Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, churches and cathedrals will change their altar frontals to purple for the start of lent. Some cathedrals will also cover the reredos, the screen behind the altar for the duration of Lent. The colour of altar frontals changes for each season of the Church’s year. Purple is for Advent and Lent, red for Holy Week and Pentecost and days when we remember the martyrs of he church. White or gold is for the celebratory seasons such as Christmas, Epiphany and Easter. Green is used for ‘Ordinary ‘time.

Lent, is the season of the Church’s year leading up to Easter, a time of confession and penitence, fasting, prayer, study and drawing closer to God in preparation for the great celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The season of Lent began in the early days of the Church as a time of preparation for those seeking to be baptised at the Easter Vigil. The forty days of Lent refer to our Lord’s time of fasting in the wilderness; and since Sundays are not counted as they are always feast days because every Sunday we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lent. Many Christians will receive a cross of ash on their forehead today as a symbol of repentance at a special service today. Throughout the Old Testament ashes are a sign of sorrow and repentance.

Visit St Mary Magdalene Church Paddington on my Best Churches in London tour #TourLocal

Shrove Tuesday

Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday which marks the start of Lent which is the period of 40 days leading up to Easter and the remembrance of Christ’s death on the cross and the celebration of his resurrection. The word ‘shrove’ comes from the old practice of being ‘shriven’ – meaning to confess one’s sins and receive absolution from a priest. The shriving bell would be rung on Shrove Tuesday to call people to church to confess. Lent is a period of penitence and abstinence from eating rich foods. This is why people in many countries have traditions of eating up rich foods on Shrove Tuesday. Here we eat pancakes to use up milk, butter and flour and perhaps other luxury ingredients, in Venice they eat little doughnuts called fritole, in Estonia hernesupp a mix of yellow split peas, and pork is eaten, in Rio de Janeiro they eat feijoada a black bean stew with pork and beef. Eating of meat and dairy was forbidden during lent. Today some Christians give up a particular food they enjoy for lent as a form of discipline.

In some countries they still celebrate shrove Tuesday and the period leading up to it with carnival which was traditionally a kind of letting your hair down before the austerity of Lent. The word carnival comes from Carne Vale meaning to remove meat. Notting Hill in London hosts a carnival but it is divorced from shrove Tuesday tradition and takes place in September.

Normally in the City of London and in some villages and towns on Shrove Tuesday there is a pancake race. Dating from around 1445, legend has it that a local woman heard the shriving bell while she was making pancakes and ran to church in her apron, still clutching her frying pan.

Blue Plaques

When you are walking around London look out for Blue Plaques on buildings. They mark the buildings were a notable person lived or worked. The first one was erected in 1875, commemorating Lord Byron, it was put up by the Royal Society of Arts, later the authorising of Blue Plaques passed to London County Council and its successor the Greater London Council and now English Heritage is in charge. Around 20 new plaques are added each year. 20 years has to have passed from the death of the person or a hundred years has to have passed from their birth. London has the highest number of Blue plaques,around 950, but you can find them all over the country.

Lord Byron’s house was demolished in 1889 and his plaque is now on the John Lewis Department store which stands on the site but it is not the original plaque so the oldest surviving plaque still in situ is the one on the house where Napoleon III lived. He was Napoleon I’s nephew. He was exiled from France after the Battle of Waterloo, on his return to France in 1840 he was imprisoned for life but managed to escape and fled to England taking a lease on this house. He was fully welcomed into London society. He later returned to France as was crowned Napoleon III. His plaque is the only one to have been installed during the lifetime of the person commemorated. If you book my St James’s walking tour I will show you where it is.

Since the early years of the 20th Century the public has been able to put forward the names of those considered worthy of a Blue Plaque and the Blue Plaques Panel, a collection of experts in a wide range of fields, makes the final decision. The Plaques commemorate people who have achieved a wide variety of impressive human endeavours, there are many politicians, statesmen, artists, theatrical people, musicians, writers and scientists and inventors as you might expect but there are also some rather more unusual reasons for commemoration recorded on some London plaques. There’s Luke Howard, the Namer of Clouds ( he named the three principal categories of clouds – cumulus, stratus, and cirrus), there’s Willy Clarkson, theatrical wigmaker, Joseph Grimaldi, King of Clowns, and Edward Johnston, Calligrapher who gave his name to the Johnston typeface which was developed for London transport in the 1930s and still used by Transport for London its successor.

It has been found that the presence of a Blue Plaque doesn’t actually add to the property’s value although it does make a good topic of conversation over dinner and it does increase the interest in a property when it is for sale as people like a sense of history. Blue Plaques have also played a role helping to protect buildings under treat of demolition. The homes of Oscar Wilde in Chelsea and Van Gogh in Stockwell, for example, were preserved because their Blue Plaques drew attention to their historical association.

