Topsham at Halloween

A haunted bookshop, a headless guard, and a ‘house that dreams’

As the nights draw in, our most ancient pub, The Bridge, begins to look a little witchy, but there’s always comfort to be found in browsing a bookshop – even if it is haunted!

Topsham isn’t one of the most spooky places in Devon, but nevertheless, we can hold our own at Halloween, with a select array of ghostly visitations and ghastly happenings.

The Ghosts in the Bookshop

The Topsham Bookshop is a paradise for book browsers and a much-loved landmark in the town. As the website describes it: ‘The Topsham Bookshop is housed on three floors of a beautiful 17th century building in Topsham, an ancient port on the River Exe. Lily Neal, the owner and manager, aims to provide a special atmosphere in which book lovers with varied interests will feel at home.’

But is there more to this ‘special atmosphere’ than meets the eye? As a very ancient building, it would be surprising if it didn’t have some ‘history’. A while ago, as I was having my hair trimmed in a local salon, my hairdresser began to describe how she’d lived for a while in the flat above the bookshop, and had experienced strange goings on. She was convinced that it was haunted. I didn’t investigate any further, though, until I received an email out of the blue from a Mrs Margaret Green. Back in 1968, when she and her husband were first married, they too had lived in this flat. The shop was at the time known as ‘Homecraft’, selling homeware, and run by a Mrs Price. Here’s what Margaret told me:

This flat was haunted. We had been there a couple of weeks, and went to bed one evening, only to be woken with a sounds of chains being dragged across the floor. My husband got out of bed and went up into the attic, but there was nothing there. Another evening, we got home from work, and Mrs Price was just locking the shop up to go home. We locked our front door, made our evening meal, and then sat down to watch the TV. We went to bed as usual, but in the morning when we got up to go to work, we found that Mrs price’s shop was all unlocked, her cellar was open, and our front door was open. We had to shut the doors to the shop, lock our front door, and go to Mrs Price to let her know what had happened. She started to laugh and said, “Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you – it’s only our ghosts!’ We never ever saw him or them, but we certainly knew that he or them were around, Such happy days living there.’

Stairs down to the cellar, where some customers fear to tread

So I’ve now asked Lily, the present day bookseller, what she knows about such goings on. She tells me that several of her customers have reported feeling a presence, or having a strong sense that the building is haunted. A few refuse to walk down into the cellar area, as the feeling is too strong for their liking. One is convinced that someone died down there. But perhaps Margaret’s Green’s ‘happy ghosts’ are the more prevalent? When I asked her for permission to use this story, she answered:
‘I am so pleased to hear that your hairdresser had told you a story about feeling something strange. I would be pleased for you to use our memories of what we experienced whilst living in the flat. It was such a homely little flat, and we very much enjoyed living there.’

Here’s a Halloween invitation: Visit Lily’s bookshop, browse, buy a tome or two, and see what you can feel in these surroundings. And you can always write and let me know! Maybe there will be more to say about the Topsham Bookshop Ghosts.

Well, there are a few scary moments in the bookshop!

The Headless Train Guard

And now for a ghastly event in Topsham – it may send shivers down your spine. You have been warned.


Have you ever encountered a headless train guard? Have you ever seen blood trickling down your carriage window when travelling on our delightful local train service to Exmouth? No? Well, that might just happen, if the spirit released by a dreadful accident in 1875 still rises to haunt us on the track. And if so, then please ask him to tell you the true story of his demise. Because there’s a mystery hanging over it….


A ‘Fatal Accident on The Exmouth Line’

On a summer’s evening in June 1875, a railway worker called George Richards boarded the last train of the day from Exeter to Exmouth. He was designated as a ‘spare guard’ for the trip, and shared the guard’s carriage with another guard and two porters, all presumably finishing their shifts and in a good humour to be going home. We may also infer, although any influence of alcohol was always denied, that they were a touch merry as a consequence. Then George suddenly left the carriage, saying he’d be back in a few minutes.


Now, it seems there were no corridors in the train, so that ‘leaving the carriage’ meant climbing onto the roof and crawling along to the carriage he intended to enter. But his escapade did not go well. ‘On arriving at Topsham, the attention of one of the porters was called by a first-class passenger, in a compartment some two or three carriages removed from the guard’s van, to the fact that blood was running down the side of the carriage in which he was seated,’ reported the Exeter Flying Post ghoulishly on Wednesday 16 June 1875. ‘A search was made for the cause, and on the top of the carriage the unfortunate guard was found. quite dead, with the back of his head smashed in and his neck broken.’ He had been crushed when the train passed under a railway bridge.’


But what on earth was the guard doing on top of the carriages in the first place? What had his intentions been? The Coroner’s Court was held in the Lord Nelson pub in Topsham, and newspaper reporters flocked to hear the story in all its gory detail.
What state was the guard in? asked the coroner. ‘The deceased appeared very jolly and talkative,’ said porter Thomas May, but hastened to affirm that he was sober. But then May dropped a bombshell: ‘He said he was going to see a young female.
The Coroner was incensed. He assumed that May’s witness testimony was invalid, and lashed into him. The reporter eagerly jotted it down word for word:
Now, look here man, you have taken an oath, and that is a very serious matter. Beware speaking what is not the truth, and you seem to be giving your evidence as if this were not a very serious matter. This man has come to his death by some means, and I should wish you to be a little more cautious in the way which you give your testimony. He must have told you what he was out of the van to do.
Witness—He said he was going out to see a female.
The Coroner—Are those the words he used? He must have given you some reason for his going out beyond what you say?
Witness said the deceased’s last words were that he was going out of the carriage for immoral purpose (statement which caused a sensation among the jury).


Western Times – Wed 16th June 1875

I have no suitable historic pictures to illustrate this story, but my two Russian Baba Yaga witches are having a good cackle over it

Why was the Coroner so quick to try and refute the evidence? Perhaps because the London and South-Western Railway Company who brought about the enquiry, would have been very concerned to learn that their employees were having ‘immoral’ assignations with passengers? And all the more so when ‘the unfortunate man leaves a young widow and a child about six months old.’ Maybe their reputation was on the line. (pun intended!)


But May would not be swayed from his testimony, though other witnesses were not so bold, and mumbled about Richards saying he was ‘just going out for a minute or two’. All agreed, however, that he was crawling along the carriage roof and met his end at Apple Lane Bridge.


The Coroner, in summing up, said the jury had heard how the melancholy affair had happened. It was quite evident that deceased had met with his death by his head coming in contact with the bridge, and the verdict could be no other than accidental death. The jury, after a few minutes’ consultation, returned a unanimous verdict of Accidental Death.’


Searching for the exact location of Apple Lane Bridge, I found that it was apparently near the current Digby and Sowton station, just before Topsham. So when your train next stops there, remember poor George Richards, and speculate about just what he might have been planning to do, in a carriage further along the train. Perhaps don’t even travel on the last train, in the dark, if you are in a sensitive frame of mind…

A Ghost in Paradise?

And let’s end with my impressions – happy ones! – from living in our very own old house in Topsham. ‘Great Paradise Cottage’ was once the central section of a medieval hall house of some stature. We’ve only found rather vague pointers to its origin from local hearsay – ‘a place where the Bishop used to stay’ is one, and ‘previously a medieval grange for corn storage’ is another. Plus, from an archaeologist friend comes a clue that the name ‘Paradise’ is often associated with gardens on old monastic land, so it could have once been owned by an abbey. The fireplace is made of Beer Stone, and is one of only two houses in Topsham known to have Beer Stone in its construction. This honey-coloured, soft stone comes from the caves at Beer, near Sidmouth, which have been quarried since Roman times, and were used in the construction of Exeter Cathedral. Perhaps our slab ‘fell off the back of an ox cart’ when being transported to Exeter? At any rate, the fireplace is late 15th century and the house itself is be older still. In the 17th century, a grand oak staircase was added, along with ceilings and upper floors. However, because of the rather heartless 18th century division of the house into three vertical slices by builder Richard Cridland, some of the Beer Stone was shaved away to accommodate a tiny front door for our central section.


After we had renovated the house and moved in, in 2016, I recorded my impressions of the ancient layers of memory in the house. These were perhaps not so much hauntings, as presences stirring.


Sep 10 2016
This old house tells me its stories at night. In the deep wastes of sleep, where dreams float filmy, like colour washing through the amber waters, I am told what it remembers. Cargo unloading – ships, rough or dilapidated. Some inchoate feeling of – perhaps – a deal in dispute – a ship not arrived. It’s all rough and ready, plainer and simpler that we might portray it today. It’s the feel that tells me – yes, this is in the fabric of memory here.


Dec 22nd 2016
Last night both Robert and I seemed to hear or see things. I woke up in the first part of the night and wondered what Robert was doing out of bed. He appeared to be moving to and fro across the window, as if he was arranging the curtains or something. He seemed to have on a kind of dappled or patterned robe, kind of dressing gown. I asked him what he was doing, and he answered that he wasn’t out of bed – he was in fact lying next to me. Then twice later on in the night, he asked me, ‘What did you say?’ I told him that I hadn’t said anything…My experience felt puzzling but benign. Can it be that we have some kind of ghosts or hauntings here? I’m intrigued by the prospect!


Dec 2017 – How the house loves bunches of holly in jugs! This feels right.

Christmas greenery to deck the medieval Beer stone fireplace at Great Paradise Cottage

And yes, we’ve filled the house with greenery at Christmases ever since. It seems to come alive, and rejoice when we do this.


So the Topsham spirits I’ve heard about and perhaps encountered seem to be benign ones. Why be alarmed if they are gently living their own lives among us?

Below: Looking forward to Christmas at Great Paradise Cottage

Stories from the Christening Mugs – Part 2

In the previous blog, I told the stories of three children born in the 19th century, based on what I could find out about their lives from their christening mugs. This post will cover the rest of the christening mugs which I have in my collection, but I’ll begin with the odd one out. I bought all but one of mugs as a job lot in an auction some years ago, but there was already one on my shelf, which had been handed down to me through the family. However, when I investigated its provenance, it wasn’t quite what I thought.

The Mystery Mug

Thomas William Picken’s christening mug – or is it?

I have a decorated mug sitting on the shelf which bears the name of my great grandfather. It’s inscribed Thomas William Picken 1862. But here’s the thing: he was born in 1834. And there’s no one else on the family tree who it could possibly be. So as he would have been 28 in that year, what could this mean? It’s a large mug, good enough for a strong cup of tea rather than the dainty little mugs for children to hold milk. Most of the others that I have are quite small, by comparison. But perhaps it was also a custom to give personalised mugs as birthday presents to adults?

But no – it seems that this is a shaving mug. I found the relevant information on an American website, since there seems to be much more interest in the history of barber shops in the USA than there is in the UK, and hence a study there of the mugs themselves:
Mugs purchased and held at barbershops were customized with the client’s name and often displayed to encourage the customer to return to the barbershop regularly. Most barber shaving mugs were imported from France or Germany undecorated: it was customary to have the mug then hand decorated with the shaver’s occupation and name….
Barber shops sold mugs with the owners’ names on them partly because they thought that shaving rash came from sharing the same soap. In reality, the rash was not a result of soap but of un-sterilized razors.
‘The Sharpologist’

A barber’s shop of the 19th century. Grave concerns were raised in ‘The Lancet’ medical journal about the risks of infection there, including the transmission of syphilis. It paid to bring your own equipment.

So that’s something new to add to the story of decorated mugs! My great-grandfather Thomas Picken was himself a Chemist & Druggist, and so might have been especially keen to avoid infection. Perhaps it was given to him as a gift, or perhaps he could order a mug from the supplier who provided him with other apothecary jars, which likewise were often ceramic, with beautiful decoration and calligraphy. (Selections below include a Delft jar on the left and a Spanish one on the right)

The Unidentifed Babies

Before I come to the three christening mug stories for this post, I should also pay tribute to those owners who proved elusive to research.

Alas, I cannot trace William Pedley 1848, M. Lightfoot 1855, or Alice Barber born Mar 19 1866! There are multiple possible entries for each of them, and no clues as to the areas of their births. Many different locations for babies of these same names appear in the birth registers, including Yorkshire, Wiltshire and London. Although Alice’s mug has an exact date, the registers only state the quarter year of birth, so it would require applying for certificates for all the Alice Barbers born in the first quarter of 1866 to find the right one.

Below, you can see their very pretty mugs, some of the most charming in the collection


But the good news……is that for all the mugs I have traced, the children lived into adulthood. In the second half of the 19th century, at least one in ten babies died before their first birthday, and older children were vulnerable to infections and accidents. Perhaps this set of babies had a better start in life than some; although not in the top rungs of society, several of those I’ve traced were born into a well-off family, or one where there was solid employment for the father. Although no one in Victorian Britain was completely protected from infection or mishap, the dangers of early death must have been higher for the very poor.

