was no need to dye them. Some did, at first, because that’s what consumers were used to. But the whole practice soon died out, so Gen Z kids don’t get the Naked Gun joke at all.

"Naked Gun" Pistachios

Local Time

For thousands of years, timekeeping was kind of a loose thing. When the fastest anything can travel is on horseback, exact times aren’t, strictly speaking, necessary. So in England, as in most places across the globe, someone in a village or town – the local priest maybe, or a prominent citizen – would use simple instruments to figure out when the sun was directly overhead (a.k.a. “noon”) and set up a sundial or clock accordingly. And the rest of the town would be synced to that. And if it wasn’t 100% accurate, or if the village 5 miles away decided to make their clocks an hour earlier – or 20 minutes earlier, or 14 minutes later, or whatever… it just didn’t matter all that much.

Then one day the railways came, and it was nigh impossible to schedule trains using every tiny village and town’s version of “local time”. Thus, the concepts of “standard time” and “time zones” were born.  And then the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act 1880 was passed by Parliament, making Greenwich Mean Time the one official time on the island of Great Britain:

Whenever any expression of time occurs in any Act of Parliament, deed, or other legal instrument, the time referred shall, unless it is otherwise specifically stated, be held in the case of Great Britain to be Greenwich mean time, and in the case of Ireland, Dublin mean time.

Because the Channel Islands are not part of the United Kingdom, GMT wasn’t adopted in the Isle of Man until 1883, Jersey in 1898 and Guernsey in 1913. Ireland, then a British colony, didn’t switch until 1916.

Interestingly, there are a handful of public clocks built in Britain during the transition period between the two systems. The clock pictured behind Victoria and Jimmy on this QI screencap is in Bristol. It has two minute hands. The black hand is for Greenwich Mean Time. The red hand is for the local “Bristol Time”, which was 10 minutes behind GMT:

QI Bristol Time

 

QUICK TAKES: Time Immemorial

“Time immemorial” is usually used poetically today, often in travel shows. So: “men have been fishing in this small Greek village since time immemorial”.

What you might NOT know is that “time immemorial” has an actual start date: June 6, 1189.

The Statute of Westminster of 1275 was the first attempt to codify the laws of England. As part of this, the idea of “time immemorial” was introduced – a time which was declared “the extent of human memory”. The date chosen was Richard I’s accession day. That’s “Richard the Lionheart”, or “Richard Cœur de Lion”, since he spent most of his life in France. The same Richard who left for the Crusades, leaving his brother John to run England… the same King John of Magna Carta and Robin Hood fame.

So the idea was, if there was some kind of land dispute, if a family could find local witnesses to prove that their goats had been grazing on the land since June 5, 1189, then it was generally accepted to be “your land”. You might think of it as a kind of “ultimate statue of limitations”, if you will.

The THREE! Flags of France

In this post from 2016, I talked about France’s two official flags.

The first is the traditional tricolor everyone’s familiar with:

But there’s also the civil and naval ensign:

In this version the red stripe is larger – specifically, the ensign’s stripes are at a ratio of 30:33:37, versus 33:33:33 on the original flag. This is because this flag looks more “correct” when viewed from a distance, especially if constantly flapping in the wind, as it would on a ship. This flag is also used in some places like seaside military cemeteries or memorials, again because it looks “normal” in the wind.

In my original post, I said that the ensign was also used on TV, for press conferences and the like. Well, I was wrong. There’s actually a third flag for that:

French Presidential flag

Informally called the “Presidential Flag”, it’s used by French presidents in televised communications. And it works, too. Check out this pic of the flag behind two former French presidents:

French Presidents
Click to embiggen

In contrast, here’s a picture of current French president Emmanuel Macron at the White House with President Trump:
The French must have left their special flag at home (and the White House stocked only with “regular” French flags) because there’s an ocean of white in the flag that photograph.

And it’s not just the French who do something like this. Here’s a picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing in front of special flags that have been altered so that the Star of David appears in correct (upright) orientation:

Benjamin Netanyahu
(click to embiggen)

Compare this with regular Israeli flags, where the Star of David is crooked when hanging from a flagpole:

Benjamin Netanyahu
(click to embiggen)

Neat.