Some houses have more than one plaque. Chatham House boasts not just one Prime Minster but three. William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelite artist and Cetshwanyo king of the Zulus lived at different times in the same house in Holland Park as did George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf in one in Bloomsbury. There are 18 houses in London with two plaques.

What is the Queen doing today (9/6/2018)? Trooping the Colour

9th June 2018

Today the Queen is celebrating her official birthday, her actual birthday is April 21st. The tradition of our monarchs having two birthdays a year actually has to do with the weather, if their real birthday is in the winter traditionally the Trooping of the Colour, which is the official birthday parade, has taken place in the summer. Throughout the Queen’s reign the Trooping of the Colour has usually been held on the second Saturday in June.

Regimental flags are traditionally known as Colours and Trooping the Colour refers to the tradition in which the colour was carried between the ranks of soldiers so that they could recognise it easily in battle. The principal role of a regiment’s Colours was to provide a rallying point on the battlefield. This was important because, without modern communications, it was all too easy for troops to become disoriented and separated from their unit during battle.The Colours are also a record of the battle honours with names of places where the regiment fought with courage and distinction.

The Foot Guards (they are the soldiers with the red tunics and the bearskin hats) are amongst the oldest regiments of the British Army and have served as the personal bodyguards of The Sovereign since the monarchy was restored after the English Civil War in 1660. The ceremony of Trooping the Colour is believed to have been performed first during the reign of King Charles II (1660 – 1685). In 1748, it was decided that this parade would be used to mark the official birthday of the Sovereign and it became an annual event after George III became King in 1760. Each year a different Battalion of the Guards troops the colour.

The events begin around 10am when Members of the Royal Family drive down the Mall in carriages to watch the parade on Horse Guards. The Queen follows them a little later and her carriage is timed to arrive on Horse Guards at 11am. She is greeted by a Royal salute and then carries out an inspection of her Foot Guards. The Queen used to ride on horseback, riding side saddle on her favourite horse, a mare called Burmese who was given to her by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. When Burmese died she started travelling by carriage. After the military bands have performed, the escorted Regimental Colour, is processed through the ranks of soldiers of its battalion with musical accompaniment. It is carried proudly by a young Officer.This year, The Colour of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards will be trooped. The Coldstream Guards is the oldest continuously serving regiment in the British Army. This is followed by a march past by all the Foot Guards on parade in slow and then quick time and then a walk past and then a trot past by the Household Calvary and the Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery. The parade is the culmination of many hours of rehearsal and for the battalion whose colour is trooped it is a proud moment which will probably only happen once in a soldier’s career. At the end of the parade the Queen travels back to Buckingham Palace, again along the Mall,  at the head of the soldiers, before taking the salute once more, this time at BuckinghamPalace from a dais. She is then joined by other Members of the Royal Family on the balcony of the Palace to watch a fly-past by the Royal Air Force at 1pm. A 41-gun salute is also fired in Green Park to mark the occasion at 12.52pm.

Over 1400 soldiers, 200 horses and 400 musicians will be on parade today in a great display of military precision and horsemanship. I amy be biased but I don’t think any other country does pageantry like the British. Over one hundred words of command are used by the Officer in Command of the Parade to direct the several hundred soldiers. 1,200 pots of black polish will be required by the Household Calvary to shine their boots and spare a thought for the 5 road sweepers who will be required to clean up the manure afterwards.

The Queen has a great love of pageantry and military precision especially when horses are involved and she will notice every detail and enjoy every moment of the celebration today as she casts her eagle eye over the proceedings.


Today (12th March) she is attending the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey. Her annual message to the Commonwealth will also be broadcast to all member countries. If you are visiting London and have walked down the Mall to Buckingham Palace you passed the Marlborough house which houses the Commonwealth Secretariat, it stands next to St James’s Palace. To many visitors from abroad the Commonwealth is a bit of a mystery, what exactly is the Commonwealth? It is a voluntary association of 53 independent countries, almost all of which were formerly under British rule at the time of the British Empire. The membership includes Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Brunei, Nigeria, Singapore, Cyprus, Malta and Kenya. It is a remarkable international organisation, embracing every geographical region, religion and culture. Its aim is to encourage international co-operation between people all over the world. Two of the newest members, Mozambique and Rwanda, have no historical ties to the British Empire and there are more nations on the waiting list hoping to join.

George VI became the first head of the commonwealth in 1949 and following his death, the Commonwealth leaders recognised Queen Elizabeth II as his successor to that role. The Queen is very much endeared to the commonwealth because she has seen it grow during her reign from just 8 countries at the beginning to 53 now. She has helped the Commonwealth to develop and to hold together, she is passionate about it and regards its growth as one of the greatest achievements of her reign.