Ronald Arthur Shipstone

Ronald Arthur Shipstone was born on Nov 29th 1880, in Basford, Derbyshire, and he was to become a pillar of society. His father James was a brewer, and the Shipstone brewery became a mighty enterprise, with Ronald Arthur eventually taking its helm as Managing Director. James had at least six children, and was able to call the brewery ‘James Shipstone and Sons’. It ran for almost a century and a half, from 1852 to 1991.

Ronald Shipstone supported many charities, was President of numerous associations, and became a benefactor to various Nottingham hospitals and medical institutions through his will. He married Patty Theodora Woodhouse in 1913, but as far as I can see, had only one child – another Ronald – who died in 1930. Perhaps this lack of heirs is why he distributed his fortune so widely among good causes when he died in 1944. His fortune at his death in 1944 was recorded as £334,065 – approximately £15 million pounds in today’s money. The turnout for his funeral was enormous, according to the newspapers:

‘Large Gathering At Funeral Of Mr. R. A. Shipstone’
A long column of uniformed special constables marched in the funeral cortege yesterday of Mr. Ronald Arthur Shipstone. Commander of the Nottingham Special Constabulary, of Lucknow House, Mapperley Park. Nottingham, who died last Friday, aged 64…There were so many wreaths that a special dray had to be used to carry them, and the concourse of the mourners at the church was tremendous…A guard of honour of special constables was in attendance upon the coffin, which was draped with the Union Jack. Nottingham Journal, 22nd Nov. 1944.

His story is a worthy one. He fulfilled his parents’ expectations, succeeded in business, and became a public benefactor. And that’s where I’m content to leave it, although for anyone interested in further details, a family history website gives more detailed information. At any rate, I have his christening mug, a reminder that this brewing magnate and philanthropist was once a tiny helpless infant.

The Shipstone Star Brewery in New Basford, Nottingham

Joe Singleton

In brief, this is the Quiet Life of Joe Singleton who was born on July 24th 1861, in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Details of his life are scanty, but I can report that he went to school (not all children did), became an iron moulder, then a foreman at his work. He married a woman called Sarah, and lived in Leeds with her and their two children at the time (1901), a boy and a girl. Joe, like Ronald Shipstone, seems to have died in 1944, aged 83. To his descendants, there may be much more to say about Joe, but this is as far as my investigations have led.

W. H. C. Gayner

And finally, in the christening mug collection, we come to W. H. C. Gayner, which opens up a different type of story, one where family history, geography, religion and economics all play a part. I’m pleased to have had this opportunity to delve into these areas, and see more of the background against which his life story unfolded.

Although it can be difficult to research a name with only initials, and especially if there is no date or place of birth, the combination of these three initials did prove enough to identify William Heydon Champneys Gayner, born 11 Nov 1888 in Gloucestershire, and buried in Birmingham in 1949.

As with Emily Cranfield, the questions that surfaced aroused my curiosity. In particular, why did William’s father, John Edward Gayner, move from rural Filton near Bristol to the city of Birmingham? And why or how did he change his occupation from that of farmer to being a manufacturer? This was a big leap, and unusual for the times.

Luckily, a local history website has filled in some of the gaps here, showing that the clash between the non-conformism and the established church played its part. The Gayners were an old Quaker family who had lived in this and the nearby Thornbury area for generations, and there were other Quakers in the area too, such as the Champneys, whose name William also bore.

Although Filton is now an outlying urban district of Bristol, it was at that time countryside. The Gayners worked the land that they owned there, but in common with other staunch Quakers and non-Conformists, they refused to pay tithes to the Church of England. This meant that they were hard hit by fines, which in this case gradually eroded their holdings. The website reveals that William H. C. Gayner’s grandfather, another William, stood by his beliefs:

William GAYNER, (1754-1830) took over both Church Farm and Meadowsweet Farm in 1787, Congyre in 1790 and Late Millett’s Farm in 1792, the first and latter of which were called Upper House and Lower House by his family. His farm products were gradually taken away by warrants for non-payment of tythes. On one occasion in 1783, John Owen II and Benjamin Pierce had to take ten sacks of wheat valued £16 3/6 from Gayner’s farms for the rector, Francis Ward. William Gayner was Filton’s principal employer and kept diaries of work done, mainly telling of the activities of his daymen, carters, oxen and horses and records of his sales and purchases in connection with the farm. (Bristol & Avon Family History Society – Filton area)

Compare the plain style of this mug for a Quaker child with the more elaborate twirling decoration of Ronald Shipstone’s, above, heir to a brewing empire.

William junior, W.C. H. of the christening mug, seen above, spent part of his childhood at Meadowsweet farm, mentioned above. But in 1901, the census records that he was living instead at 81 Kingsdown Parade, Bristol, with three siblings, but no parents. This might seem very strange indeed, but I think this was due to poor census keeping. I actually lived in in Somerset Street, Bristol for 13 years, which is the next street in parallel to Kingsdown Parade. And while doing some house history research, I found that our house and the adjoining one were used in earlier times as a small boarding school. (Ours had been the girls’ house, and had a huge lock on the front door!) Apparently, in the 19th century, Gloucestershire farming families frequently sent their children to Bristol, to get a good education. Facilities were presumably limited in their own areas, and roads in Gloucestershire were notoriously bad, often choked with mud in the winter months. Boarding school was the obvious practical option.The big houses in these two roads, Kingsdown Parade and Somerset Street, were ideal for modest, small schools, serving the yeoman farmers who could afford to educate both their boys and girls there. So my supposition is that the census entry for William is poorly recorded, since it doesn’t indicate a head of the household, as it should, and has failed to mention that this is not a family home but a school boarding house. Probably too, further census research might clarify this, although such schools often came and went quite quickly.

Then, in 1911, William’s parents John and Charlotte have moved with their children to Edgbaston in Birmingham. The family is fully back together again. And I can confirm that a Edgbaston is a very pleasant leafy area, despite being almost central, since I myself went to school there! But there is no more farming for the Gayners, and suddenly John Edward (b Filton) 53 is Managing Director of a Woodturning Company, of which our William is the Company Secretary. Mother Charlotte is 48, sister Elsie Charlotte, 24, a ‘Musical Student and Teacher’, while Helen Lucy, 20, is a bookkeeper. They have 9 rooms in the house at 81 Ryland Road.

What has brought about this remarkable change? Perhaps it was partly the decline in their farming fortunes, but I think it was more likely that they started to sell off their farmland for building. Filton now began to grow: Between the wars, Filton expanded rapidly to become a suburb of Bristol. Terraced and semi-detached housing was built in small estates on both sides of the A38 trunk road. A housing estate was laid out in the 1920s covering much of GAYNER’s land and one of the first roads was named GAYNER Road in recognition of the family’s long association with the parish. (Bristol & Avon Family History Society – Filton area) Eventually, it became the local centre for the aerospace industry and retained a small airfield until 2012. (I had personal experience of this in 1999, when our flight from Bristol to Amsterdam, was transferred to Filton because of fog at Bristol airport. We were bussed from there to Filton and took off from what seemed to be an almost toy-sized airfield!) So the Gayners, deprived of some of their fortune by intolerant and greedy church authorities, must have been pleased to turn the tables and make good money from their remaining land.

Filton House – one of the few old farmhouse buildings left in the area, now dominated by the Aerospace buildings next door

Birmingham offered good manufacturing opportunities. There may be more to the reasons why John Edward and Charlotte Gayner chose to uproot to this spot, but cash in the bank and good prospects for enterprise must have driven their decision to a large extent. However, it’s also worth mentioning that other Quaker businesses did well in Birmingham, the most famous example being of course Cadbury’s chocolate empire at Bournville. (When the wind blew in the right direction, we could smell the liquid chocolate on the air as we walked in through the school gates!)

Son William (W.H.C.) served in World War One, in the British Red Cross Soc & Order of St John, and was awarded the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal. In 1920, he married Emmeline Ewell at Eastry, near Sandwich, in Kent. And oddly enough, this is yet another place connected with my life, as Sandwich was where I spent a large part of my childhood.

In 1939, William appears in the National Register as a manufacturer, living at 9 Hintlesham Ave Edgbaston, B’ham. He died 17 April, 1949, leaving £52,507 to his wife Emmeline, to Margaret Ewell Gayner, spinster, and to John Veale Gayner, student. The family had made a huge shift since his childhood in the fields of rural Filton, in Gloucestershire.

And this rounds off my journey through the christening mugs and their stories. I hope they will have engaged you too. Next time you go to an antiques shop or auction, if you spot an object with a name, such as a sampler or a christening mug, give it a little nod of recognition. Here is someone’s personal history, a story that you might be able to tease out if you have the time and the inclination.

Next time….

We are heading into Halloween and I have a couple of spooky posts coming up, on Haunted Dartmoor and Ghostly Topsham. Please join me for a frisson of fear on Oct 31st and Nov 14th.

My black cat and my Russian witches are preparing for the season of ghosts and ghouls

A Struan Loaf and a Dragon for Michaelmas

Michaelmas Daisies – a common garden favourite, associated with St Michael’s Day on Sep 29th

We’re coming up to the Feast of Michaelmas, on Sep 29th. And as I have a couple of stories about St Michael to impart, I’m posting a week ahead of my usual schedule, in time for his feast day.

Note: Part Two of my Christening Mugs Stories will now appear on October 10th

Stained glass window at St Michael’s Church, Brent Tor, Dartmoor

St Michael is one of the four archangels honoured by the Christian church, and in Western spirituality in general. These are Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel. But in early medieval times, and especially in Byzantine culture, Michael was singled out as the head archangel, the one who rides through heaven commanding the armies of God. (Angelogy is complex and many-layered, and I shall just stay with the simple version here!) . Perhaps this command of the heavenly forces is why churches dedicated to St Michael, or St Michael and All Angels, are nearly always built on high ground.

St Michael’s Brent Tor (above) – most definitely built on high ground, as is the famous St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall (below)

Michael is also famous as a dragon-slayer, which has relevance to the first of my stories. However, the dragon itself is also an ambiguous creature – a symbol of danger and destruction, but also of passion, energy, treasure and transformation. I recommend keeping an open mind about the dragon – but it’s also wise to keep an eye on the dragon too!

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven” (Rev. 12:7).

The Red dragon of Alchemy – symbolising transformation through fire

The Dragon Churches of Old Radnorshire

Last week, a friend and I went to the Welsh Borders, on the trail of five churches dedicated to St Michael. These particular churches, out of the many in the area named for Michael have a very special function. They keep guard over the very last dragon of Wales: ‘There is a local legend that lies asleep deep in Radnor forest and that long ago the people of this area built four [other sources say five] churches in a circle around the forest. These were dedicated to St Michael, the conqueror of the dragon, to make sure he does not escape. Many believe that if any of these churches is destroyed the dragon will awaken and ravage the countryside once more.’

Overtly, Michael’s job is to protect the population from the rampages of the dragon. But perhaps helps to preserve that last wild spirit of Wales? Some say that these five churches – at Cascob, Cyfnllis, Nant Melan, Discoed and Rhydithon- can be joined up on the map as a pentagram, which is a magical seal of protection.

The Welsh Dragon, as found on the national flag of Wales

We visited two of these churches at Cascob (seen above) and Cyfnllis. Like the others in the circle, they have very ancient yews in their churchyards and are built on or near prehistoric mounds. Cascobis still very remote, both peaceful and magical in its atmosphere. And of Cyfnllyis, (below) where the church stands next to the abandoned site of a medieval castle and vill age, author Donald Gregory calls it ‘delectable’ and says: ‘both a historical site of uncommon importance and also an area of outstanding natural charm.’

Does the dragon still live in Radnor Forest? My companion on this journey, Rod Thorn, said that he plans to return and find out! Perhaps I will stay behind, hugging a yew tree and calling on St Michael for protection!

And I think that the archangel and the dragon are a pair, perhaps combining the conflicting passions and aspirations of human existence. In alchemy, you must separate body and soul – a battle ensues, and they are then reunited in a new and wonderful form.

Struan Bread

And for celebrating harvest time and the Feast of St Michael on Sep 29th, what better than to bake Struan bread? This is a bread traditionally made in the Western Isles of Scotland, combining different types of harvest grains. The loaf was usually made by the eldest daughter of the household, then carried into the church at Michaelmas to be blessed. It was then laid there to honour relatives and friends who are no longer with us. As Struan recipes are generous enough for three loaves, I expect a couple were kept at home to enjoy there!

