2.1 Island, Sea & Sky

'…this woorthie and most famous Ile.' (Holinshed's Chronicles, 1577; see Sources)

British Isles: the archipelago known to geographers as the British Isles is a north-west expression of the world’s largest continent, Eurasia; the world’s rivers, lakes and oceans are studded with a million or so islands [Source: Steven Roger Fischer, Islands: From Atlantis to Zanzibar, 2012]; among oceanic islands, the British Isles itself comprises more than 1,000 islands; the largest island is Great Britain, so named to contrast with ‘Lesser Brittany’ in Northern France, now known as Brittany; Great Britain (i.e. England, Scotland & Wales together) is situated between latitudes 50 and 60ºN and is on longitude 0º (the Greenwich Meridian); it is the eighth largest island in the world, the global ranking by size being 1. Greenland, 2. New Guinea, 3. Borneo, 4. Madagascar, 5. Baffin, 6. Sumatra, 7. Honshu (Japan), 8. Great Britain; at just under 90,000 square miles, Great Britain is almost exactly a tenth the size of Greenland (the area of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island is about 95,000 square miles); those who talk of Great Britain being a small island are misguided; it is twice as big as Iceland and nine times as big as Sicily; Great Britain is a medium-sized island that has played an extravagantly outsized role in world history

Great Britain: an island for 8,000 years; the last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago, causing the ice to melt and sea levels to rise; the ice had weighed down the land, too; the land has been springing back slowly ever since; Scotland is still rising by a couple of millimetres a year, tilting the South of England downwards by a millimetre a year; the Irish Sea had appeared by 9,500 years ago; a landbridge to the Continent called ‘Doggerland’, in what is now the North Sea, became submerged and the North Sea linked up with the sea to the southwest, creating what was to become one of the world’s great seaways, the English Channel, some 350 miles long; at the eastern end it narrows to become the Strait of Dover, overlooked from the north by the famous White Cliffs

Name: an account of the early names of Britain is preserved in the Welsh Triads, some of which were collected in the Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales [see Sources]:

'Before the island was inhabited it was known
as Clas Merddin (the Sea-girt Green Spot)
After man inhabited the land it was known
as Y Vals Ynys (the Honey Isle)
And after the coming of Brutus
Ynys Prydain (the Isle of Prydain or Britain)'

A variant of the second of these names is Honey Isle of Bel, an apparent reference to the local name for Apollo [see Hyperborea], though Bel has also been described as the Phoenician god of the Sun [See Sources: Waddell]; in fact the ‘honey’ element in this name looks spurious: 

HONEY ISLAND, [Triad] 1: ‘Y vel ynys’, which Rachel Bromwich suggests is a corruption of ‘Ynys Veli’ or ‘the Island of Beli’. (Glossary by Malcolm Smith In: The Triads of Britain: Compiled by Iolo Morganwg and Translated by W Probert, 1977)

The third name, Ynys Prydain, is in line with the notion that in former times Brutus the Trojan conquered the island and named it after himself [see ‘Britain’ for more on this name of the island; also Brutus]; writing around 340 BC Aristotle in De Mundo (sec. 3) reported that ‘Beyond the Pillars of Hercules is the ocean which flows round the earth. In it are two very large islands called Britannic; these are Albion and Ierne.’ ; the Tysilio Chronicle was compiled a millenium after Aristotle but is purportedly based on ancient material [see Sources]; it opens with ‘Britain, the fairest of islands, whose name of old was Albion…’; the modern translator’s footnote to ‘Albion’ says that the manuscript in medieval Welsh said ‘y wen ynys – lit. the White Island’; in this rendering Albion can be regarded as a Latin version of White Island, where albus in Latin means ‘white’; this is a presumed reference to the white cliffs of Britain’s southeastern shore, visible from across the Channel; yet Albion – a name still used fondly to this day to describe Britain, notably as ‘Old Albion’ – is also associated with a legendary giant of that name who is said to have brought the land under his sway and to have named it after himself; the Albion of mythology was the son of Neptune (the Greek Poseidon); he was slain in the remote west by Hercules (Herakles), son of Jupiter (Zeus); note that Hercules was a Phoenician not an Ancient Greek; there are plenty of traces of Hercules in Britain in fact, notably his depiction in the form of the Cerne Abbas Giant [see Giants]; ‘Albion’ has also been derived improbably from the name of Albyne, an Eastern princess who is said to have come to Britain with her sisters in exile, after killing their husbands [Source De Wavrin; see Albyne]; the Tudor historian Holinshed [see Sources], citing dubious sources relating to the ancient historian Berossus, mentions that before ‘Albion’ the island was known as ‘Samothea’ [see 'Celts']; Britain has also been described as ‘Lower Hibernia’ [Source: De Wavrin, p4] and the ‘island of Syrie’ [see Albyne]

'After Brutus I doo not find that anie men attempted to change it [the name] againe, vntill the time that Theodosius, in the daies of Valentinianus and Valens endeuoured, in the remembrance of the two aforesaid Emperours, to call it Valentia, as [Ammianus] Marcellinus saith. But as this deuise [device] tooke no hold among the common sort, so it retained still the name of Britaine, vntill the reigne of Ecbert, who about 800. yeare of Grace, and first of his reigne, gaue foorth an especiall edict, dated at Winchester, that it should be called Angles land, or Angel landt, for which in our time we doo pronounce it England.' (Holinshed’s Chronicles, Vol I, p9; see Egbert)

Hazarding a reconciliation of the material in this notice, the naming sequence might have been Sea-girt Green Spot (Clas Merddin), Isle of Bel, Samothea, Albion, Britain

Shakespeare: ‘This sceptred isle, this green and pleasant land of hope and glory’; this is to sum up Britain by borrowing a dozen words from playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and poet William Blake (1757-1827; see Jerusalem), with words from a poem set to music by composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934); by using the phrase ‘Sceptred Isle’ Shakespeare was referring to the Royal sceptre, a symbol of monarchical power; Britain has been a monarchy for 3,000 years; the phrase ‘this sceptred isle occurs in Act 2 Scene 1 of King Richard II, thus:

'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.'

