Pompeii and the British August bank holiday

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Well, its bank holiday weekend in England, Wales and Ireland, Scotland had theirs the first Monday of the month.  A volcanic eruption of fun before the autumn starts…

Opium Poppy

It was originally given as a three day weekend in 1871 so bank staff could have the opportunity to attend and play at cricket matches and eat cucumber sandwiches. These cucumbers would have been grown in greenhouses, cold frames and on hotbeds. Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) originated in India where they have been grown for over 3000 years; and are said to have been brought over to Britain by the Romans. Certainly Pliny the Elder, with his love of gardening, would have grown cucumbers, as did the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Britain was warmer in the time of the Roman occupation than now, so it is possible that cucumber sandwiches appeared at cricket matches even then. [1]

There are records of cucumbers being grown in France in the 9th century and in England in the 14th. The French king Charlemagne was said to have enjoyed cucumbers, although they would have been a smaller fruit than we are used to today, more gherkin sized. A member of the Cucurbitaceae family, as are melons and squash, cucumbers are a creeping or climbing vine fruit. Although ‘cool as a cucumber’ is true – the inside of a cucumber growing in the hot sun can be up to 20 degrees cooler than the surrounding air – it hasn’t always been a popular food. Samuel Pepys was disparaging in his 17th century diary, referred to it as ‘cowcumber’ and thought it fit only for animal fodder. However, his friend John Evelyn in his “Acetaria, a discourse of sallets” was more praiseworthy and suggested slicing cucumber and dressing it with orange and lemon juices.

Cucumber falls into that interesting category of ‘fruit we don’t think of as fruit’, probably as we’re so use to seeing it adorning our salads. Tomatoes also fall into this group, as do sweet peppers. The Roman Emperor Tiberius was said to be so fond of cucumbers that he ate them every day.  Pliny describes the Romans as using artificial means of cultivation in order to meet the Emperor’s dietary desire.  Raised beds on wheels were kept outside during the warm summer but taken under protective cover over winter to keep them producing fruits. Pliny the Elder was a great gardener, although his impressive major work” Naturalis Historia” covers a wide range of topics including astronomy and art as well as botany.

Pompeii

Pliny the Elder and Younger (his nephew) were in the bay of Naples at the time that Vesuvius erupted. Rescuing his friends was the feat that led to the elder Pliny’s death; he was stationed at the Bay as a prefect of the Roman navy, hence his ability to commandeer a ship to sail across the bay to Pompeii. In the first century AD, Pompeii was famed for its villas and gardens although it’s not clear how much of a garden Pliny had on the opposite shore, he would surely have been familiar with those in Pompeii.  Vesuvius erupted in August 79AD. [2] The gardens would have been in full bloom, with shaped evergreens – topiary was very much in fashion – and roses and lilies providing heady scent.  The grapes in the vineyards and pleached trees laden with apples in the orchards promised a harvest that would never come to fruition.

Notes:

[1] This is a joke, cricket as we know it wasn’t invented until the English Civil War; indeed many sources believe it was the real cause of the War when Oliver Cromwell was bowled out for a duck by Charles I 

[2] The Doctor Who buffs among you will recollect that there was no word in Latin for ‘volcano’ until after Vesuvius erupted and smothered Pompeii and Herculaneum. It’s true. 

Do you like structure and symmetry? Perhaps you’d like a 21st century version of a Pompeian garden? Drop us an email

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