The recipe below is one that I first found on the ‘Fresh Loaf’ website , and have adapted it. I’ve since discovered more both about its origins and its revival by Brother Juniper, a lay monk and star baker from California. He’s commemorated in the Brother Juniper Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor by Peter Reinhart, who himself travelled to Scotland in search of more information about the Struan tradition. By then, it had become a folk memory only, but he found an old Gaelic blessing for the Struan, translated by the notable scholar Alexander Carmichael. I’ll quote a few verses from it here:

Each meal beneath my roof [meal = ground grain etc]
They will all be mixed together,
In the name of God the Son,
Who gave them growth.

Milk, and eggs, and butter,
The good produce of our own flock,
There shall be no dearth in our land,
Nor in our dwelling.

In the name of Michael of my love,
Who bequeathed to us the power,
With the blessing of the Lamb,
And of his mother.

Reinhart says:
Struan is not merely bread – it is bread that represents the essence of bread, which is one of the great analogies of life itself. In our everyday consumption of bread we tend to forget or lose sight of the reality of what bread is. So a bread ritual…dedicated to the archangel of the harvest whose name means “like unto God”, is a way to tune into this deeper reality….Struan, because of its direct descent from a traditional ritualistic practice, still retains a trace of sacramental efficacy.’

Certainly, I’ve made it previously and have got my granddaughters to join in. I may even be just in time to do that this year too!

A previous batch of my Struan loavesand below, yes I did make it in time! Here’s those I made yesterday, on Sep 28th. Happy Michaelmas!

The Recipe

Struan bread is a mix of harvest grains and flours. Now since both this recipe and the one given by Brother Juniper (which differ slightly from each other)use polenta, ie cornmeal, I doubt that this was what exactly what they used in the Outer Hebrides! It’s not a product of such northern climes. But it was always meant to be made with whtaver harvest produce was gathered in, and varied recipes go with the spirit of the dough, even if we gather most of our ingredients from the shop shelves these days!

I’ve also added metric measurements to the original American cup measurements, which tend to confuse us over here in Britain! And bear in mind that it’s one of those recipes where you need to check it out as you go along, and see whether you need more flour or less water. So hold back on the water, add it a little at a time until you get the right consistency. I currently use a Kitchen Aid to do the kneading, as my wrists aren’t strong, but kneading by hand would indeed be more mindful. If you do use a machine, check early on in the process that it’s mixed properly as there are a lot of different ingredients to blend.

THE LOAF

Makes 1 large loaf – double the quantity for 2, which means you’ll have one to freeze. Worthwhile, as it takes effort to assemble all the ingredients and time to prepare the dough.
SOAKER
3 tablespoons polenta 30-40gm
3 tablespoons rolled oats 25 gm
2 tablespoons wheat bran 10gm
1/4 cup water 60ml

DOUGH
3 cups unbleached bread flour 380-400gm
(You can substitute up to 25% wholemeal if you wish)
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1.5 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon instant yeast
3 tablespoons cooked brown rice 50gm
(Short grain is good but long grain is fine)
1.5 tablespoons honey
Half a cup buttermilk (130 ml, or use a little more and reduce water)
3/4 cup water 170ml – Add carefully; you probably won’t need it all

TOPPING
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
(If you don’t have poppy seeds, use another seed like sunflower)
Mix together the ingredients for the soaker. Cover and allow to soak for at least half an hour or as long as overnight.

METHOD
In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients, then stir in wet ingredients and soaker. Add more flour or water until the dough can be formed into a ball that is neither too dry nor too loose in texture. Try to keep it so that you can still handle the dough, even if it is a little sticky. Knead the ball of dough for 10 to 12 minutes, (8-10 in a food processor with dough mixer) then return it to the bowl. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and allow the dough to ferment until doubled in size, approximately 60 minutes.

Remove the dough from the bowl, knock it down briefly to take out the air, and put it into a greased bread pan. Sprinkle a little water on top, followed by a dusting of poppy seeds.

Cover the dough in the pan loosely again and allow the loaves to rise until doubled in size again, approximately 40-60 minutes.

Bake these loaves at 180 degrees (356 F) for about 40-45 minutes. (I used a fan oven; you might need to use 190 in a non-fan one.) It will achieve a high bake colour so don’t be tempted to take it out too early. Test in the usual way, by tapping the bottom of the loaf when you think it’s ready to see if it sounds hollow. Reinhart gives a useful suggestion for his recipe, which is that if the top of the loaf is dark but it’s not sounding hollow, take it out of the tin and bake it a little while longer, bearing in mind that it’s likely to finish cooking very quickly this way.

These slices won’t last long! Delicious with butter and honey. And below is our own modest harvest, with sunflowers filling a Devon harvest cider jug made by Harry Juinper of Bideford

You may also be interested in:

Alchemy and Cooking

Baba Yaga and the Borderlands

Golden Quinces

Stories from the Christening Mugs – Part 1

At an auction about ten years ago, I bought a collection of Victorian christening mugs. I was drawn to their charm and to the idea that each name heralded a story, a story of a life that had unfolded in some way and which I might perhaps be able to trace. I was deeply into family history research at the time, and was also writing a book about life stories, Your Life, Your Story. I made a start on the research but got distracted by other avenues to explore, which included investigating the history of two samplers which had been passed down to me from my mother. Their story is already on my blog at ‘A Tale of Two Samplers’.

And so the mugs decorated the shelves of the houses we’ve lived in since, and look particularly pretty filled with summer flowers. Then, recently, my subscription to Ancestry was about to expire and I decided to have one last go at researching their origins. I dug out my original notes, sorted and typed them, and away I went on the trail.

Objects which have a personal story fascinate me, but if they’re not part of my own heritage or a strand of history that I’m following, there’s a limit to how far I’d be prepared to go in chasing every detail. But it was a pleasure to discover the outline of six of these lives. The other three, as I’ll explain, could not be traced. And then, finally, I also solved the mystery of a named mug passed down through our own family, which I couldn’t understand before.

So let’s imagine these 19th century babies, each one the apple of its parents’ eyes. Each one wide-eyed and curious about the world around, with a future life as yet unwritten. How did it all turn out?

I’ll give the essence of what I’ve found, since unless by some strange coincidence any of these is connected to your own family, you will not be enthralled by too many dates and details. These are stories-in-a-nutshell.

Silvester Rose

Silvester Rose was born on May 16th 1876. An unusual name is a good start for researching family history. In this case, it’s a rather suave name which we might associate with the leader of a swing band, or perhaps a louche artist. However, our Silvester was born into a solid tradesman’s family – his father Fred was a plumber and decorator, and Silvester followed in his footsteps, becoming a plumber’s apprentice when he was in his teens. The family lived in Towngate, Leyland, a few miles south of Preston in Lancashire. (If you’re interested in how the village looked at the time, there are many historical photos here ) In 1904, Silvester married Jane Ellen Bowling, but she died before 1911 when he remarried Sabina Booth, a dressmaker. By that time Silvester was 34, and described his occupation as ‘publican’. Perhaps he was tired of crawling under floorboards to deal with pipes. Perhaps he fancied a more sociable occupation.

Silvester died in 1933, and was buried on 28th January at St Andrew’s Church, Leyland. He was only 56, but had seemingly done well enough in his working life to leave £4002 14s 6d to his widow Amy.

There’s one more element in his life which might play a part in this: in 1909, aged 32, he had become a Freemason, and joined the Carnarvon Lodge of United Grand Lodge of England. He would thus have had solid connections in the area which may well have helped him in business. Did he have children? According to a family tree uploaded to Ancestry, he had at least one child – a daughter called Dorothy Mabel Ellen Rose, born in 1913, who died in 1983 at the age of 69 in the same area of Lancashire. She was given the same name as his mother, Dorothy, the woman who had gazed into her newborn baby’s face back over a hundred years earlier. Who chose his name, Silvester? Fred or Dorothy, or even another relative? That we shall probably never know.

Places and families

Often, in previous generations, people didn’t move too far from their birthplace. Although there are plenty of exceptions, especially the emigrants, who sailed away to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, many life stories ended more or less where they began. Marriages were often to partners known since childhood. Other relatives were on hand to help out with the children. There were economic, social and practical benefits to staying put in your area. Most of the stories I’ve researched here turned out to be about those who stayed local, with one interesting exception.

This painting, ‘Letter from the Colonies‘ by Thomas Webster, was painted in 1852, a time when many migrants had already sailed away from their homeland to the far shores of Canada, America or Australia, for instance. The arrival of a letter must have been a great event, perhaps containing news that was already several months old, but still vital to the relatives remaining behind.

Frederick John Bartlett

Frederick John Bartlett was born in 1877. His is the only christening mug among my collection which tells us where he was born, in Eastbourne, and it seems he stayed there most of his life. His father William was a Bank Manager, and his mother Sara Elizabeth looked after her brood of children at 3, Prospect Cottages, Crown Lane. Frederick himself started his career – and indeed ended it – as a Bank Clerk. He married Emily Adeline Manning, and by 1939 was retired and living with her in Milton Road, Eastbourne. However, he did have one major interlude in his settled Sussex life, and that was serving in World War One. His army records show that he signed up in 1915, and plainly survived his service. According to a family tree on Ancestry, he died in 1954. Is this another quiet life, well-lived, with just a brief foray into the theatre of war?

Next we’ll move on to the only girl commemorated in my set of mugs. Were such mugs ordered more to celebrate the birth of boys, rather than girls? I haven’t yet found a definitive answer to this, but I discovered that Emily Bronte had her own mug, which is now preserved in the Museum at Haworth. Perhaps girls played more with their mugs as children, at pretend tea parties for instance, and they were more likely to get broken? But this is merely a guess.

Emily Bronte’s christening mug, now kept in the Bronte Museum at Haworth

Emily Cranfield

Emily Cranfield came from the Bedford area, where she was born in Roxton in 1863, and died in 1952, at the good old age of 89 years. Her full name was Emily Wilkerson Cranfield, as she was given her mother’s maiden name for a middle name being, which was a common practice in the period. She had strong family connections in the area, yet in all the census entries from 1871 when she was 8, to 1911 when she was 48, and even again in the 1939 Register aged 76, she is never once found living with her own family. Even in her girlhood she was not at home according to the records, and although in adult life she remained a spinster, this usually meant a woman would be more likely to live with relatives, and not try to fend for herself. There is surely a story here, which I have only partially teased out.

Emily’s father, Thomas Cranfield, married Emily Wilkerson, and they had three children – Mary Jane, Emily Wilkerson of the christening mug, and Anne. But Emily the mother died in 1864, the year that Anne was born, and when baby Emily was only a year old. Thomas re-married a Maria Gibbins two years later, in 1866. This was not unusual – the majority of widowers married again as quickly as they could, often within three months, in order to have a new mother for their children and someone to run the house while the man worked to bring in a wage. For a widowed woman, this was equally advantageous in terms of economic survival. ‘Blended’ families were commonplace, despite the perception that it’s a modern invention. My own 2 x great grandmother, who came from a poor family of weavers and miners, ended up with at least twelve children under her roof, both her own, and as step-children from her two marriages to two widowers.

Thomas had already made a big financial commitment, since in 1864, the same year that Emily’s mother died, he had taken on the lease of a large country house and its farmland. As the documents tell us: In 1864 Rev. Robert Delap leased the house, with 749 acres and 37 poles of land to Thomas Cranfield of Roxton, yeoman, for £1,274/0/4 per annum. This lease was renewed in 1873 at a rent of £1,226/16/- per annum. You can also read a list of all the rooms in the well-appointed house at the records here. This was a sizeable holding, and Thomas went on to establish his position as a farmer, finishing his farming career with an impressive 1172 acres under his command in 1881. The gamble paid off.

But perhaps not for his family. Emily is never reported as living there. Was she, perhaps, rejected by her stepmother? Did they clash badly enough for Emily to want to move out when she could? Or was her father uncaring, and uninterested in providing for his daughter?

In 1871 she was named as a boarder at a school in St Peters Green, Bedford, with her sister Mary. A spell at boarding school wasn’t uncommon, and was often favoured by yeoman classes. who couldn’t get a good enough basic education for their children locally, as I’ve mentioned in A Tale of Two Samplers. The house we used to live in in Kingsdown, Bristol, was once a small school, filled with the sons and daughters of farmers from across the other side of the Avon river in Gloucestershire (boys in the house next door – girls in our house, which had a gigantic keyhole lock on the front door!) But the pattern for Emily seems here to be set for all the later years too. In 1881 she was a ‘visitor’ at the farm of Alfred Rogers in Bromham, Beds, and in 1891 she was living at her brother-in-law’s, Frank Hilton, another farmer. Then in 1901 she was working as a housekeeper at Mansion House, Bedford. By 1911, she was a ‘boarder’ with the family of William Barber. Finally, in 1939 (there are no accessible censuses between these dates) she was living on ‘private means’ at Manor Cottage, Kempston, with Mary J. Hilton. According to family trees posted on Ancestry, this was Emily’s sister Mary Jane (b. 1861) widow of Frank Hilton, the farmer referred to in 1891. It seems the two sisters were living out their latter years together as widow and spinster, so at least she was back with one of her own relatives.