Roman view: 'The Island is triangular,' Julius Caesar wrote in De Bello Gallico (The Gallic Wars), 'one of its sides facing Gaul'; Julius Caesar, the greatest general of the age, invaded Britain in 55 BC and again in 54 BC; his aim seems to have been to punish the Britons for helping the Gauls against him and to deter them in the future, according to the account in his Commentaries; he failed the first time, in 55 BC, in what was among the greatest-ever triumphs of British arms, doing better the second time, achieving a subduing rather than a conquering; but in any event the Romans went away for nearly a century

Channel Islands: these became attached to the British crown at the time of the Conquest of 1066 and after, as part of the dukedom of Normandy; they have remained linked with Britain politically ever since

Innermost point: nowhere in sea-girt Britain is more than 70 miles from the sea; the innermost point is in South Derbyshire, one mile southeast of Coton in the Elms

Identity: Britain is set apart and has a clear sense of island identity; everyone else is 'overseas'; while being island-dwellers, the British are not insular; Britain is well positioned – close enough for trade with other nations (openness), but far enough away to make attack difficult (security); the island group is sufficiently large for Britain to have provided for herself throughout her history, in terms of food, goods and ideas; to quote the Tysilio Chronicle, ‘Britain, the fairest of islands…supplying the needs of its people with unending bounty’; this has made Britons cherish independence and freedom (particularly freedom of speech); Britons are their own people; they live in reference to no-one

Population: Britain had about 62m people in 2010, which was under 1% of the world’s population; 90% of Briton’s are urban; Britain is the 22nd most populous nation and is projected to remain so at least until 2025


'There are three great rivers: the Thames, the Humber and the Severn, and these embrace the island like three great arms, along them being carried the trade and produce of lands across the seas.' (Tysilio Chronicle; see Sources)


'Our story centres on an island, not widely sundered from the Continent, and so tilted that its mountains lie all to the west and north, while south and east is a gently undulating landscape of wooded valleys, open downs, and slow rivers.' (Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, 1956)

Maps: Britain is the most mapped place on Earth; Christopher Saxton’s 1579 map of England proved seminal; the Ordnance Survey was a pioneering mapping project, founded in 1791 at a time of military threat

'...the creation of the British Ordnance Survey – the first state mapping programme in the world...' (Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008)

The jigsaw puzzle was invented in Britain as a geography teaching aid in 1750; contour lines showing terrain of equal height were devised by Charles Hutton in 1774


Geology: Apart from being the most mapped land [see previous entry], Britain is also the most geologically surveyed location on the planet: few places in fact pack so much geological history and landscape diversity into such a tight space; soft sedimentary rocks in the southeast have resulted in rolling hills and vales there, while the more mountainous north and west is due to older harder metamorphic rocks; an early geological map was that of Dudley, 1665; the world’s first full geological map was that of William Smith in 1815; the theory of profound geological timespans ('deep time') was developed in Britain by James Hutton, 1785, the Father of Geology, and Charles Lyell in the 1830s; geological ages include Cambrian, Precambrian, Ordovician and Silurian – named after Wales and its ancient tribes – and Devonian, after the English county of Devon; the first radiodating of rock was by Arthur Holmes (1890-1965), who also championed continental drift

Tectonic plate boundaries: the surface of the Earth is made up of seven giant plates and some smaller ones – making 14 tectonic plates in all – that grind together and judder over and above one another, producing earthquakes; Britain is at the western end of the Eurasian plate, whose western boundary runs north-south up the middle of the Atlantic; its southern boundary runs east-west through the Mediterranean; in other words, Britain is safely away from the earthquake zones, though it is occasionally subject to feeble tremors; the scientific belief is that the existing continents were once all joined together into a single primordial continent, Pangea, before they cracked apart and moved around due to continental drift; as long ago as 1620, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) noticed that the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America looked as if they would fit together neatly

Greenwich Meridian & Greenwich Mean Time: in a chronology of world firsts there is this:

Latitude and longitude: measured in degrees, minutes and seconds by Welcker of Malvern, Worcs.' [Source: Robertson/Shell]

Latitude can be determined by the angle of the Sun at noon; the altitude of the Sun can be established using the shadows cast; using ‘back observations’ such as these was an idea originated by Thomas Harriot (c 1560-1621; see Telescope); the backstaff was based on this principle; it was simpler than the medieval astrolabe; the backstaff was supersed by the Davis Quadrant developed in 1594 by sea captain John Davis; Isaac Newton (1643-1727) described the principle of a doubly reflecting navigation instrument, without publishing it; the sextant was invented by mathematician John Hadley in 1730 (also, apparently, by Thomas Godfrey of Philadelphia at the same time), and improved by John Campbell in 1757; with this instrument much of the world was mapped; but the navigational problem for seafarers was longitude, i.e. east-west positioning; John Harrison invented a reliable marine chronometer (that is, a robust portable timekeeper) in 1735, following a suggestion by Isaac Newton, the most distinguished member of the Board of Longitude (founded 1714), that accurate timekeeping could enable longitude to be determined; naval vessels kept one clock according to time at Greenwhich and a second clock showing local time; the difference at noon local time, when the Sun was highest, gave longitude; for example, midnight local time, noon London, means you are on other side of world; the Greenwich Meridian was accepted internationally in 1884 as longitude zero, the equivalent of the latitudinal equator, and Greenwich Mean Time or GMT was accepted as the basis of international time reckoning; an International Date Line was established on the other side of the world; the Prime Meridian at which longitude is defined as 0°, ‘nought degrees’, runs through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich; this is the world’s oldest laboratory; it was set up in 1675 to crack the longitude problem, by using the night sky as a celestial clock; everywhere on Earth is located by reference to the equator and an imaginary line running north-south through Greenwich, London; in 1784 the Royal Observatory was the place where James Bradley discovered the notation of the Earth (the slight oscillation of its axis), which leads to stellar aberration (a shift in the star’s positions) in telescope observations

