I  want to share something with you.

So, I have this stationary bike. It has a tablet-sized screen above the handlebars, on which, if you pay for the annual subscription, you can do guided workouts, watch Netflix, select a music soundtrack for your ride… &c.

One of the really cool things, as far as I’m concerned (and probably the top reason why I keep the subscription, other than the fact that having a screen that doesn’t do anything is kind of disturbing), is a Google-Car kind of video, where you can pedal around Angkor Wat or the French Riviera. There are hundreds–well, I’m guessing, because I haven’t counted–of these videos, so you can do a different one every day if you want.

The other day, I biked on Corsica.

I’m going to attach a video of the video. It’s not very professional-looking, because I discovered it’s kind of hard to pedal and hold the camera still. But look at this:


I edited that way down to five seconds, mainly because you don’t necessarily need to see the image move to appreciate what I’m about to say. (And because the camera was jumping around like mad on the part I cut.) Look at the hills on the left. This is pretty much at the top of the island; you can tell because the Mediterranean is so far below. (It’s stunning, isn’t it?)

The beginning chapters of The Private Misadventures of Nell Nobody, if you haven’t read it yet, are set on Corsica. On top of these hills. Of course, there were no roads up there in the summer of 1794.

The photo in the top right hand corner of the page is a Corsican beach very like the one where British sailors and marines landed the guns for the assault on Calvi.

Having now seen these hills ‘in real time’, I am even more in awe of the things the eighteenth-century British army and the Royal Navy accomplished on Corsica. They dragged those guns from the ships up there. Twenty-eight and thirty-two pounders. That’s the weight of the shot they fired, not the weight of the cannon. The guns themselves weighed between 5,500 lbs to 7,300 lbs. That’s without the gun carriages, which weighed another 1,000 lbs.

They didn’t have specialised equipment. They rigged block-and-tackle systems and the men hauled those guns up by hand. They didn’t have climbing gear, or shoes with cleats. They climbed up there in leather-soled shoes or boots (which can be slippery as he**, believe me), wearing their uniform coats, breeches, slops, wool stockings… whatever they had to wear. No performance fabrics. No lightweight climbing gear.

They did this kind of thing a lot: dragging guns into places where there was probably nothing but rocks, bushes, and goats. I’m guessing about the goats, but there are goats pretty much everywhere, right? I think goats are pretty awesome. Back in 1777, in New York, at Fort Ticonderoga, British Major-General William Phelps is reputed to have said, “Where a goat can go, a man can go and where a man can go he can drag a gun…” And they did. They dragged a gun up Mount Defiance. I’ve walked on the road up Mount Defiance, and it’s pretty steep even with paving.

I don’t actually know if that was the first time the British tried something like that. But it worked, so they kept doing it, dragging guns up all sorts of mountains. A couple of years after Mount Defiance, a brand-new post-captain named Horatio Nelson accompanied the army as they dragged guns up the San Juan river in Nicaragua. So here’s to the men (and remember, they were all officially  men) of the eighteenth-century British army and the Royal Navy! Huzzah, gentlemen! 

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