Emily seems to have inherited a little money eventually, or perhaps was a very careful saver, as she has her own ‘means’ to live on, and a legacy to bestow at her death in 1952. She was able to leave the tidy sum of nearly £3000 to Marion Hilton, spinster, presumably another member of this Hilton family. But for several decades, she was just the boarder, the housekeeper, the maiden aunt. Was it a sad life? It’s probably unwise to jump to conclusions, based on intermittent records and no personal memoirs. But it certainly seems that she was excluded from the heart of the family, and its fortunes.

More Stories and a Mystery Mug

In the next post, I’ll lead you, via a Mystery Mug, through the stories of the three other christening mugs, whose owners I’ve managed to identify. I’ll also pay brief tribute to the three babies whose identity remains hidden from me. I hope you’ll join me for Part Two.

A Pixie in Bude – Pamela Colman Smith, Tarot Artist

The Queen of the Tarot suit of Wands, painted by Pamela Colman Smith

My first contact with Tarot cards was in California during the summer of 1968, at the age of nineteen. Well, that was certainly at an appropriate place and time! It turned out to be the start of a lifetime’s connection with Tarot, and aroused my latent interest in divination – a way of gaining insight into the world which surrounds us, and a perspective on what the future might hold. My long-term interest in Tarot has been centred mainly on the traditional ‘Marseilles’ pack, with its vigorous images that have been passed down through France, Spain and Italy for hundreds of years.


However, it was a different set of cards which was revealed to me that sunny day in California. This is what I recalled:
When I first set eyes on the Tarot cards, they blazed a trail like a comet in my imagination. They hinted at another world, beyond our normal senses, and I knew instinctively that the Tarot could lead me into this realm…. Jo spread out the pack for me. It was a revelation. He used the Rider-Waite pack, created by author A. E. Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is probably the most popular pack in use today…Every card, including the suits of the Minor Arcana, is represented as a pictorial image, and is rich in symbolism… It is a very vivid, very bright pack. I fell in love with it. I felt that each card was a portal through which I could enter a magical world.

Jo’s reading has gone deep into my memory – so deep that I can’t actually recall what he told me! But its impact changed my perceptions radically, and from now on, the Tarot was imprinted on my psyche.

(Tarot Triumphs: Using the Marseilles Tarot Trumps for Divination and Inspiration, 2016, pp17-18)

I first learnt to read Tarot with the Waite pack, and even when I later prioritised the Marseilles Tarot, the Rider-Waite pack was never far from my mind or indeed my grasp. I keep a set to hand.

When my husband, Robert Lee-Wade, decided to paint a picture of me reading the cards, he insisted on my using this Rider-Waite pack, as he found them much more interesting than my traditional sets!

But although I delved deep into the symbolism of the Rider-Waite cards, I didn’t think much further about the artist who had painted them – Pamela Colman Smith. In 1909, A. E. Waite, a renowned esoteric scholar and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, had commissioned her to create these, under his guidance. They were published by Rider later that year. As has been the case with many female co-creators, her name did not achieve the same prominence as his. Until recently, that is, when her part in the project has been acknowledged far more widely. The pack today is often referred to as the Rider-Waite-Smith pack – something of a mouthful, but fairer to someone who played an essential role in bringing these visionary cards to fruition. It has remained the best-selling, and best-loved Tarot pack in the world, becoming much more widely known after it was re-published in the 1970s.

My own connection with her Tarot cards has had a recent boost, when I found a Rider-Waite pack in a charity shop, of a different vintage to the one I already owned. This one has more beautiful, mellow colours than my existing pack, and looks older, although in fact the edition was published in 1993, later than my first pack from the early ‘70s. It also uses the original pattern for the backs of the cards, one of roses and lilies, as printed in 1909. Below, from the 1993 edition, are some of the cards which especially intrigued me when I first studied the pack – images, colours and landscapes which drew me into the story.

The Pixie of Bude

Robert and I live in Devon, and one of our favourite destinations is Bude, over the border in neighbouring Cornwall, on the north coast. During a recent stay, when the rain was pouring down, we decided to forsake the beach and head to the Castle Museum. I have to admit that our visit was propelled less by culture, and more by the thought of drinking hot coffee there in the warm café with a wonderful view of the waves. But walking through the exhibition area, where we’ve been on previous visits, I was astonished to see a panel now in place commemorating Pamela Colman Smith, Tarot artist and former resident of Bude. Few people now realise that she spent the last decade of her life there, and so local historians and Tarot fans have reclaimed her name for the town. I decided that the time had come for me too to explore Pamela’s life further, and learn about her connection with Bude.

The Castle Museum at Bude now commemorates Pamela Colman Smith’s life and work

A quiet arrival

When Pamela arrived in Bude in the early 1940s, with her companion Norah Lake, she was an elderly lady in poor health, who chose to live rather quietly. But although she kept a low profile in the town, she was still advertising her artwork; she had been a prolific artist with a varied output, as I’ll describe below. And now, being somewhat impoverished, she needed to make her art pay its way; as well as offering to paint commissions, she sometimes tried to persuade her errand boy to take a piece of art for his wages, rather than ready cash! (He was not enthusiastic.) Pamela had already been in Cornwall for over twenty years before she came to Bude, living on the remote Lizard Peninsula in a house known as Parc Garland since 1919. She now considered herself something of a native. But in her youth, her life had been far from reclusive or remote – she once mixed with a glittering crowd from the worlds of theatre and the arts. She was also a sophisticated international traveller, having lived in America and Jamaica.

In Bude, however, her remarkable life story was little known locally, and when she died in 1951, her effects were auctioned off to pay her debts. She now lies in an unmarked plot in the parish churchyard, thought to be a pauper’s grave. Much about her life in Cornwall and other biographical details has recently been published by local historian Dawn Robinson (see details below). As a minor point of interest, she was not the only person with esoteric interests to die in Bude, since the leading astrologer Alan Leo had also passed away there in 1917, although he was just there on holiday at the time.

Moonrise over the beach at Bude, captured on one of our visits

Why did she choose to move to Bude? No one knows the exact answer – possibly to ease her financial circumstances after her previous home swallowed up all her resources. Or perhaps she wanted to be close to a Catholic church, a rare commodity in the non-conformist county of Cornwall but one which Bude could provide; she had run her own small Catholic chapel at Parc Garland. But I wonder if instead she was drawn primarily by the landscape of legend in which Bude lies? She was deeply influenced by an earlier visit to Tintagel, a short distance away, with its Arthurian associations.

The old castle at Tintagel, once an important cliff-top stronghold and trading centre

Pamela Colman Smith was born in 1878 in Pimlico, London, to American parents, and she later moved back to New York with them. As a young woman, she also spent time with her father in Jamaica, where he had business interests, and took up story-telling after she eagerly absorbed many of the traditional tales there. There is some speculation that she may have had West Indian heritage, as she was quite dark in colour, and her appearance, it was often remarked, hinted at something ‘exotic’ in her ancestry. She studied at art college in Brooklyn, and began a prolific, industrious career as an artist, which shifted to England from 1900 onwards. Her work includes illustrations for children’s stories and magazine features, plus the production of Christmas cards and calendars, and original studies of actors and Shakespeare plays. Although these are not ‘visionary’ in the same way that her Tarot and music-related paintings are, they show that she could absorb herself into what might be called a ‘legendary’ style, drawing on myths and folk stories, and depicting enchanted worlds. Later, as we shall see, her mystical and magical images began to emerge more strongly into life.

Pamela’s brochure for her story-telling and Christmas cards

She was remarkably versatile, and also worked as a bit part actress for the touring company run by the legendary stars Henry Irving and Ellen Terry; they became her friends and benefactors, and she lived with them for a while in Kent. Edy Craig, Ellen’s illegitimate daughter and future suffragette, became one of Pamela’s closest friends. Her alliance with the family also made it easy for her to mix in various bohemian, artistic and literary circles, where she became well-known as an eccentric but talented artist. She had a stellar array of friends and collaborators: Debussy, the Yeats brothers – artist Jack and poet William Butler Yeats, Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame), and children’s writer Arthur Ransome, who claimed that he learned his own rhythms of story-telling from listening to Pamela’s performances. Indeed, she held her own soirees and was famous for sitting cross-legged in gypsy robes while weaving a spell with her tales, reciting poems or singing at the piano. She served her guests with ‘opal hush’, her favourite cocktail of claret and lemonade (a drink also celebrated in James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses). Her nickname swiftly became established as Pixie.

Pixie Pamela was celebrated for her unusual, ageless look and distinctive clothing: ‘a little round woman’ dressed in an orange coat adorned with black tassels, hanging loosely over a green skirt, according to Arthur Ransome on his first encounter with her. Her emotional life is still something of a mystery. No evidence of any amorous relationships has ever come to light, with men or women, although there is speculation that she may have been close to Edy Craig. And there is nothing indicative in her later companionship with spiritualist Norah Lake, as in those days it was normal practice for a couple of single women to team up and run a household together.

Some of Pamela’s art work, including the West Indian ‘Annancy’ stories, and prints from her own ‘Green Sheaf’ press. For a short while, she collaborated with Jack Yeats in producing a hand-coloured magazine, which proved too costly and time-consuming as a commercial venture.

Visions, Music and the Golden Dawn

In 1901, she joined the Isis-Urania Temple of the Golden Dawn, and remained a member for some seven or eight years. This was a magical order, studying symbolism and ritual in a structured fashion, with grades and initiation practices; men and women were admitted on equal status. W. B. Yeats was a member, as was Arthur E. Waite, though during Pamela’s time there a schism there drove each of these men into different branches of the order. Pamela remained in Waite’s camp. Sources of the Golden Dawn teaching included Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism and Hermetic traditions such as alchemy. The set-up and history of the Golden Dawn is complex, and many studies have been written about it, so I will not attempt to go into detail here.

Pamela did not strive to attain the highest ‘grades’ of the Order, the upper rungs of the hierarchy. Perhaps she preferred to stay in the lower ranks to preserve her artistic integrity, instinctively protecting her own creative channels from too much outside dictation of form. But Pamela’s innate magical way of seeing the world – to which the legends and folk tales which she loved were a stepping stone – was probably first given a useful framework there. And even at the lower levels, she would have learnt much about esoteric philosophy, and gained knowledge of a structured, hierarchical magical tradition. This was in contrast to the ‘spiritualist’ approach of the day, inviting trance and spontaneous mystical or psychic experiences to arise. When Waite commissioned her to paint his Tarot cards, he was careful to keep her on a well-defined track, and to avoid complete free flow, as we’ll see.

It’s notable that that she entered the ranks of the Golden Dawn shortly after she first discovered that listening to music could trigger vivid visionary scenes for her. Her sense of a psychic dimension was growing, and the organised frame of reference of Golden Dawn teaching would be a means to understand what was happening. Without that, perhaps her work would not have progressed beyond the personal art of her subjective imagination, into her now famous depictions of the Tarot cards, which speak of a more universal wisdom.

Two of Pamela’s musical visions, which came to her when listening Beethoven: Sonata no. 11 above, Opus 84 below. She responded to most classical music, except for Wagner, whom she detested! Only unpleasant sensations and images arose from his works, she said.

Pamela herself was musical, as mentioned, and her mother was a fine singer. She had illustrious musical friends, such as the composer Debussy and the early music revivalist, Arthur Dolmetsch, and performing and listening to music were key elements of her life. However, something completely new happened on Christmas Day in 1900, which she celebrated at actress Ellen Terry’s house. The family were listening to Ellen’s son Gordon Craig playing a piece by Bach. One moment, it was simply a pleasant musical experience, and then suddenly, as she described it: ‘A shutter clicked back and left a hole in the air about an inch square, and through it I saw a bank and broken ground, the smooth trunks of trees with dark leaves; across from left to right came dancing and frolicking little elfin people with the wind blowing through their hair and billowing their dresses. The picture was very vivid and clear, and a beautiful colour, with bluish mist behind the tree trunks. I drew an outline in pencil of what I saw on the edge of a newspaper, and as I finished – in perhaps a minute – the shutter clicked back again.’ (p 60: as recollected by Pamela in an article – ‘Music Made Visible’, by Mrs Forbes-Sempill, Illustrated London News, 1927; facsimile here.)