Roads: the most venerable built road in the world is a mile or so of timber walkway west of Glastonbury, Somerset, named the Sweet Track after Ray Sweet who found it in 1970; it is 6,000 years old; the ancient highways were established centuries BC, for example by King Belinus [see Belinus & Brennus]

‘The so-called "Roman roads" bearing the old Briton names of Stane Street, Watling Street, Erming Street, etc., are studded with Ancient Briton town sites, as we shall see, and thus presumably were roads mentioned in the British Chronicles which were engineered by the Ancient Britons in the pre-Roman period and merely repaired by the Romans, to whom they are now altogether credited by thouse latter-day writers who have erroneously believed that the Britons were savages.’ [see Sources: Waddell, p182]

The Romans resurfaced and extended what was already a comprehensive network; this is however to take nothing from the Roman’s practical genius; many modern roads still follow the course of the old pre-Roman roads and the straighter Roman roads; toll roads were invented in Britain in 1260; the camber was reinvented by Thomas Telford in the early 1800s; John Loudun Macadam, the pioneer of modern roadbuilding, promoted mouth-sized angular gravel and good drainage to prevent wheel ruts, 1815, ‘macadamisation’; asphalt is a dark residue of petroleum distillation having waterproofing qualities; it was used on roads after 1824; Edgar Purnell Hooley patented tarmac in 1901; the road network was developed early in Britain, with lengths per thousand people in 1860 of less than 1 mile in Spain, 2 or so in Prussia, 3 in France and 5 in Britain; the first modern-era one-way system was established in Britain (there was a one-way system in ancient Pompeii) and the first traffic lights and traffic island [see Motoring]; referring again to Britain’s ancient roads, here are relevant quotations:

'And in those days there arose disputes concerning the highways, whose borders were not clearly defined. And so he, Belinus, summoned before him all the stonemasons of Britain, and commanded them to build roads of stone and mortar, according to law. And one of the roads ran through such cities as lay in its path from the tip of Cornwall up to Cape Bladdon [Caithness] in Albany, the entire length of Britain. And another was built at his command to run across the land from Menevia [St David’s] on the one coast to Port Hamon on the other, the same being Southampton. And two other roads also he caused to be laid, running obliquely from corner to corner, passing, as did the others, through the cities [that lay in their path]. And when all was done, he commanded that they be held sacred, and bestowed upon them the right of sanctuary [so] that none dare molest whoever sought refuge there, however grievous his offences might be. And after these things did Belinus rule in peace.' (Tysilio Chronicle, More 18, page 23)

‘It now appears that these [four] Royal Roads were indeed, as the legend claimed, older than the Romans... Each road represents one of the four British solstice bearings (38.87º and 53.13º, and the bisecting lines, 126.87º and 143.13º) [sunrise angle from north on shortest and longest days; solstice ratio 4:3, as in 3, 4, 5 survey triangles]. The fabled [crossed diagonal] configuration of roads thus produces a complete Druidic blueprint: the Icknield Way [Salisbury-Bury St Edmunds] is the summer solstice line, bisected by Watling Street [running northwest from London]; Ermin Street [running northwest from Silchester, not to be confused with Ermine Street running roughly north from London] is the winter solstice line, bisected by the Fosse Way [Exeter-Lincoln]... The solstice line from Silchester runs, not to Roman Cirencester and Gloucester, but – via the foot of the White Horse Hill – to their nearby Iron Age predecessors, Bagendon and Churchdown Hill... [there is] definite evidence of the grid pattern of a native settlement beneath the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester). The Romans could no longer take credit for the first planned towns in Britain... the original British [road] grid of Calleva, unlike the Roman north-south, east-west grid, was aligned on the summer solstice.’ (Graham Robb, The Ancient Paths, 2013)

Canals: Britain’s was the first national system; a hundred canals were dug between 1760-1820; there are more canals in Birmingham than in Venice; 375 miles of canals were built by James Brindley (1716-72)

'Frustrated love has been the incentive for many great works. One example is the Industrial Revolution, which was made possible by the development of the canal system in the eighteenth century. Canal building in England was pioneered by Francis Egerton, third Duke of Bridgewater. At the age of twenty-one he proposed marriage to the beautiful Duchess of Hamilton, but the engagement broke down and the young Duke retired from social life, diverting his energies to the management of his estates. There contained large deposits of coal, but the mines were far from any port and transport by horse and cart was difficult and expensive. By digging canals from the mines to Manchester and other cities, Bridgewater made available both fuel and the lines of communication on which the Industrial Revolution was founded. The compensation for his disappointment was an interesting, active life, by the end of which he had become enormously rich.' (John Michell, Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions, 1984)

The Bridgwater Canal in Lancashire, opened in 1761, was Britain's first canal offering wholly artificial navigation [Source: Robertson/Shell]; at the peak there were nearly four and a half thousand miles of canals in Britain; complementing the extensive ancient pre-Roman road system [see previous item], there may have been an extensive ancient pre-Roman canal system too: 

'...a former centralized [canal] system on a large scale. In this, Bath appears to have been the centre of distribution, from which supplies could be sent to all parts.' (William Comyns Beaumont, The Riddle of Prehistoric Britain, 1946; see Bladud)

