Dragons, Nuns, and the ATC

History can vanish in an instant. Does it matter ?

Walking to the Royal Observatory from my house I start along Lover’s Loan. Where it ends, there is a strange pillar topped by a winged dragon. At the weekend I read that this is not a dragon, or a gryphon, but a wyvern. The pillar is a tiny saved piece of the grand house that stood here for centuries before the ground was washed over by a sea of Victorian villas. I also read that its matching twin is further along Grange Loan, so on the walk home I diverted and found it. The house was scrubbed from the surface of the earth in 1936, apart from the wyvern pillars. The once powerful families that owned the house – the Dicks and the Lauders – still have a ghostly presence in the names of streets. Nothing beside remains.

So thats the Grange. Further north, where I live, is Sciennes, pronounced “Sheens”. I had long heard that this is a corruption of “St Catherine of Siena”, the name of a convent founded after the Battle of Flodden. Like Grange House, it is now utterly vanished apart from the muffled resonance of place names. My weekend reading however told me that the convent was commemorated at 16 St Catherine’s Place, so I took another arc to look for this. There was nothing on the street, nothing on the side of the house. Then, as I peered along the driveway, I saw it – an eighteen inch plaque on a rock in the middle of the garden. I didn’t feel bold enough to walk into somebody else’s garden, so I don’t know what it says.

After a brief stay at home, I walked in to Old College, where the Principal was hosting a reception for all the boys and girls who worked so hard on our submission to the Research Assessment Exercise. From there I kinda drifted to the Royal Oak, and finally, late at night and somewhat stoatered, found myself buying a bag of chips at Luciano’s, opposite the Dick Vet School. Until a few years ago, Luciano’s, in an astonishing five hundred year chain of unbroken memory from the Battle of Flodden to Blair’s Britain, was called the Siena Fish Bar. Then some random guy buys it up, thinks huh, dumb name, and crunch – history snapped.

Some days, working at the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill I can feel the history oozing out of the stones. The nightmare scenario is that if the ATC reduces in half, it becomes unviable and closes anyway; then the University can’t afford to keep a medium sized astronomy research group on a large ancient site, and finally we all get shifted down to Kings Buildings. History snapped again.

By the way, it ain’t happening.

10 Responses to Dragons, Nuns, and the ATC

  1. Rob Ivison says:

    Andy, you tease! What ain’t happening?

    My favourite bit of ROE history is encapsulated in the photo, near the library, of the astronomers’ allotments which used to lie on the site of the new Crawford Building… the ancestors of the tomato and pepper plants I nurture in there today.

  2. How about disbanding the IAU and donating their funds to British astronomy?

  3. andyxl says:

    Rob – just a wee pause before the next Select Committee session …

    Laurel – do us a lemon. That would buy us all a cup of tea. Anyway, why would I disband something that takes such brave and wise decisions ?

  4. “Brave and wise decisions,” like beauty, apparently are in the eyes–or minds–of the beholder.

    “Do us a lemon?” I’m not sure what that means, but I’d be happy to buy you all a cup of tea. Of course, I’d have to come all the way across what you guys call “the pond” to do so, and you’d have to sit through my hours-long argument about why you should undo a certain IAU decision.

    Seriously, you have my moral support in fighting the British government’s funding cuts for astronomy. Unfortunately, I can’t sign your petition since I’m not an American citizen.

  5. Oops! I meant to say I’m not a British citizen. The disgust with our current presidential candidates here in the US must be getting to me.

  6. Peter Williams says:

    They’ve changed the name of the Siena!! Is nothing sacred? We lived on Lord Russell Place for three years and frequented the Siena often. Mmm, memories of fish supper….

  7. MikeW says:

    On a slightly different (but familiar) tack one of my colleagues reports hearing Ian Pearson referring to someone called “Sir Keith Mason” in the select committee discussions today

    Freudian slip? We would of course be pleased to applaud such early recognition of Keith’s dedicated service to science

  8. andyxl says:

    Mike – cosmic timing .. I am listening to the recording of the session right now and just heard that very slip … Maybe Keith Onions has lost his Sir and its been transferred to our own Keef.

  9. […] can be sad when the traces of history fade. I wrote here about my favourite chip shop unknowingly commemorating the widows of Flodden, until it changed its […]

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