It seemed to be a one-off experience, but then a couple of years later, the visions returned when she listened to music. Each time one occurred, she drew it frantically, even when she was in the audience at public concerts. She discovered that if she didn’t do this straight away, she would lose the scene which appeared before her inner eyes. ‘If she ever alters her drawing in the least detail from what she sees, the picture breaks up and disappears. She feels quite detached from these drawings, and is immensely interested in them, viewing them as an outsider who has never seen them before,’ the magazine article continues. In one week in 1908, she completed 94 drawings, some of which she would later elaborate and colour.

Visions, creative imagination, or synesthesia?

Her visions have been described as a form of synesthesia, which is ‘a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses’. (Healthline.com) . But this generally implies a set of associations, not a full-blown image. For instance, I experience it in a mild way, so that the word Tuesday is blue, Wednesday is orange, the note G on the piano is green, D is brown, etc. But even more elaborate cases than mine do not, as far as I am aware, produce a complete, live scene such as Pamela experienced. Her visions seem more akin to the practice of using ‘active imagination’, or ‘pathworking’ in Kabbalah. The scenes have a completeness and a life of their own.

I asked artist and art teacher John Pearce, who is himself very familiar with the Tarot, if he would agree with this. He answered:
‘Synesthesia is missing the point, but the idea isn’t wholly irrelevant. In any case, one should distinguish between fleeting experiences and what Oliver Sacks defines as “true synesthesia” which is “a congenital and often familial condition where there are fixed sensory equivalences which last a lifetime”.

Pamela Coleman Smith might have had something comparable to synesthesia. The difference was that her unusual sensibility was expressed as a creative response to a stimulus rather than a predetermined one. The visionary event in the Bach concert may be related to synesthesia, but is much more individual, even though there is an impersonal quality as if she saw a parallel world.’

(John Pearce’s recollections for our blog Soho Tree can be read here, and his own blog at Esoteric Postscripts . His artwork is at John Pearce Artist.)

Pamela Colman Smith’s grandparents were Swedenborgians, a mystical Christian movement in which communication with angels and visions are an accepted part of human experience. William Blake, who also had some connection with this movement, saw clear visions of angels, and some of Pamela’s paintings do have a Blake-like style. So perhaps this expression of wafting figures and otherworldly scenes was already part of her imaginative and ancestral vocabulary, which was later shaped further by the training in symbolism which the Golden Dawn used. Visions may come from another dimension of experience, but they are shaped and interpreted by our own imagination, which in turn is fed by the culture we have absorbed. At any rate, I think it is missing the point to call her experiences synesthesia, and to attribute them solely as neurological events.

Some of Pamela Colman Smith’s ethereal figures above, and one of William Blake’s paintings below, titled ‘The Sea of Time and Space’

The Collaboration

When Arthur Waite conceived the notion of creating a new Tarot deck, which would embody some of the wisdom of the Golden Dawn, his thoughts immediately turned to Pamela, and he wrote to an unknown contact: ‘I…have interested a very skilful and original artist in the proposal to design a set…(she) has some knowledge of the Tarot values; she has lent a sympathetic ear to my proposal to rectify the symbolism by reference to channels of knowledge which are not in the open day…The result…is a marriage of art and symbolism.’ Waite was an established scholar and esotericist, who was a leading figure in his branch of the Golden Dawn. He was 52 years old when the Tarot cards were published, whereas Pamela at 31 was very much his junior, and less experienced in esoteric lore. It was a natural consequence that Waite would take the lead.

So Pamela worked chiefly under Waite’s guidance, including in her designs what he considered to be the essential symbolism, but with scope to involve her own vision, and to draw on various historic and artistic influences to achieve the best visual and technical results. The result is a remarkable set of cards, each with an immediacy and presence, but which form part of a distinctive whole. Some of the styles she drew on were those of Japanese prints, medieval illuminations, Renaissance imagery and Arts and Crafts decoration. Her considerable experience of painting stage characters and theatrical scenes came in very useful, as they depend on delineating each figure, gesture and facial expression sharply.

The scenes above painted by Pamela, are both studies of the actor Sir Henry Irving, and in the scene on the left, he is playing Shylock to Ellen Terry’s Portia. Pamela acted with their troupe, and lived more or less as one of the family.

The scenes in her Tarot cards are certainly well-defined, yet there is something of a mysterious and magical quality about them. To throw in a somewhat odd analogy, I remember how I would gaze at the pictures in Rupert Bear strip stories when I was a child, and feel that I could be transported into that beautiful pinkish mauve sky, or climb those distant hills, or meet these strange characters on the path. While writing this post, I suddenly realised that it was much the same thing as my first experience of seeing Pamela Colman Smith’s Tarot cards! There is a sense of another world within each image, not fantasy as such, but a kind of mythic dimension which we can grasp. Pamela, as I see it, had the gift to open that ‘shutter’.

The mysteries of Rupert Bear – as I experienced them as a child!

And Waite’s intention was to bring specific meanings into each of her paintings, embodying particular connections to what he called ‘the Secret Tradition.’ With his knowledge, and her imagination, the collaboration was a remarkable and successful project, as we can judge by the longevity of the card deck. In his autobiography Shadows of Life and Thought, 1938, there is a passage which gives a fascinating glimpse of the process:

Now, in those days there was a most imaginative and abnormally psychic artist, named Pamela Colman Smith, who had drifted into the Golden Dawn and loved the Ceremonies…. without pretending or indeed attempting to understand their subsurface consequence. It seemed to some of us in the circle that there was a draughtswoman among us who, under proper guidance, could produce a Tarot with an appeal in the world of art and a suggestion of significance behind the Symbols which would put on them another construction than had ever been dreamed by those who, through many generations, had produced and used them for mere divinatory purposes. My province was to see that the designs – especially those of the important Trumps Major – kept that in the hiddenness which belonged to certain Greater Mysteries, in the Paths of which I was travelling. I am not of course intimating that the Golden Dawn had at that time any deep understanding by inheritance of Tarot Cards; but, if I may so say, it was getting to know under my auspices that their Symbols…were gates which opened on realms of vision beyond occult dreams. I saw to it therefore that Pamela Colman Smith should not be picking up casually any floating images from my own or another mind. She had to be spoon-fed carefully over the Priestess Card, over that which is called the Fool an over the Hanged Man.

(Quoted in Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, p. 75)

NB – the syntax of this passage is – well – taxing! I’ve checked it for correctness, and suggest that the meaning is clear enough if read at a brisk pace; otherwise strange clauses and word order may trip us up. I’ve highlighted the sentence where Waite makes it clear that Pamela was deliberately kept on a track which avoided wandering off on associative or psychic impressions, and kept to the principles which he wished to convey.

His method could be seen as over-dominating, but in fact it was most probably helpful to Pamela to have Waite’s guidance in keeping tabs on the essential symbolism and significance of the cards. If she was still immersed in Golden Dawn rituals, it would have been easy for her to ‘pick up’ on other people’s images, which can often affect us when we’re working in psychic closeness with others. Even if the group is working with a chosen symbol, this can take many different shapes and be coloured by our own imaginative versions of it. Having a guide or instructor detached from this can be crucial; those who have worked with ‘guided visualisations’ in a group will know the truth of this. So although Pamela needed to keep her visionary faculties open, she also benefited from having a collaborator who could help her to see beyond ephemeral imagery.

Pamela Colman Smith’s achievement, under the guidance of Arthur Edward Waite – a vibrant, magical set of 78 Tarot cards. Those shown here are the 22 ‘Major Trumps’, and the edition is the 1993 version, which I have in my collection.

The Outcome

Apparently Pamela wasn’t paid very much for her work, and neither she nor Waite regarded the creation of the pack as a major accomplishment. But, as already stated, it is the most popular deck of Tarot cards ever created, and has sold millions of copies worldwide. It’s where her real claim to fame lies, a claim which is becoming much more widely recognised today.

In some ways, I want to put Pamela’s personal history to the back of my mind now when I pick up the pack. Perhaps just for a few minutes at a time, so that I can walk into the world created by each those cards without too much conscious knowledge of their construction. But I also value this background knowledge, and both aspects are important in our connection with the cards. They can be studied, as they are full of symbols and telling detail, with the weight of a hermetic ‘secret tradition’ behind them, yet they are also admirably suited to just gazing on each image, and allowing an interpretation to come to mind.

In 1908, just before she painted the Tarot, Pamela Colman Smith wrote an article for the Arts & Crafts journal The Craftsman (p380), and what she says paves the way for how we can view her cards:

‘Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything!…Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.’

Postscript

Since I posted this blog, writer and W.B. Yeats scholar Grevel Lindop has sent me a comment about Pamela Colman Smith’s musical visions, and the suggestion that they might have been triggered by a particular type of Golden Dawn practice:

I had a thought about her visions. Her statement that they began when ‘A shutter clicked back and left a hole in the air about an inch square’ strongly suggests that the visions involved (intentionally or otherwise) the Golden Dawn technique of ‘Tattwa vision’.  Here’s my summary of the method, from my Yeats draft:


‘The method was simple: we can take the yellow earth tattwa as an example. You gazed at the [square shape on the] card for about twenty seconds, then moved your gaze to ‘any white surface, such as the ceiling, or a sheet of paper’. You would see ‘a complementary colour’, probably ‘lavender-blue, or pale translucent mauve’. Closing your eyes, you should try to see this lavender square getting bigger, making it large enough to pass through, like a door. Going through it, you would visualise whatever landscape lay beyond – including any inhabitants you might see, who could be deceptive.’


Despite the reference to making it like a door and going through, actually Golden Dawn members often described the rectangle as a ‘window’, and Yeats would experiment on friends by asking them to visualise a small yellow or golden window, and then tell him what they could see through it. PCS’s reference to a square hole in the air that opened like a shutter suggests that her visions were either initially triggered, or at least developed, by the GD tattwa method. I don’t think synaesthesia had much to do with it.

The dates as we have them slightly differ – first ‘vision’ in 1900, joined Golden Dawn 1901. However, she could have begun some informal training or perhaps Mr Yeats invited her to experiment with this method.

Further Reading

Full biographical details of her life and work are now available in two excellent studies:

Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, Stuart Kaplan et al, (U.S.Games Systems Inc, 2018) A beautifully illustrated compilation of Pamela’s art work, plus excellent essays on her life and times, focusing in depth on the Tarot she created.

Pamela Colman Smith: The Pious Pixie, Dawn G. Robinson, Fonthill Media, 2020.) A historian and writer from Bude takes on the task of composing a full biography for Pamela , with special reference to her life in Cornwall

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by A. E. Waite is the classic introduction to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, written by the man who initiated the project.

Acknowledgements

I am thankful to the Castle Heritage Centre at Bude for alerting me to the fact that Pamela lived in the town. I also acknowledge drawing on some of the illustrations in Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story to illustrate this account, and hope that it will lead to increased sales of this excellent book.

Thanks to John Pearce and Rod Thorn for scrutinising my text here, and making comments. There are also some excellent Tarot and Golden Dawn scholars out there who have helped me build up knowledge of the background over the years, including R. A. Gilbert, Stuart Kaplan and Mary Greer.

Us Wants to Go to Widecombe Fair!

With Phantom Pigs, Fire from Heaven, Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all

For such a picturesque little village, nestled quietly in the heart of Dartmoor, Widecombe-in-the-Moor is surprisingly full of drama. Natural disasters (or possibly the wrath of God), and supernatural hauntings add an extra frisson to the cream teas consumed by visitors and the annual fair enjoyed by many.

This is one of my occasional Dartmoor posts. I am not a Dartmoor expert, like photographer Chris Chapman and Tim Sandles of Legendary Dartmoor, but I hope to offer you something lively, original and based on my own experience of visiting the magical moor. My first post on Dartmoor Ponies has drawn readers in, and I hope future ones will do likewise. For today, we are in the area around that very famous village – you’ve probably sung about it, even if you haven’t visited it – none other than Widecombe-in-the-Moor.

The village sign, celebrating the famous song about Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and All

Widecombe Fair

To start with the fair – how I am longing for it to return, after the pandemic! Alas, that will not be until 2022. It’s held in mid-September, and is a glorious occasion with Hill Pony competitions, sheep shows, local crafts, folk bands and all kinds of delightful entertainment. Including, of course, Uncle Tom Cobleigh – the most famous ghost of Widecombe!