Climate: Britain’s climate is temperate (mild); it is not too hot in summer, nor too cold in winter (because of the warmth of the Gulf Stream); this has helped Britons favour moderation in political arrangements; the convergence of four weather systems makes Britain’s weather among the most changeably interesting anywhere; no wonder the British have a justifiable reputation for talking about it all the time!; the islanders have been the planet’s outstanding meteorological pioneers; records are better in Britain than anywhere else, e.g. temperature since 1699, rainfall since 1766; pressure anemometer of James Lind (not the the man of the same name who cracked scurvy), 1775; hygrometer, J F Daniel, 1820; the first meteorological map of the world, featuring wind direction, was that of Edmond Halley (1656-1742), who also drew the first magnetic chart; Halley worked out that the Sun was the engine of the winds; George Hadley in 1735 realised that the air was spun around by the earth’s rotation (Coriolus force); Alexander Buchan (1829-1907) systematized weather recording and is often described as a the father of meteorology; the term ‘weather forecasting’ and the practice was invented by Captain Robert Fitzroy of Darwin’s HMS Beagle fame; he was the founding genius of the Met Office, his first forecast – and the world’s first – being published in The Times of 1 August 1861; the forecast (‘fine’) proved correct; Fitzroy is the father of meteorology; the first weather map and the theory of anti-cyclones were produced by Francis Galton in the mid-1800s; the first long-range weather forecast was that of H F Blandford in the 1880s; the world’s first televised weather forecast took place in Britain on 29 July 1949; the most important weather forecast ever made was that for D-Day, the allied invasion of continental Europe via Normandy in the Second World War; the Roman historian Tacitus pronounced British weather objectionable; the Reverend William Merle kept systematic daily weather record for sixty-seven years from 1277-1344; this was towards the end of the Northern Hemisphere’s Medieval Warm Period, which took hold particularly after AD 1100; Merle is thus the grandfather of meteorology; from AD 1350 for four hundred years there was a period called the Little Ice Age, when temperatures dropped an average of 2º Celsius in winter, permitting Frost Fairs on the Thames; the description of Charles II (1630-1685) of a British summer was “Three fine days and a thunderstorm”; Britain is warmed by the Gulf Stream flowing from the southeast across the Atlantic; the island climate is thus more moderate than Canada and Moscow, which are as far north

Clouds: in 1802 Luke Howard gave the world a classification system based on cirrus, cumulus, stratus and nimbus; with the first three in various combinations, he defined seven combinations in all, many still used today; Howard’s classification system inspired ‘cloud fever’ in Goethe, Shelley, Constable, Ruskin etc

'Clouds became fascinating both as scientific phenomena...and as aesthetic phenomena... It could be argued that the Romantics actually invented the idea of ‘the weather’ itself, as it now preoccupies us, as well, of course, as ‘inner weather’.' (Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 2008)

Wind: the Beaufort Scale of 1805 was devised by Admiral Francis Beaufort; he was also instumental in getting Charles Darwin onto HMS Beagle and he had trained that ship’s captain, Robert Fitzroy; Force 12 is Hurricane Force, 74 mph or more; the Beaufort Scale was one of most important developments in maritime history and in the sciences of metrology and hydrography; Britain is one of windiest places in Europe; the windmill grinding of corn was probably invented in Britain in the 1100s; Edmund Lee’s ‘fantail’ of 1745 allowed windmills to turn into the wind automatically; William Henry Dines’s Pressure Tube Anemometer, 1885, was the first instrument to measure wind speed accurately; the first electricity-producing wind turbine in the world was that of James Blyth, 1887; the windsurfer was invented in Britain by Peter Chilvers, 1958

Tornados: Britain has more reported tornados for its land area than anywhere in the world; they are commonest in autumn, in the east of the country

Air pressure: the principal that rising pressure usually indicates fair weather and falling pressure heralds unsettled weather was first realized in 1665 by Robert Boyle; Boyle’s assistant, Robert Hooke, was to become the most prolific inventor of scientific instruments in the 1600s, producing a usable domestic air pressure instrument; this was a clock-face ‘barometer’ (named by Boyle from the Greek words for ‘weight’ and ‘measure’)

Sky: the blueness of the sky was first understood by Lord Rayleigh (1842-1919); ‘Rayleigh scattering’ is to do with absorption and re-emission of light; Rayleigh also discovered argon

Coastline: Britain has 6,000 miles of it, according to one system of measurement; there are reckoned to be 3m ships lying on the seabed worldwide, around a quarter of a million of these wrecks being in British waters, 45 having heritage protection; in the Humber estuary were found the remains of Europe’s oldest heavy-duty seagoing boat, dating from around 2030 BC; paddle powered, it was a sturdy vessel in the shape of a melon slice; it was constructed of oak planks sewn together with twisted yew withies and was the size of a modern articulated lorry; the remains of two other ships were found with it, dating from between 1680 BC and 1940 BC; the three vessels are reckoned to have been for trade, giving Britain a commercial maritime history of at least 4,000 years and probably far longer

English Channel: this is the world’s busiest sea lane; the Channel Tunnel, completed in 1992, was the largest undersea excavation in history; the first major underwater tunneling coup was beneath River Thames at Wapping, by Marc Brunel, 1843, incidentally launching the career of his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Britain’s greatest engineer; Marc Brunel invented the tunneling shield to bore the Wapping Tunnel; it was manufactured by Henry Maudslay, with whom Marc Brunel also set up a factory to supply the Royal Navy with wooden pulleys; this was the world’s first fully mechanized production line

Islanders afloat

'This Isle is encircled by Neptunes curled tresses and watry furrows round.' (Percy Enderbie, Cambria Triumphans or Brittain in its Perfect Lustre, 1661)