FUN PLACE: Saint Pierre and Miquelon

Saint Pierre and Miquelon are two tiny islands off the northeastern coast of Canada. But they’re not Canadian: they belong to France, and they are the last tiny bits of French North America.

saint-pierre-and-miquelon-north-america

The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Year’s War (sometimes called the “French and Indian War” in the US). The terms dictated that France give up all her claims to land in North America. But, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, the British gave Saint Pierre and Miquelon back to France a few weeks after the treaty was signed.

Due to the way the French constitution works, the land that makes up the islands isn’t “a piece of land owned by France”, it’s a “piece of France itself”. The people who live there aren’t “colonials” – they’re French citizens. They belong to the EU and use Euros. If you get a passport stamp there it says “France”. Although it’s 2,373 miles (3,819 km) from Saint Pierre and Miquelon to Brest (the nearest point in Metropolitan France) it’s only 478 miles (770 km) as the crow flies from Hamlin, Maine to Saint Pierre and Miquelon. So if someone asks you how far France or the EU is from the US, you can win a bar bet with that little bit of trivia!

So… what’s so “fun” about it?

Well, aside from having a tiny bit of France just 1,307 miles (2,103 km) up the coast from me, it’s kind neat that street names generally aren’t used on the island. It’s a couple of tiny islands of a few thousand people whose families have lived there for generations. It truly is the kind of place where people say things like “yeah, turn left at Andre’s gas station, then make a right at Florian’s farm, then make a hard right after Gaston’s old treehouse. If you see the old red pickup truck by the side of the road, you’ve gone too far.” Only it’s in French.

Also, some islanders got filthy rich during Prohibition. Canadians sold plenty of Canadian whiskey to Americans. But it was, in fact, illegal under Canadian law to sell alcohol to Americans in quantity. But you know what wasn’t illegal? For Canadians to sell whiskey to French people. In 1931, the islands imported a total of 1.8 million US gallons of whiskey from Canada … for population of around 4.300 people. Almost all that liquor was bought by American smugglers who’d sailed up from New York or Massachusetts  or even Virginia. Prohibition was a golden time for the island.

But there’s dark stuff, too. Saint Pierre and Miquelon was the scene of the only known execution by guillotine in North America. A man named Joseph Néel was found guilty of murdering a Mr Coupard on Île aux Chiens on December 30,  1888 and executed 8 months later.  He probably would have been executed earlier, but the guillotine had to be shipped from France’s Caribbean outpost of Martinique. And it was damaged in transit, so authorities had to find someone to fix it. A few more weeks then passed as no local wanted to do the actual execution part of it. A recent arrival was coaxed into it on August 24, 1889. The whole sordid story is the subject of the 2000 film The Widow of Saint-Pierre starring Juliette Binoche. The guillotine still exists and is now in a museum on Saint-Pierre.

The Last Battle

Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945. Between those two dates, the last battle of the European theatre happened. And it was one of the strangest battles in history.

* * *

There’s a small village of around 400 people in western Austria called Itter. Itter would be a completely unremarkable place, except for a castle on the edge of town. Given the imaginative name Schloss Itter (which literally means “Castle Itter” in German), the building dates to at least 1241, although sources indicate that the castle may have been built by 1204, and there were likely other buildings on the same spot as far back as the 900s.

Schloss Itter
Schloss Itter in 2010. Photo via Wikipedia

In the 1930s, the castle was owned by a man named Franz Grüner. After the Anschluss of March 12, 1938 – where the Nazis annexed Austria – Grüner rented the castle to the German government, which held meetings and retreats there. For a few months in 1942, it was home to the “German Association for Combating the Dangers of Tobacco”, who no doubt held the lamest parties ever.

However, on February 7, 1943, SS Lieutenant General Oswald Pohl seized the castle outright on orders of his boss, Heinrich Himmler. Himmler wanted to turn Schloss Itter into a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp.

But not just any old POW camp. This was a POW camp for VIPs, and some of the earliest inmates included former French president Albert Lebrun, former Italian prime minister (and anti-Fascist) Francesco Nitti and André François-Poncet, who had been the French ambassador to both Germany and Italy in the run-up to the war. These people were quickly transferred elsewhere, however.

* * *

During the invasion of France, the Germans captured a number of high-profile French citizens. They would later uncover several ministers of Vichy France who were secretly plotting with the Allies.