I expect many of you know the song about Widecombe Fair. Tom Pearce was rash enough to lend his grey mare to a group of merrymakers, heading for Widecombe Fair. Famously, they are Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all –the whole lot jumped up on the grey mare and rode her to the fair. And they didn’t return with her on Friday soon or Saturday noon, as promised. So Tom Pearce rode up a hill and (rather surprisingly) spied his mare ‘making her will’ along with the all of the reckless riders. No one, man or horse, returned alive. But they live on to this day, ‘when the wind whistles cold on the moor of the night’, and ‘Tom Pearce’s old mare doth appear ghastly white’. She comes with ‘rattling bones’ and the ‘skirling groans’ of Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

The ‘Old Grey Mare’ as depicted by Pamela Colman Smith, whose story, art and Tarot cards are the subject of my next blog

But I am pleased to report that this isn’t quite the end of the story, as Tom Cobleigh, his mates and the mare now appear again every year at the fair! We saw them with our very own eyes when we visited a couple of years ago.

Who was Tom Cobleigh? Keen local folklorists are on the case, and recent research shows that he may indeed have been a local character. At the village of Spreyton, some eighteen miles away just north of Dartmoor, there is indeed a grave to Tom Cobley, d. 1844. Those in the know say this is not the true Tom Cobleigh, but a nephew of the original Tom Cobleigh, who died in 1794 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Could this be a clue to his identity, buried with little trace, after his disgraceful doings? Well, maybe. But there again, it turns out that ‘old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all’ was a popular saying meaning ‘along with everyone else’. Which came first, the man or the saying?

Wooden model of the merry-makers and the grey mare, usually kept in the church but sometimes proudly trundled out to put on display at public events

I will leave you to form your own opinion, but at any rate, it’s a great delight to see him and the mare enjoying a comeback at the Fair.

You can see in this photo how easily the mist comes down to shroud the surrounding hills, despite a bright day down below. Take this knowledge with you into the next story, that of the Phantom Piglets.

For an authentic and rumbustious rendering of the song ‘Widecombe Fair recorded at Widecombe Fair itself, try this one by well-known local musicians and storytellers Bill Murray & Jim Causeley. You’ll need to forgive some of the audience being out of tune. But the spirit is there!


And for a hilarious competition of Terrier Racing at the Fair (‘Hold your dug, Mother!) look no further than this video.

The Phantom Piglets

Ghostly pigs are surely unusual, but Dartmoor rarely disappoints; it offers a brooding tale of these and once again, the focus is on the Widecombe area. Here’s the tale as I first read it in one of my books on Dartmoor folklore:


From Merripit Hill, near Warren House Inn, a phantom sow may sometimes be seen setting out with her littler of hungry little phantom piglets on a journey to Cator Gate near Widecombe. Here, it is rumoured, there lies a succulent dead horse. The procession trots over the mist-enshrouded moor – the little pigs squeak ‘Starvin’, starvin’, starvin’.’ To which the old sow grunts encouragingly: ‘Dead ‘oss, Cator Gate; dead ‘oss, Cator Gate.’ They arrive too late – there’s nothing left. Sadly they trek homewards, the piglets wailing disconsolately: ‘Skin and bones, skin and bones.’ to which their mother philosophically replies, ‘Let ‘un lie, let ‘un lie.’ By this time they have become so thin after their long trek that they dissolve into mist-wraiths, never getting back to their home ground. Nevertheless, there they all are, ready to set out again from Merripit Hill on the next occasion.’

(As told to Ruth E. St Leger-Gordon by Miss Theo Brown. I apologise for not quoting the author of the book, as I’m still searching my books to find where I copied it from!)

A longer version of this can be found on ‘Legendary Dartmoor’ .

This is truly spooky, and I can imagine looking up to the high moors and Tors from Widecombe, and seeing little whisps of mist curl around the hill tops. Are the piglets coming again? Are they starving? Will they, perhaps, see us as a tasty meal? Ferocious piglets may be lesser known among the terrors of Dartmoor than the Hound of the Baskervilles, but perhaps they are more deadly.

The wilder reaches of Cator Rocks . Is that a dinosaur’s head I see poking out to the left?
A more peaceful Widecombe scene with free-ranging Dartmoor ponies grazing around the village sign. I was delighted to come across this sight on one of our visits to the village.
The church of St Pancras, Widecombe, where we are heading next

The Lightning Strike

And then we have the curious case of the church tower struck by lightning. This inscription is painted across four boards in Widecombe Church, recording a catastrophe from 1638, when lightning struck the church tower. It happened on a Sunday afternoon, when people were singing in the church; the strike split open the tower, showered the congregation with debris, and burnt some worshippers alive, while leaving others completely untouched. This, as you might imagine, became a focus for villagers to ponder upon the mysteries of God’s judgement and, indeed, his mercy. The account itself dates from 1786, and was made by the churchwardens Peter and Sylvester Mann, who created a kind of epic poem out of the event. Here are two of the panels and I’ll quote some extracts below.

In sixteen hundred thirty eight, October twenty first,
On the Lord’s day at afternoon, when people were addrest;
To their devotion in this church while singing here they were,
A Psalm distrusting nothing of the danger then so near;
A crack of lightning suddenly, with thunder hail and fire.
Fell on the church and tower here, and ran into the choir;
A sulferous smell came with it, and the tower strangely rent,
The stones abroad into the air, with violence were sent…

One man was struck dead, two wounded so they died few hours after -
No father could think on his son, or mother mind her daughter
One man was scorcht so that he lived but fourteen days and died
Whose clothes were very little burnt, but many were beside.
Were wounded, scorched and stupefied in that so strange a storm…

One man had money in his purse, which melted was in part,
A key likewise which hung thereto, and yet the purse no hurt…
One man there was sat on the bier, which stood fast by the wall,
The bier was torn with stones that fell, he had no harm at all…
Among the rest a little child which scarce knew good from ill,
Was seen to walk amongst the church, and yet preserved still:

The wit of man could not cast down so much from off the steeple,
Upon the church’s roof, and not destroy much of the people;
But he who rules both air and fire, and other forces all,
Hath us preserved bless be his name, in that most dreadful fall…
Remember who hath you preserved, ascribe unto his glory:
The preservation of your lives, who might have lost your breath,
When others did if mercy had not stept twixt you and death.

An old ‘longhouse’ in Widecombe-in-the-Moor. The combination of granite and thatch on many old Dartmoor buildings makes them look as though they have grown out of the earth.
And the window looks like a little eye peering at you from under the eyebrow of the thatch!

Below is the well-loved Rugglestone Inn, on the outskirts of the village, where I am sure many a tall Widecombe tale has been recounted over a pint or three.

Acknowledgements

All photos are copyright Cherry Gilchrist except Cator Rocks from Dartefacts, the ‘Commons’ picture of the village name sign, and historic artwork by Pamela Colman Smith (see forthcoming post The Pixie of Bude: Pamela Colman Smith, Tarot Artist).

You may also be interested in other Devon posts:

Dartmoor Ponies

To Brixham for a Sailor’s Cap

Sin, Seduction and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

The Tidal Town of Topsham

And more posts about Topsham can be found by consulting Cherry’s Cache: A Guide to the First Year or simply searching for ‘Topsham’.

To Brixham for a Sailor’s Cap

Brixham, south Devon, our destination with its popular Pirate Ship attraction

I think we’ve just had our summer holiday this year – a day on the sea, sailing with Stuartline Cruises from Exmouth to Brixham. Like most other people, we’re not expecting to travel far afield this summer. But what could be better, on a warm sunny day, than to set sail along the beautiful Devon coast? We saw rocks and coves, beaches and waterfalls that we would never have known were there. We already knew many of the seaside towns individually, but had no idea how the coastline joins them together.

Stuartline is a delightful family firm that takes passengers up and down the River Exe, and along the Jurassic Coast all the way to Sidmouth in one direction, and the ‘English Riviera’ at Torbay in the other. In winter, there are highly-recommended birdwatching trips (booked out months in advance!) with a knowledgeable expert pointing out the extraordinary bird life that we have in the Exe Estuary, of migrants and waders, including the famous flocks of avocets.

Despite being veterans of these and other short cruises, this was the first time we’d been on a full day excursion. So I’ll be delighted to relive this journey, and to share both some snippets of history and some personal memories of this striking landscape too. Would you like to join us?

Our starting point, at Exmouth

We cast off from the little dock at Exmouth, and soon gain a panoramic view of the seafront. The elegant 18th and 19th century terraces show how it once aspired to be a fashionable bathing station for the monied classes. Like several of the other Devon coastal resorts, its very early days were spent in a humbler manner though: ‘Prior to the 1700’s Exmouth was a small fishing town, with a small harbour, from which Sir Walter Raleigh, born just a few miles away in East Budleigh in 1544, sailed on many of his voyages.’ (Visit Exmouth) In earlier centuries, it also acted as the point of entry into the River Exe, from whence trading ships sailed up to the bustling port of Topsham, (our current home), servicing the wool trade and other enterprises.

Exmouth’s new Marina, a highly sought-after spot to live. One of the other StuartLine boats is berthed just at the corner

Now it’s both a popular family holiday resort and a lively town, with a new Marina built in a handsome Norwegian style, to the lamentations of those who loved the ramshackle sheds and cabins that previously existed in the area at the start of the ‘back beach’ stretching up the mouth of the river.

Just across the water is the sand spit of Dawlish Warren nature reserve – oddly enough with a golf course in its midst. This fragile ecosystem is being preserved as best it can with groynes and techniques to bolster up the sandy banks, but it’s a tough fight against tides and storms.
Nearly high tide – we need the extra water level to sail over this way from Exmouth. The skipper says that there is only a metre of sea below the hull of the ship!
A puzzling warning sign, regarding the ongoing attempts to prevent sand erosion from the Warren

Dawlish Warren is a weird juxtaposition. If you come here by road or train you’ll start by passing under the railway bridge and stroll (or hasten) through a panoply of fairground rides, candy floss stalls, gaudy souvenirs and hot dog stalls. But once through this area, fringed with brightly painted beach huts, you’re in a wonderful, windswept area of nature which stretches for over a mile to the end of the spit. It has a bird hide at the far end, and it was here, about 30 years ago, that I saw my first ever white egret in the UK. The beach which borders it is also wonderful, and if you don’t mind hopping through the groynes you can enjoy a long walk on an unspoilt and usually uncrowded stretch of sand.

The ‘fun’ end of Dawlish Warren

After the Warren comes the town of Dawlish itself, with its famous stretch of railway line running along the edge of the sea. Famous because a) it’s officially listed as one of the great railway trips of the world – and at times the trains keep running while spray from the waves breaks over the carriages! But also b) because every now and then a bit of the track falls into the sea. See the tale of recent disaster and recovery here.

Caught on camera from our boat! The train running past the more modern seafront flats at Dawlish – it will then go right in front of the original terraces seen below.

Dawlish is also famous for its black swans, Australian natives which grace the brook that flows through the town centre. Sadly, their numbers have been decimated by bird flu in the last year or so, but not before two escapees found their way up the River Exe to Topsham. Here they are feted and fed by admiring townsfolk and tourists; these birds know a good thing when they see it.

The Topsham Two – a flyaway pair from Dawlish?

When I was at primary school, we were asked to paint a picture of our summer holidays, and I was very puzzled when one of my classmates painted a seaside with red cliffs. Surely that couldn’t be right? I had spent my early years near the white cliffs of Dover. But I had to adjust my expectations when we moved down to East Devon and the Jurassic coast. I still find them a touch unnatural, but they are certainly dramatic. The rock stacks rise up out of the water in gnarled, looming shapes, like giant heads. But they are also shape-shifters, as sandstone erodes over time.

Below: some of the dramatic sandstone rocks near Teignmouth, and a local fisherman hauling in a lobster pot nearby

Now we’re arriving at Teignmouth – one of our favourite seaside towns. It has plenty of character, a place of different faces. The seafront terraces, as in Exmouth, speak of past grandeur. The pier, the cafes, the play park are from a different narrative, of jolly seaside family holidays. Once when we turned up in the town they were filming ‘The Mercy’, the story of the disastrous sailing challenge taken on by Donald Crowhurst, and the company had reconstructed a perfect 1950s holiday setting along the front, which gave an entertaining sense of time-slip.

A photo that I took in Teignmouth during the filming of ‘The Mercy’, a 1950s true-life tale of one man’s madness in an attempt to pretend he was winning the Golden Globe sailing challenge.

Behind the sea front, there’s a newly-labelled ‘artists’ quarter’ with quirky shops and a little theatre. And also just around the corner is the ‘back beach’, where the river Teign flows into the sea. It’s flanked by fishermen’s shacks, boats pulled up onto the sand, and the ferry which takes you over the water to the very cute village of Shaldon. In Victorian times, Teignmouth was eagerly sought after as a painter’s resort since the sunshine comes from two directions, off both beaches of sea and river, and bathes the town in glorious light. Oh, and by the way, it’s the River ‘Teen’ which flows through ‘Tinmouth’. (But if you’re on Dartmoor, then ‘Drewstaynton’ for Drewsteignton.) Got that?