The sea is integral to the British national psyche; it reduces the risk of an identity crisis, since everyone else is 'overseas'; Britain has the richest maritime tradition of any nation on Earth, which claim includes nautical stories, an unrivalled record of innovation afloat, naval action [see Empire & wars], gadding about [see Exploration] and sea rescue [see For those in peril on the sea]

‘Dwyvan’s Flood’: Dwyvan and his wife Dwyvack are said to have escaped an inundating flood in an open boat, later to repopulate the island; this was around 2150 BC; the Biblical equivalent of Dwyvan is Noah [see Flood story]

‘Light shippes’ invented in British waters: around 1825 BC Albion, son of Neptune, is said to have taken over the island, which he ruled tyrannically and renamed after himself [see Albion]; there is this in Holinshed:

'In the Ile of Britaine he [Neptune] landed his fourth son called Albion the giant, who brought the same vnder his subiection. And herevpon it resteth, that Iohn Textor, and Polydor Virgil made mention, that light shippes were first inuented in the British seas, and that the same were couered round with the hides of beasts, for defending them from the surges and waues of the water.' [See Sources: Holinshed, Vol I, p432]

Inbound voyagers: Britain has been an island for some 8,000 years, obliging those who would journey to her to climb into maritime craft of one sort or another - until the arrival of flying machines in modern times offered an alternative; Britain has been on the receiving end of fleet migrations (e.g. Albyne, Brutus), invasions (e.g. Romans, Saxons, Normans and half a hundred invasion attempts thereafter, including the Spanish Armada and efforts by Napoleon & Hitler) and sundry marauders (e.g the Vikings); no country on the planet has a more colourful history of seaborne visitation, welcome or otherwise [see Rulers BC & Rulers AD]

Outbound voyagers:

'More world travellers, explorers, surveyors, voyagers and navigators have started out from the British Isles than from any other country in recorded history.' [Source: Sykes]

Britons certainly beat Columbus to North America and may even have beaten the Vikings too [see America]

Holy Ghost: this was the first warship to carry heavy armament, in the form of 6 guns; the vessel displaced 760 tons and was built in Southampton, being launched in 1414 [Source: Robertson/Shell]

Royal Navy: created in a form recognisable to this day by Henry VIII, 1491-1547, who beat the French with it at the Battle of Brest, 1512; this was in fact the world’s first modern navy, comprising warships as dedicated gun platforms rather than conveyances for armies to have battles afloat; this was the era of wooden (mostly oak) sailing ships; the Royal Navy is known as the Senior Service and the nation's matelots jovially as Jolly Jack Tars; the navy was the first to adopt a flag code, in 1647, and teh first to adopt Morse code signalling, using a flashlight, in 1868 [Source: Robertson/Shell]; naval exploits in the Age of Horatio Nelson – the Napoleonic Wars – are Britain’s Trojan War tales, with heroes such as Richard Howe, John Jervis, George Keith, William Hoste (the model for C S Forester’s Horatio Hornblower) and Thomas Cochrane (the model for Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey; an early pioneer of the sea story was Captain Frederick Marryat, 1792-1848); Admiralty orders in wartime were to ‘Take, sink, burn, or destroy’; the Royal Navy’s code is of relentless agression; the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694 and its borrowing from the British people to lend to the government, creating a national debt, allowed the country to spend its way to greatness by building a navy; by the mid-1700s the Royal Navy commanded the Seven Seas; Britannia really did rule the waves

'The English had taken a lead in shipbuilding before the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588; and the British held on to it for most of the next 350 years. The "wooden walls of England", made from Quercus robur (the 'English Oak'), were never breached.' [Source: Sykes]

Francis Drake: first Western commander to circumnavigate the world; Drake (1540-96) did this in the Golden Hind, the voyage beginning in 1577 and taking thirty-three months, to 1580, with final landfall at Plymouth; Drake and his 50 sailors were the first islanders to circumnavigate the Earth; Drake discovered California for the West, claiming it as New Albion, which was later visited and charted by Captain James Cook in the 1770s, who also knew it by that name; California should therefore rightly belong to Britain; ‘El Draque’ was the swashbuckling Terror of the Spanish Main; he 'singed the King of Spain’s beard' by destroying 33 ships in Cadiz harbour in 1587; Drake said that ‘There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory’; in the final moments of a fatal illness, he climbed into his armour ‘To meet death like a gentleman’

Other Elizabethan seafarers: John Hawkins, Martin Frobisher, Walter Raleigh

Submarine: Roger Bacon (1214-94), the world’s first scientist [see Roger Bacon], wrote of diving apparatus; the first underwater voyage in a vessel was from Westminster down the Thames to Greenwich in 1624; it was a wood and greased leather contraption, powered by twelve oarsmen; oxygen was generated from heated saltpetre (potassium nitrate); depths up to three fathoms were attained (i.e. 18 feet, a fathom being 2 yards); King James I is said to have taken a trip; the vessel was built by remarkable Dutchman Cornelius van Drebbel to a design from 1578 by the English mathematician William Bourne; the first usage of the word ‘submarine’ to refer to an undersea vessel seems to have been by John Wilkins in Mathematicall Magick, a book published in 1648; the world’s first mechanically powered submarine was that of George Garrett (1852-1902); launched in 1879, it was powered by steam; Garrett also developed the first submarine with a torpedo tube and the first closed-cycle underwater breathing apparatus (around 1873) [Source: William Scanlan Murphy, Father of the Submarine: the Life of the Reverend George Garrett Pasha, 1987]; the first ship to experience (and withstand) a submarine attack was HMS Eagle during the American War of Independence; David Bushnell’s Turtle submarine was unable to screw a mine into Eagle’s wooden hull because it was copper bottomed; the mine detonated harmlessly; submarine detection systems, including sonar (‘ping’), were developed in 1916 and after by British naval scientists with international input;the deep-sea diving bell had been invented by Edmond Halley of comet fame in 1717; the diving helmet was invented by Charles Deane in 1823; the first plastic submarine was a 3-man oil exploration vessel built in 1977 by Vickers Slingsby at Kirkbymoorside, Yorkshire