Thus, prisoners at Castle Itter included former French premiers (prime ministers) Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud; Michel Clemenceau, son of former premier Georges Clemenceau; former army commanders-in-chief Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin; right-wing leader François de La Rocque; trade union leader (and future Nobel Peace Prize winner) Léon Jouhaux; Charles De Gaulle’s eldest sister, Marie-Agnès Cailliau; and Jean-Robert Borotra, one of France’s most famous tennis players,  who had served as Minister for Sport for Vichy France before trying to escape and join the Allies. In addition to these VIPs, many of their wives were imprisoned too, and the Germans had transferred a handful of Eastern Europeans from Dachau to Itter to handle household tasks like cooking, cleaning and gardening.

Castle Itter was no paradise, but by all accounts, if you were going to be trapped in a German POW camp in World War II, Itter was the place to be. VIP prisoners were given the nicest rooms and had free reign to walk anywhere on castle grounds, including the extensive library. The food was reportedly the best of any POW camp. And the 25 SS soldiers charged with guarding the place – mostly older men with little or no combat experience – were later described by prisoners and “nice” or “friendly”. Perhaps the guards were well aware of what a cushy posting they had, and didn’t want to screw it up.

Despite this, the French prisoners were openly hostile to each other. Reynaud and Daladier were sworn enemies, so it was like having Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at your office’s mandatory team-building retreat. What’s more, both Reynaud and Daladier couldn’t stand Weygand, who had surrendered the bulk of France’s army to the Nazis on June 17, 1940. And it should go without saying that the right-wing La Rocque and the Communist union leader Jouhaux didn’t get along, either. The VIPs split into three groups and avoided each other as much as possible. At meal times, the prisoners sat at different tables: the Weygands, the Borotras, and La Rocque at one table, Reynaud, Christiane Mabire (Jouhaux’s secretary and future wife), Gamelin, and Clemenceau at a second table and everyone else – “the neutrals” – at a third. Continue reading “The Last Battle”

HISTORY REPEATS: The Heist of the (14th) Century

Hi! I’m Jim! I have a website where I sometimes share quirky tales from history. Every Monday for the next four weeks, I’m going to share one of those stories to (re)acquaint you with my site in a feature I call HISTORY REPEATS.

Everyone loves a good heist film, right? Our final tale is about one of the most audacious robberies in history: when a man, seeking revenge and tipped off by a monk, robbed the King of England:

Dick Puddlecote was angry. And not your average “oh, I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning” angry, either. He was angry to the very core of his being. Trillions of cells made up Dick’s body, and every last one of them was furious with the King of England.

Check out this amazing true story!

The Heist of the (14th) Century

HISTORY REPEATS: The Charlotte History Field Trip

Hi! I’m Jim! I have a website where I sometimes share quirky tales from history. Every Monday for the next four weeks, I’m going to share one of those stories to (re)acquaint you with my site in a feature I call HISTORY REPEATS.

Our third tale comes from the time I took a field trip to an almost-forgotten Charlotte landmark that may have provided the inspiration for the city’s nickname:

Bags of oats and corn were loaded into British wagons, while livestock pens were emptied of pigs and goats. But then, the strangest thing happened: one of the British soldiers knocked over a giant beehive, and angry bees started swarming all over the troops. Confusion and chaos reigned. Thompson and his men had been waiting patiently for a good time to shoot, and this was it. They opened fire, killing one British officer instantly. The militiamen silently moved to new locations, reloaded, and opened fire again. This caused Captain Doyle to think they were under attack by a larger force, so he ordered a retreat.

Even if you’re not from Charlotte, you just might love this quirky tale, too! Check it out:

The Charlotte History Field Trip

HISTORY REPEATS: The Berners Street Hoax

Hi! I’m Jim! I have a newly redesigned website where I sometimes share quirky tales from history. Every Monday for the next four weeks, I’m going to share one of those stories to (re)acquaint you with those tales in a feature I call HISTORY REPEATS.

Our second tale is about the Berners Street Hoax… quite possibly the greatest prank of all time:

Berners Street wasn’t very wide to begin with, and as word of the deliveries spread, onlookers appeared. The street was completely clogged with angry merchants, curious bystanders and police, who wanted to know why traffic had come to a complete stop on Oxford Street. As it happened, traffic had ground to a halt throughout much of London. But Hook had it all planned out. Like a symphony, this prank was approaching a crescendo.

It’s a hilarious story guaranteed to make your sides split! Check it out:

The Berners Street Hoax