The Commonwealth is home to nearly 2.5 billion people, 33% of the world population. It covers 11.5 million square miles, 21% of the world’s land area. It is home to one in three people aged 15-29. 5 of the countries are republics, 5 have their own monarch and the other 15 are Commonwealth realms which means they have the Queen as their monarch. The Queen is represented in her 15 commonwealth realms by the Governor General in that country who carries out duties in her name. The Queen is however the most travelled monarch in history and much of the success of the commonwealth is due to her travelling to member countries. During her reign she has made nearly 200 overseas visits to commonwealth countries, the only two she has not visited are Cameroon and Rwanda ,the two newest members and it was only when she reached the age of 87 that she began to pass on the baton for Commonwealth visits to Prince Charles who has undertaken extensive Commonwealth travels recently. The Queen has also attended 19 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings, these happen every two years in a different Commonwealth country each time. The next meeting will be held in London and Windsor in April.

India is the biggest country in the Commonwealth with 1.2 million people the smallest is Nauru with 10,000, by the way Nauru is the most successful nation per capita in the Commonwealth Games which is held every 4 years. All countries in the organisation have equal say regardless of their size. That’s one of the really great things about the Commonwealth, it allows smaller countries to interact in diplomatic forums with larger, more powerful countries.

The Commonwealth promotes, democracy and good governance, freedom, human rights and sustainable development. There are no formal agreements for trade but the Commonwealth enables prime ministers and trade ministers to meet informally and opportunities for trade can result. The Commonwealth cannot sanction member states by force, but when governments persistently violate Commonwealth principles, they can be suspended. This was the case with Zimbabwe in 2002 following allegations of rigged elections. The Commonwealth also played a role in championing the boycott of apartheid South Africa. Living in South Africa in the 1990s as an expat I remember that country’s joy at being able to return to the Commonwealth shortly after Nelson Mandela had been made President. The Commonwealth is also involved with conflict prevention and its role in this is marked by respect, impartiality and discretion. It has observed 140 elections across 40 countries since 1980. It offers member countries the chance to work together to achieve solutions to a wide range of problems. There are lots of commonwealth associations which allow countries to access advice and expertise and to have dialogues. Over the years it has proved to be a major force of change for the better.

During her reign the Queen has sent over 175,000 telegrams to all those in the Commonwealth celebrating their 100th birthday and 540,000 cards to couples celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary.

The Commonwealth is able to promote and facilitate the type of networks which are desirable and sought after in the challenges of today’s world, it fits well with the 21st Century and looks set to continue for many years to come as future generations of the royal family pledge themselves to continuing service to the organisation. I am fortunate to have a ticket for the Commonwealth Day Service today and I feel proud to be a citizen of a Commonwealth country.


Today is Mother’s Day in Great Britain. Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday is celebrated in many countries but often it is in May. There are special reasons why it is celebrated on the fourth Sunday in lent here in Britain. There is also a unique tradition associated with it of the Simnel Cake, a special Easter treat.

The history of Mother’s Day can be traced back to pagan traditions and celebrations in honour of Rhea the mother of the gods which took place in ancient Greece. During the 1600s, the early Christians in England set aside a day to honour Mary, the mother of Jesus on the fourth Sunday in lent. The church later ordered, that the holiday be expanded to include all mothers known as Mothering Sunday. Another Christian significance of Mothering Sunday is rarely mentioned today but originally the passage appointed to be read in churches today was Galatians 4 :21-31 which contains the verse “But the Jerusalem which is above is free, which is mother of us all’. The full Bible passage talks about Abraham who has two sons Ishmael with Hagar and Isaac with Sarah who symbolically represent two covenants, the Old Testament covenant brought to the jews and the New Testament one which is the fulfilment of the old covenant brought to us through Christ’s death and resurrection and which is for all people. This new covenant is symbolised by the new Jerusalem in the Bible passage above described as our mother.

The tradition in England came to be that on the middle Sunday in Lent those working away from home would return to their mother church in their home town. Sometimes children left home to work in those days as young as 10 years old. It is thought that this tradition of returning to the mother Church is the origins of the tradition of children, particularly those working as domestic servants being given this Sunday off in the middle of lent to visit their mother and family. As they walked home, along country lanes, they would pick wild flowers particularly violets, usually in flower at that time of year to give to their mother. This is the reason why children in Sunday schools across Britian today will present small poses of flowers to their mothers as part of the church service. Later this time off was granted not just to children but to all maids and servants and to apprentices too.

The origins of the Simnel cake , this special easter cake which is unique to England and Ireland, are that, from the 18th Century, daughters would bake a fruit cake with marzipan on the top to take to their mother on Mothering Sunday, the cake would be kept until Easter day at then end of Lent and eaten as part of that days’ celebrations. Over time the tradition came to be to bake a fruit cake and put eleven marzipan balls on the top symbolising the 11 apostles, Judas being omitted as he betrayed Jesus. The name Simnel probably comes from simila which referred to the fine wheat flour used to make the original cakes which were initially more like an enriched, yeast bread. Simnel cakes are still enjoyed in British homes on Easter day today although these days they are not often baked by daughters! Mothers however are celebrated on Mothering Sunday in church and everywhere, they are taken out to lunch and given cards, flowers and other gifts.