Henry Morgan: c1635-88; famous privateer and admiral of Welsh origin, who plundered the Spanish Main

William Dampier: 1652-1715; circumnavigated the globe three times; he was the greatest nautical explorer-adventurer of any nationality between Elizabethans and Cook; he inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels of 1726

‘Blackbeard’: Edward Teach, c1680-1718; the most infamous pirate of them all was captain of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, audacious scourge of the West Indes and the coast of Britain’s American colonies in a short season of villainy, 1717-8; Blackbeard’s end, at the hands of the Royal Navy, was predictably bloody

The Nore: moored in the Thames Estuary from 1731, this was the world's first lightship [Source: Robertson/Shell]; the first radio distress signal was transmitted from such a vessel, the East Goodwin Lightship, 1899 [see For those in peril on the sea]

George Anson: the flagship alone of this admiral’s squadron completed a circumnavigation, in 1744, but it returned stuffed with Spanish gold; 1.3m pieces of eight in fact

James Lind: vitamin C deficiency, scurvy, was the mariners’ scourge; Lind discovered in 1747 that fresh citrus fruit could beat it; hence ‘limeys’; he had also invented the controlled clinical trial, where ‘controlled’ refers to a comparison with ‘controls’ i.e. patients not receiving treatment; this was thus a double medical breakthrough

James Cook: maritime explorer, commander of HM Bark Endeavour; added one third to the map of the world; intended to go not only “further than any man has been before me, but as far as I think it is possible for a man to go”: first to protect his crew with fresh citrus fruits, losing not a man to scurvy on what was world’s first lone-ship circumnavigation, 1768-71; the aims of the expedition were to observe the 1769 transit of Venus across the face of the Sun and to establish or otherwise the existence of Australia; on board was Joseph Banks, who became a renowned botanist and president of the Royal Society; Captain Cook is rated history’s greatest navigator

John Wilkinson: the world’s original ironmaster built the world first iron boat in 1787

Original: this was the first purpose-built lifeboat, 1790; Original was a rowing boat built by Henry Greathead, which used cork for additional buoyancy; Original was the most important development ever in sea rescue; self-righting and self-baling lifeboats followed in the mid-1800s, as further examples of British pioneering in this humanitarian arena [see For those in peril on the sea]

Francis Pettit Smith: his vessel Archimedes of 1838 was the first propellor-driven mechanically powered ship, Smith having developed an advanced ship’s propellor in 1835

Phlegethon & Nemesis: these gunboats, built in Birkenhead in 1839 for the East India Company, were the world's first iron warships

Fishing trawler: invented in Brixham, Devon, in the 1800s; these elegant wooden sailing boats were copied all over the world, influencing fishing practices everywhere; the first steam trawlers, eight times as efficient as the sailing trawler, were also British, appearing at the end of the 1800s

SS Great Britain: built by legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843, this was the first modern ship, being an iron-hulled steamship driven by propellor; Brunel’s prior vessel was the SS Great Western, 1833, and his later one was the mighty SS Great Eastern, 1858 [see Isambard Kingdom Brunel]

HMS Driver: first steamship to circumnavigate the world, 1847 – and hence the first-ever vessel to use mechanical power instead of wind to circle the planet [Source: Robertson/Shell]

John Bowes: this collier was the first tramp steamer, 1852; launched at Jarrow [Source: Robertson/Shell]

HMS Warrior: this vessel, launched in 1860, was the most powerful early ironclad ocean-going armoured battleship and the largest in the period; she mounted a new type of Armstrong gun that could hurl a 110lb shell 2½ miles; she was so powerful that no other ship ever dared challenge her; she was built by the Thames Iron Ship Building Co

Atlantic: world’s first oil tanker, launched on the Tyne, 1863 [Source: Robertson/Shell]

Clipper ships: the 1860s saw the epic voyages of the clipper ships, made to a US design, racing to be first to London from China with tea, the British national beverage; this was for glory and a premium price; an example was Cutty Sark; these were the greatest maritime races of all time, each lasting 100 days and more, until the Suez Canal and steamships ended the era; they were the fairest vessels ever to sail the Seven Seas

HMS Challenger: the 1872-6 scientific expedition gave us the word ‘oceanography’ and gave birth to that discipline; discovered, among much else besides, seabed ‘manganese nodules’, though they contain other metals as well; also discovered the mid-Atlantic ridge, so crucial in understanding continental drift; the first ocean depth sounding had been made in 1840, of 2,425 fathoms off St Helena, by James Ross of HMS Erebus [Source: Robertson/Shell]

Turbinia: world's first turbine vessel, 1894; built by Charles Parson at Heaton, Co. Durham [see Steam turbine]; the first naval vessels with turbines were two destroyers launched in 1899, HMS Cobra and HMS Viper; King Edward was the first turbine merchantman, 1901; SS Victorian, 1904, was the first turbine liner [Source, all: Robertson/Shell]

HMS Dreadnought: first steam turbine driven battleship, 1906; with speed and 12-inch guns, Dreadnought rendered all other battleships immediately obsolete; she was the brainchild of Admiral ‘Jackie’ Fisher’, a great naval reformer at a time when wooden sailing ships were passing into history, a process he speeded up appreciably; Fisher had made his name by introducing the torpedo, a British invention; he said ‘Hit first, hit hard and keep hitting’