We sail around the corner of the cliff, where just beyond is the hidden beach of The Ness. This is reached, surprisingly, by a foot tunnel on the Shaldon side. (Shaldon itself also has the surprise of a little zoo with a fine population of meerkats and lemurs, a conservation centre for endangered species. ) Descending the steep, dank set of stairs in near-darkness, you begin to hear the waves pounding below. Suddenly, you emerge into daylight and there is the little beach spread out before you. (Not possible, I warn you, at high tide.)

Ness Beach – only reached by a steep climb up the hill and down through a tunnel

The cliffs ascend steeply here; I know this from experience, as we once walked up the coast path from Shaldon and nearly collapsed before we finally got to the top. It felt as if crampons and a rope might have been sensible equipment to take. Perched a little way further along the clifftop is a modern white house, said to be the plaything of a Russian oligarch.

And now it’s a changing scene – we are in Agatha Christie country! The hills are rounder and more wooded. There are hidden coves, rocks to swim towards, steep tree-filled valleys to clamber up, and every now and then, a splendid house fit for a murder mystery.

Houses fit for an old-fashioned murder story perch proudly on the wooded hilltops

Agatha grew up in the area, and returned in later life to live at Greenway House, set high above the Dart River. You can discover her favourite haunts here and visit Greenway House (now National Trust). Strange to think that when I came to the area in my teens, my friends pointed out the house to me, and told me that Agatha was still in residence. Could I have tried to meet her? I’ll never know. She died in 1976.

The charm of Maidencombe Beach, with its very own waterfall

We pass the beach below Maidencombe. Robert and I have been to this quaint village once, in the autumn months, which is a snatch of old Devon (especially out of season), but didn’t follow the signed walking route to the beach, out of sight below. Now, from the boat, we can see what a charming spot it is, with its very own waterfall. Did Agatha come here too? I expect so.

The skipper points out a pile of debris on the cliff top nearby, and tells us the story of the woman who bought a house up there, sight unseen, for a bargain sum of £154,000. However, it wasn’t long before the house started toppling down the cliff. I looked up the story, and the argey-bargey she had with the auctioneers. Read it here. Buyer beware!

The house that fell down the hill

Then we sail under the cliffs below Babbacombe village, an outlier of Torquay now. I have been here several times, to visit the extraordinary, Stone-Age inhabited Kent’s Cavern (see my earlier post, Following the Female Line). Walk through a wooden door in a modern visitor’s centre, and you plunge into another era, of ancient man, and cave-dwelling bears as well. Taking my granddaughters round here was a delight.

At Hope Nose, the geology switches abruptly from sandstone to much older limestone, which is some 350 million years old.

And look, do I spy the Famous Five and Timmy having a naughty camp-out where they shouldn’t? We are in story book country, after all.

As for stories, the cruise ships moored around Torbay and Teignmouth have provided us with a ghostly presence during the pandemic. Sometimes they look like spectres from a haunted tale, half lost in the mist. Our skipper tells us how they seek out sheltered bays and drop anchor there, leaving a skeleton (ha!) crew on board, so as to avoid paying berthing charges. We’ve had various royally-named ships within these waters in the last year and a half, from the Queen Mary to the Queen Victoria who is currently here.

When we pass one later, crew members wave to us in excitement – or is it despair? At Christmas, the inhabitants of Teignmouth knitted gifts and sent out seasonal food parcel to the seamen who had to spend the holidays on board.

And it’s time for Torquay. Pine trees herald our arrival, a symbol of its title as ‘Queen of the English Riviera’. When I first came to Torquay in the 1960s, the promenade was dominated by palm trees, and I always thought of these as the iconic image of the town. But apparently these were decimated by a severe frost, and have never been replaced. Hmm – on searching for more about their demise, I discovered that Torquay is home to a number of dreadful environmental errors.

But I am fond of this town, remembering how I worked here in the Grand Hotel for a summer after leaving school. It was primarily for friends and folk clubs that I came down here from Birmingham – there have always been close links between Brum and Devon. (see my blog ‘Singing at the Holy Ground’ ) I was hired as a ‘still room’ maid, toiling under the supervision of Hungarian John, a kindly, middle-aged man, who fought our cause fiercely when we were bullied by arrogant chefs. I think I was paid around £8 a week, and my job was primarily to make toast using an eyebrow-singeing machine, make up sandwiches, and prepare trays of tea and coffee. Oh, and put cakes on plates. (John didn’t mind if we helped ourselves to a few.) It was a hazardous workplace, apart from the singed eyebrows. Italian waiters tried to grope us girls in the service lifts, and the manager swept down in a temper, saying that we had to pour any undrunk coffee out of the pots back into the coffee machine, stewed or not. I got my revenge by making up his afternoon tea tray with sandwiches composed of other people’s chicken leftovers.

The Grand Hotel, Torquay, framed up through our boat’s window. In my earlier times there, it was painted a drab gunmetal grey.

And the room I was given had been inhabited by an alcoholic woman, who had left piles of empty booze and meths bottles in every corner and cupboard. I was young and inexperienced, and I felt that because they had done me a favour by offering me a room, I shouldn’t complain, but simply grit my teeth and clear it out. I can still remember the stink, and sense of horror on confronting it. Having said that, it was nevertheless quite a happy time! I met up with my mates, sang in the folk clubs and learnt the joys of crab sandwiches.

Indeed, I retain a fondness for Torquay, and would like to get to know it better again.

Below: Modern Torquay contrasting with the 18th century, elegant Hesketh Crescent, now a hotel and apartments

Here we let the Torquay trippers off the boat to enjoy their three hours ashore. The rest of us travel on to the fishing ‘village’ of Brixham about eight miles further along the coast, past Paignton en route.

First, though, we pass a real storybook house, set in at least two acres of beautifully mown and diamond-patterned lawns. Oh, I wish that this were mine! I learnt later, through the ‘Devon Where Am I?’ Facebook group that it’s called Thatcher House. It’s the epitome of what we might think of as a 1930s English Riviera house, with unbroken views to the cliff tops and sea, all ready for a sunset gin and tonic on the terrace.

Paignton passes by without much comment – I worked here, too, as a chambermaid in a stuffy boarding house frequented by elderly spinsters, whose chamber pots I had to empty. That era has gone, and so has my interest in the town. Perhaps I am failing to see its charms.

Thatcher House – perhaps my dream home on the English Riviera?

And then it’s round into Brixham harbour. It’s a lovely entrance to the fishing port, with colourful houses stacked up in handfuls on the steep hillsides which surround it. The fishing fleet and industry here is apparently the third largest in the UK, and we often buy delicious fresh fish landed at Brixham. (You can read about the story of one Brixham trawler, now aground in Topsham, at Hidden Topsham Part One.) ) I used to come here too on my days off from being a still room or chamber maid. But there are two other Brixham associations for me.

Brixham Harbour, little changed in general appearance from when my great grandfather worked here in 1873

First of all, it’s where my great grandfather, David Owen arrived in 1873 at the age of 30 to be the town’s Baptist Minister. He’d come from the hills of mid-Wales, first to a post in Hemyock, Devon, where he met his future wife Mary Masey Walker, and then to try a pastorate in Brixham. After only six months, though, he upped sticks hastily for reasons unknown, (not thought to be scandalous!), married his sweetheart, and set sail for America. Here he joined his brother John in Ohio, and spent 15 years as a minister before he and Mary returned, settling in Northamptonshire, where their brood increased to twelve children. How I’d like to know more about his Brixham story! Family folklore says that he found the Devon mindset too constrained – which might sound strange for one who came from mid-Wales, but he’d had an astonishingly good education at the Baptist College in Haverfordwest, specialising in Hebrew and Ancient Greek. Or maybe it was the lure of the open seas? His grandfather had also left the Radnorshire hills, to set sail from Plymouth and subsequently fight at the Battle of Corunna in Wellington’s army.

Brixton has a sizeable fishing fleet, and all over our Devon area you can buy delicious fresh fish landed here.

The second reason for coming to Brixham is that it’s where I bought Robert his favourite seaman’s cap seven years ago, and which he has been welded to ever since. Time has taken its toll on the cap though, and now’s the chance to try and buy him a new one.

First, though, it’s the moment to find a crab sandwich – our favourite seafront fare. We serendipitously find a spare waterfront table in a delightful shady café, to do just that.

And then, can we find the right shop? Or another one selling the same merchandise? The chances look slim; many shops have changed hands since we were here last. I walk straight past a small shop front crowded with sea shells and souvenirs. But Robert looks more closely and spots one of these caps, lying dusty and folded flat at the bottom of a display basket. He tries it on. Alas, it’s too big. The stooped elderly man behind the counter tells us that he has been running this business for 60 years, and he’s sold Breton sailor’s caps (ah, so this is what they are!) for all this time. But now he can’t get hold of any more. ‘So this is the last one?,’ we ask. ‘I might just have another one,’ he says. And he does, and it’s the right size. Mission accomplished.

‘Twas a good day out on the English Riviera! Whether you come by train, as this poster suggests, or as we did, by boat.

What’s Coming Up

I usually leave the next blog post as a surprise – a nice one, I hope! But I think it’s worthwhile giving a heads up as to what’s on the menu for the next month, given that summer is a scattered kind of time, when we often ditch our usual routines and reading habits.

We’ll be staying in the South West, next time. On August 22nd, I’ll be inviting you to climb on Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh’s horse, and take a ride to Widecombe Fair. The Fair is a great joy, and one of Dartmoor’s finest traditions, but alas has been cancelled for this year. So I thought we could enjoy it virtually.

Then on September 5th, we move just a little over the border into Cornwall, to meet the Pixie of Bude – no, not a post about fairies, but about Pamela Colman Smith, nicknamed Pixie. Pamela is the artist who painted the world’s most famous Tarot pack, usually known as the Rider-Waite pack. And yet her own life and art is little known. She spent the final part of her life in Bude, where at last the Museum has recognised her work. It was a little info board in the museum which sparked my interest to look into her further – those of you who are regular readers will know that the Tarot is one of my themes.

I could tell you what will happen after that – but plans may change, so I’ll keep it under wraps for the time being!

You may also be interested in:

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

Summer is a’Coming Today! May Day in Padstow

Refugee Ancestors: A Huguenot Family in Devon

Tigerlily down Brick Lane

This is the fourth and final story of Tales from Tigerlily

The images in this post were all captured in 2020, on my return visit to the Brick Lane, Sclater Street and Cheshire Street area. But nothing had changed very much since my regular trips in the mid-1970s!

The East End Rag Markets

Tigerlily came to life as a shop in 1974, as a vintage clothes store on Mill Road, Cambridge. But before that, I’d been getting into gear buying and selling through a friend’s stall on Cambridge market. The East End of London was where my serious buying began, in terms of sourcing ‘period clothing’ as we called it then. I drove down there almost every Sunday morning, leaving Cambridge in the dark, and often getting there before daybreak. Sometimes my business partner Helen would accompany me, or meet me there – it was she, in fact, who had introduced me to this extraordinary collection of stalls and sellers, with their treasures and junk, rubbish and bric-a-brac. This sprawling, colourful, ragamuffin of a second-hand market was held around Sclater Street and Cheshire Street, an area which runs across Brick Lane. The streets here were lined with stalls, which also edged into the dilapidated old warehouses, plus improvised sales pitches anywhere there was space. Piles of old clothes, shoes, bicycle parts and knick-knacks would be spread out along the walls and even the pavements. Some were only fit for the dustbin, and may even have come from there in the first place. Others could be treasures, retrieved from attics and forgotten places of storage. I had to be quick off the mark to decided which was which!

The pre-dawn raids

The first buyers would arrive before the day had fully dawned, flashing their torches onto the jumble of goods They were usually dealers, expertly picking out what was desirable stock for their own particular sales niche. It could be antiques, marketable second-hand modern clothes, vintage radios, old machinery, watches and clocks, collectable books, or anything else potentially specialist and desirable. And we weren’t the only ones looking for textiles and clothes. Some of the upmarket and expensive London vintage stores had buyers on the prowl; it was a relatively new type of business, but sellers in places like Portobello Road and the Kensington Antiques Market were already cashing in on the trend. And some had already beguiled the Brick Lane dealers into saving all the good stuff for them. I would regularly watch as a tall, red-haired young woman from Notting Hill and her trendy boyfriend would swan in to receive their piles of saved goods from the favoured stallholders, rather like a royal couple graciously accepting tribute from their subjects. Was I jealous? Of course! I had to get to a similar position – somehow, somewhere. And since these Tigerlily blogs aren’t chronological, you may have seen from the second in the series that I finally cracked this challenge in the rag mills up north, rather than on the streets of London.

Cheshire St and Sclater St- the best streets for bargains!