RMS Titanic: most famous-ever maritime disaster, 15 April 1912; this catastrophe involved the world’s largest and most luxurious passenger liner on its maiden voyage; it was built at the Harland and Wolff yards on Belfast’s River Lagan; the Titanic ran into an iceberg and sank in frigid waters, with the loss of over 1,500 lives; the captain's folly was to speed in a built-up area (i.e. a well-advertised ice field); aside from avoiding skipper's like that, the other moral is to stay off vessels described as unsinkable; the sunken liner was found in the 1980s; the artificial reef represented by this iron-rich wreck is now covered in one of the most complex and weird consortia of microorganisms on the planet, constituting a disturbing superorganism, complete with 'rusticles', by analogy with icicles; the people of Belfast say of the RMS Titanic “She was all right when she left us”

HMS Queen Elizabeth: first oil-powered battleship, 1913

HMS Ark Royal: this was the world’s first warship built as an aircraft carrier; it was launched in 1914; two other British firsts were taking off in an aircraft from a ship underway (1912) and landing on a moving ship (1917)[Source: Robertson]

Blue Ribbon: this was awarded in the 1930s for the fastest Atlantic crossing; Queen Mary beat
Normandie of France; fresh renown came for the super-sleek Queen Mary as a troop ship in the Second World War; she was so swift that she sailed alone, out of convoy, unmolested and unmolestable by enemy submarines

Lord Warden: first roll-on, roll-off ferry, 1952; Dover-Boulogne [Source: Robertson/Shell]

Robin Knox-Johnston: first solo non-stop sailing circumnavigation of the globe, 1968-9, in the 32ft ketch Suhali; other notable global sailing soloists in the modern era have been Francis Chichester & Ellen Macarthur

John Fairfax: first person to row alone across an ocean, when he crossed the Atlantic in a rowing boat in 1969 [see Rowing]

HMS Wilton: this 500-ton minehunter, launched at Southampton in 1972, was the first plastic warship; for the first plastic submarine was also British [see above, Submarine]

Solar Craft 1: this was the first solar-powered boat, 1975; it was built by Alan Freeman in Rugby [Source: Robertson/Shell]

Vestas Sailrocket 2: broke the world sailing speed record in 2012; built in the Isle of Wight, it was solo-sailed by Weymouth-based Paul Larsen; the VSR2 sailed at an average speed of just over 59 knots (67 mph) – with a peak speed of 63.5 knots – on a 500 metre run at Walvis Bay in Namibia

Islanders aloft
[see Aviation, Aircraft]

Bladud: in the 800s BC, King Bladud of Britain ‘made for himself pinions and wings and flew high in the air, from where he fell to earth onto the Temple of Apollo in London, and was broken into a hundred pieces’; this is a quotation from the Tysilio Chronicle [see Sources] and describes one of the earliest recorded attempts at human flight [see Bladud]

Elmer of Malmsbury Abbey: in AD 1010 this monk, having learnt from watching jackdaws how to master air currents, used fabricated wings to glide about a furlong, having launched himself from a tower; he broke both legs; Elmer realised the need for a tailplane, but the Abbott banned a second flight [Source: William of Malmesbury’s, Gesta Regum Anglorum, c1135]; the need for control was appreciated more formally some eight hundred years later by George Cayley [see below]

Ballooning: following on from the exhilarating pioneer flights in France in 1783 of a manned Montgolfier hot-air balloon and a manned hydrogen balloon, the first ascent in Britain was by John Tytler in a hot-air balloon in Edinburgh in 1784; a few weeks later an Italian diplomat, Vincenzo Lunardi, took the first hydrogen balloon flight in Britain; the discoverer of hydrogen, Henry Cavendish, presaged the coming of the hydrogen balloon with hydrogen-filled soap bubbles; the first aerial crossing of the English Channel was achieved in 1785 by Frenchmen Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries, who rode in a hydrogen balloon from Dover to Calais; leaflets were dropped in France, which constituted the first ever airmail delivery; the first aerial crossing of the Irish Sea was in 1817 by Windham Sadler, saddling the wind from Dublin to Holyhead in a hydrogen balloon; he was the son of renowned hydrogen balloon aeronaut, James Sadler of Oxford, who in 1784 had borne aloft a barometer (to estimate altitude) gifted by Samuel Johnson; this had been the first successful scientific flight by a British aeronaut; in 1862 James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell became the first men in the world to enter the stratosphere, with a balloon ascent to 37,000 feet; the first transatlantic hot-air balloon flight was by Richard Branson & Per Lindstrand in 1987; the first trans-Pacific hot-air balloon flight was that in 1991 of Richard Branson & Per Lindstrand in Virgin Otsuka Pacific Flyer; the first non-stop circumnavigation of the world in a balloon occurred in 1999 and was accomplished by Brian Jones & Bertrand Picard in Breitling Orbiter III, which was a combined helium and hot-air aerostat, with propane burners, made in Bristol

Parachute descent: the first jump in Britain was that of plucky French pioneer André-Jacques Garnerin, in Marylebone, London, in 1802, from a hot-air balloon; he had been the first-ever parachutist, in Paris in 1797

George Cayley: invented the unpowered aircraft (glider) in the 1790s; in 1853 Cayley’s coachman John Appleby unwillingly completed the first recognised flight in an unpowered heavier-than-air craft, though a young boy probably went aloft in a Cayley glider before that, in 1849; Cayley (1773-1857) is the father of aviation [see Aviation]

'Screw wing': the world's first helicopter (literally, 'screw wing') flew in Britain in 1905 [see Helicopter]

Sam Cody: in 1908 this 62-year-old ex-cowboy from Texas became the first man to successfully undertake an officially recognized sustained flight in a powered aeroplane in Britain; Cody’s machine was a biplane which covered 1,391 feet before it crashed, leaving its pilot relatively unscathed; but for his untimely death in a glider accident, Percy Pilcher might have got there in a powered triplane before Cody and indeed before the pioneering flight of the Wright Brothers in America in 1903; Cody’s flight took place at Farnborough, Britain’s most famous airfield, where airship construction had started in 1905

British aviation pioneers: these include Richard Fairey, Claude Grahame-White, Frederick Handley Page, Geoffrey de Havilland, Alliot Verdon Roe, Charles Rolls, the Short Borthers, Thomas Sopwith, Alan Cobham, Harry Hawker, Amy Johnson & Jim Mollison

Alcock & Brown: in June 1919 these two aviators completed the first non-stop air crossing of the Atlantic, in a Vickers Vimy biplane from the recently concluded First World War, its bomb bays filled with fuel; the aircraft was powered by two Rolls-Royce Eagle engines; Alcock & Brown took beer with them and their pet kittens, Twinkletoes and Lucky Jim, as well as a bag full of airmail letters; they made the crossing from Newfoundland to County Galway in 16 hours and 27 minutes; for their exploit, pilot Captain John Alcock and navigator Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown won a £10,000 prize from the Daily Mail, presented by Winston Churchill, and were knighted by King George V; Alcock & Brown provided the first-ever report of what was to become known as jet lag; Alcock died later that year in an air crash, at the controls of an aircraft; Brown died in 1948, having never flown again; the month after Alcock & Brown's pioneering flight saw the first lighter-than-air transatlantic flight by British airship R34, commanded by Major George Scott; the first transatlantic crossing by a jet was also by Britain, in 1948; the first solo transatlantic air crossing was that of plucky American Charles Lindbergh in 1927, who was the 104th person to fly the Atlantic; on landing in Paris Lindbergh declared "Alcock and Brown showed me the way"; another American, Neil Armstrong, cited Alcock and Brown as his greatest inspiration 

Passenger flights: the first scheduled air service, also the first scheduled international air service, was established in 1919 between London and Le Bourget, Paris, using a converted First World War bomber; the service was operated by Aircraft Transport and Travel, from which was to evolve British Airways

Schneider trophy: this was won outright in the 1930s by the racing seaplanes of aerodynamicist genius R J Mitchell, from which came the legendary Spitfire of the Second World War, with its elliptical wings [see Spitfire]

Royal Air Force: this was the world’s first independent air force, 1918; the RAF’s precursor was the Royal Flying Corps of the First World War, 1914-18; fighter aces in that conflict included Bishop, Ball, McCudden & Mannock; the Second World War featured dogfights and bombing missions, notably the Battle of Britain, which was an aerial victory in 1940; this is the only battle in history to be waged entirely in the air; prior to the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill said “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ "; after the battle was won Churchill declared that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”; Britain’s peactime finest hour was the solo initiation in 1948 of the Berlin Airlift, defying a Russian blockade to bring succour to the beleaguered civilians of a former enemy; a forerunner event, involving not relief but British rescue, occurred in August 1944 during the Second World War near the village of Brezna in what was then Yugoslavia but is now independent Montenegro; wounded partisans under the command of Josip Broz Tito were evacuated over several hours by a string of Dakota aircraft swooping through a canyon and landing on an airstrip improvised from a stony field only days earlier by young mothers, children and old folk; each plane took 25 minutes to load and held some 35 passengers; with the Nazis advancing rapidly on the valley and British Spitfires drawing fire, the transport aircraft lifted to safety about 1000 injured fighters

Dambusters raid: this was carried out by RAF 617 Squadron on Germany in 1943, using the bouncing bomb of Barnes Wallis to breach dams in the Ruhr Valley; Operation Chastise was the first true precision heavy bomber raid of the Second World War and the stuff of legends; the aircraft used was the Lancaster, which could carry twice the payload of any other Second World War allied bomber; the raid caused physical and psychological damage but also reallocation of resources away from the fronts to repair and fortify the dams

SR-N1: firstfull-size hovercraft, 1959, of inventor Christopher Cockerell, who rates as the most narrowly aloft 'Islander Aloft'; in the year of its launch SR-N1 became the first hovercraft to cross the Channel; it flew with an average 9-inch clearance above the surface of the sea [Source: Robertson/Shell]

UFO: this term seems to have been invented in Britain during the Second World War of 1939-45; “My husband, Lord Dowding, once told me that it was the wartime RAF which first coined the term ‘Unidentified Flying Objects’.”; this is a quotation from Muriel Lady Dowding, referring to her late husband Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding (Hugh Dowding), who was Commander-in Chief of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, 1940; Lady Dowding was interviewed by Kevin Desmond for his 1998 book Aviation Ghosts; the wartime headquarters of RAF Fighter Command was at Bentley Priory, in north west London; Desmond noticed that a diagonal line drawn NNW-SSE down a map of Britain crossed Bentley Priory and a curiously large number of airstations and other sites of importance in British aviation history, including Cardington, Hendon, Croydon Airport and Biggin Hill (though not the most famous of all British airfields, Farnborough); the line, which is on a compass bearing of 165.3 degrees South-South-East and a generous five miles wide, crosses the south coast of Britain at Beachy Head; it starts near Thurso in the north of Scotland, at the site of what was RAF Castleton; near there is a horseshoe of megalithic standing stones at Latheran; Desmond claims that the opening of the horseshoe from the centre of the stone group is on the same bearing, 165.3 SSE; '...the belief in extra-terrestrial origins of culture, pioneered by Brinsley le Poer Trench and popularized by Erich von Däniken... In January 1979...the House of Lords [was]...persuaded to debate the subject. it was the first time that UFOs had been the subject of debate in a national legislative assembly...' (John Michell, Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions, 1984)

Peregrine falcon: this bird's range includes Britain, conferring on it the prestige of an 'Islander Aloft'; the peregrine is the fastest animal on the planet, achieving 200 mph when diving for prey

[see Local colour]

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