Some buildings triggered memories when I revisited, like this one which still sells wholesale catering clothing and workwear.
The interior of the same building; other stalls used to creep in around the edges, as indeed they still do now.

As mentioned, it was Helen who was already familiar with the Brick Lane whirl of buying and selling. Before Tigerlily opened, she ran her stall on Cambridge market one or two days a week, making a basic living from supplying crepe dresses, Victorian nighties, men’s jackets and grandad shirts from a bygone era. As I began giving her some of my finds from jumble sales and junk shops to sell on commission, we considered co-ordinating our efforts – I had the transport, she had the know-how. Before we dared to think about a shop, however, we needed to see if we could dovetail our efforts and build up enough of a supply.

Hitches and glitches – and advice on baby care!

So I made these trips to London for a year or two before we opened our shop Tigerlily, and we carried on with our joint expeditions for some time after we began trading. It wasn’t all straightforward – I remember when my hatchback Renault broke down at about 4am on a solo trip to London. No mobile phones back then, of course, and I had to try and hitch a lift home in the dark. I was picked up by a car full of male party goers on their way home. Luckily, they were plainly all shattered by then, the driver was sober, and they were courteously silent for the half an hour or so that it took to drop me off in Cambridge. Another more major issue was that I did a lot of trips while pregnant – my daughter was born just before the shop began trading – and the nausea I felt in early pregnancy was intensified by the ripe smells of the Brick Lane area. The origin of the smells came both from from rotting fruit left over from weekday trading, along with the smell of mould and decay from some of the ancient bundles of fabric piled up at the back of the derelict warehouses. So it wasn’t always a pleasant task, sorting through what was on offer.

After Jessica was born, I sometimes brought her with me on these buying trips, perfectly content in her carrycot-on-wheels, the only transport solution of the day for a small baby. Sometimes I met with East End disapproval – the fashion there was for enormous, shiny prams. And the new edict that babies should be put to sleep on their tummies hadn’t reached these parts, so our progress was greeted with shrieks of horror from Cockney mothers and grandmothers, who prophesied that she would suffocate this way. (Yes, I know, policy has reversed since then, probably several times over.)

Remnants of an even earlier time – these were probably still operational when I visited the area in the ’70s. Now the Bath House is smartly done up, its heritage preserved. Many old buildings had already been swept away then, some because of bomb damage, some because of ruthless redevelopment schemes.

Relics from a passing era

But we did find marvellous things in Cheshire Street and around. One day, I had finished my buying and was sitting waiting in the car for Helen to re-appear with her finds, so that we could start the drive back to Cambridge. She finally arrived, puffing under a load of blue velvet tailcoats.


‘I was on my way back, when I saw these. Some guy had just put them out.’ Apparently, she told me – though I haven’t been able to verify this –they had been worn by the Parliamentary Whips, in the style of 18th century men’s apparel, and were now being scrapped for something more modern. They went like hot cakes when she put one in Tigerlily’s window and I wish I’d kept one for my own collection.


I picked up a full-length hand-embroidered dress once, draped over some railings with a few pitiful items, and on sale for next to nothing. It was made of heavy hand-woven cream cotton, and I think it was probably Palestinian. That I did keep, and wear, for a while. Like Helen’s tailcoats, it appeared just at the last moment in the morning. Although most of the good things went very early, you never knew what you might spot later on. Hence it was difficult, sometimes, to drag ourselves away.


But needs must, and we’d turn for home by about 11.0 – Cambridge wasn’t a long drive away. I’d have emptied my flask of coffee while on the prowl, and on return I’d make myself a large fried brunch, and go back to bed for a few hours. The baby could share my nap, and I’d hope that my husband would look after both children and make our tea! The sorting, washing, and pricing could wait until the Monday.

Some sales pitches tpday still have a pitifully small amount of goods to offer, as was the case too when I used to visit. Below, on a more cheerful note, the Cadbury’s hot chocolate jug which I bought on my return trip in 2020.

Return to Brick Lane

The whole scene has remained vivid in my mind for over forty years, but I never went back again until very recently, just before lockdown in March 2020. I was thrilled beyond measure to revisit the area again. I had come to Spitalfields on a weekend blogging course run by ‘The Gentle Author’ of Spitalfields Life, and I eagerly took the first part of Sunday morning, before our session started, to walk down Brick Lane. I had been to London regularly since the 1970s, but somehow had never made it back to this part of town before.

I experienced sudden surges of memory – landmarks that I didn’t even know I remembered until they were there in front of me, like the railway bridge running over Brick Lane itself. But my most intense state of exaltation came from re-discovering Cheshire and Sclater Street, which had been the prime destinations for our buying trips. I couldn’t conjure up a mental map, but it was as though my feet and deep-buried memories just carried me there unerringly. And some of the stalls were reminiscent of those which had been there all those years ago. The old warehouses were still there, though some were now restored, and no longer full of stinking bales of old clothes.

It was a thrill to buy an old Cadbury’s hot chocolate jug from a bric-a-brac stall in a warehouse I’d once frequented, and mentioning the ‘good old days’ to stallholders brought smiles and recollections to share.

Reminiscing with this seller, who had been coming since he was a boy. Maybe we even met each other then!

I chatted to a seller who described how, as a boy, he used to drive up with his Dad in their pick-up truck, and started unloading their goods before it got light, ready for the first buyers. I even began to think I might remember him and his father, but perhaps it was more of a generic memory of the fierce urgency for sellers to claim their pitches and get the items on display before the customers arrived. People would be trying to take the items off the truck themselves before they could unload, he told me.

I felt that in a tenuous way, I still belonged to the club! I bought a glass pendant too, as a token of my reunion with the markets of the Brick Lane area.

A token from Cheshire Street!

Now, as the morning progressed and my writing course beckoned me to return, I noticed that more people were coming out for a Sunday morning saunter, just as they had in the 1970s. I remembered how, from the shadowy figures running down the street flashing their torches to left and right, gradually the streets filled up with people in the morning light, until it was so packed that you could hardly get from one place to another. Then it was time to go home, and in those days, to drive back to Cambridge, in a car laden with my finds.

This lane used to be our getaway route, when the crowds blocked the main street and we were still nipping back and forth to the car with our purchases. It makes a kind of dog leg around the back of the street, and into Brick Lane.

Those finds were never quite enough though, especially when it came to stocking a shop. So eventually, my forays led to the bigger rag mills, where I made links with the sorters and sellers. Planned, longer trips, took over from the frenzied excitement of Brick Lane in the early dawn of a Sunday morning. But Cheshire Street and Sclater Street remain as my essential memory of hunting for treasures in the debris of the past.

Before I left that Sunday in early March, 2020, I visited a superb bookstall where everything was just £1, and there were several excellent Folio editions available. I bought Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which turned out to be remarkably apt. Within a week, we were in lockdown.

The end of Tigerlily

We ran the shop for about five years, so all in all I had about seven years of buying and selling vintage clothing, antique textiles and linen, and related accessories. Towards the end, I began to weary somewhat of the sorting and washing of bundles of clothes. As a family, too, we started thinking about a move to the country, which we eventually managed, arriving near Dulverton on the southern side of Exmoor. And things had become awkward with Helen, my business partner, with issues from her personal life clouding our working arrangement. Eventually we found a solution: we both decided to let go of Tigerlily, and passed it on to a young woman, who had worked hard and loyally for us for several years. She was delighted to take over, and several years later, when I bumped into her unexpectedly in London, she was still in charge. So I’m glad that Tigerlily had a longer life, and that it has become something of a legend in Mill Road history!


I decided to embrace country living, and to put more time and effort into becoming established as a writer. I kept a few big boxes of old textiles and linen, and sold a little here and there – it was only in about 2010 that I finally put the last batch into auction, little pieces of embroidery, lace and costume which I had hung onto more for their sentimental value. But my trading genes resurfaced in the 1990s and early 2000s, when I founded Firebird Russian Arts, and they still bubble away. Researching my family history later, I discovered that I have generations of shop keepers on both sides of the family! However, as I tell my husband, ‘If I ever start talking about taking on a shop again, please hit me over the head and bring me to my senses!’ Twice was good, but three times would definitely be too many. And my great delight was always the sourcing of the treasures, rather than the day-to-day operations of selling.

The seller who sold me the Venetian glass pendant

You may also be interested in:

Tigerlily in Cambridge

Tigerlily and the Rag Mills

Tigerlily at the Posh End

When the Egg Cracks Open

The Alchemical Egg

The egg is a universal symbol of life. It appears in various creation myths, representing the start of the universe itself. In ancient Greek cosmology, the ‘Orphic egg’ is considered to be the source of life, and is often depicted with a serpent wound around it. From the egg hatches the primordial deity, the golden-winged Phanes, who in turn creates a pantheon of gods.

As one account says: The Cosmic Egg is one of the most prominent icons in world mythology. It can be found in Egyptian, Babylonian, Polynesian and many other creation stories. In almost all cases, this embryonic motif emerges out of darkness, floating upon the waters of chaos. Within this egg typically resides a divine being who literally creates himself from nothing… This creator then goes on to form the material universe.


In Russian folklore, eggs also represent time itself. One traditional custom celebrates the turning of the year by visualising the coming year as twelve nests, representing the twelve months, all sitting in the branches of a mighty oak tree. Each nest has four eggs in it, and each egg will hatch seven chicks, thus creating the weeks in the month, and the days in the week. (This doesn’t quite add up to the full number of days in the year, but never mind!) Decorated eggs, both natural and crafted, are particularly popular in Russia and also in the Ukraine, not only for Easter, but all year round.

I have always had a personal attachment to eggs. I have kept hens, and nothing beats the pleasure of reaching your hand into a nest of straw and gently clasping the warm egg laid there that morning. I love eating them – though they have to be ‘just right’ – no sloppy whites! Perhaps there’s something powerful about the potential of an egg to be perfect, fresh and tasty to eat, or to be repellent through its undercooked sliminess, let alone when it’s gone bad and stinks. Even those home laid hen’s eggs could sometimes deliver a nasty shock if they’d been hidden away in the nest for too long!

I’ve also kept Russian decorative eggs from the period when I was importing Russian crafts. I prefer the simple shapes, rather than the elaborate, Faberge-style ones, because the primordial shape of the egg is perfection itself.

The Story to Come

In my occasional alchemy blogs I draw from my book Everyday Alchemy, but I also like to introduce stories that haven’t been told before, as I did in the previous one (Alchemy and the Trickster), recounting how I met a current-day Hermes in Amsterdam.The next extract I’m adapting from the book already contains a personal story, however, which also dates from my student years, and which precedes that meeting in Amsterdam.

When I post these passages from my book, I aim to refresh them with new observations and experiences, so they may be somewhat different here to the form in which they first appeared, and perhaps appeal to a wider range of readers. For those who would like to follow this further, the book contains practical suggestions as a guide to working with alchemical principles in everyday life (but not in a laboratory!). Although Everyday Alchemy is currently out of print, copies can still be found, and I hope that it will be republished at some point.

This extract is adapted from: ‘Cracking the Egg’, Chapter One, Everyday Alchemy
(Please note: all copyright retained by Cherry Gilchrist, author.)

Emblem 8: Take the egg and pierce it with a fiery sword
(from Michael Maier’s ‘Atlanta Fugiens’)

This is the moment. You hold the sword in your hand, ready to pierce the egg that stands before you. It is the perfect egg, and the perfect moment to do the deed. Now is your chance to strike.


But it is terrifying to commit yourself to this moment. It is much easier to linger in the past or dream of the future. And the egg is beautiful as it is. If the sword doesn’t strike cleanly, you might shatter the shell and damage the precious embryo of life inside it. Wouldn’t it be better to leave it be?


It is your choice, of course. The sword carries your intention, and you must decide whether you will use it to break open the alchemical egg and initiate the process of transformation. The egg may look perfect, but it is as yet undeveloped. From the moment of opening the egg, you must begin the work of developing the raw material it contains through every stage of change until it becomes alchemical gold. The egg will certainly perish if its potential is not released, so the choice cannot be postponed indefinitely. The gold you aspire to, on the other hand, is incorruptible. It is a symbol for enlightenment, the Elixir of Life, the realisation of Life beyond life, the Sun behind the sun. It is a place of safety for the human spirit, and an entry point into the divine world.


The moment of impending change is frightening. The act of splitting the egg open will catapult the alchemist into an unknown world; from this moment on, he will be changed. He will have to leave his old life behind. On his face we can read apprehension, and even a hint of terror. But he knows that even though he trembles on the brink, he has to go forward. This chance may only come once in a lifetime. (The emblem depicts a male alchemist; traditionally, there were also many female alchemists, although it was a difficult activity for a woman with children and household responsibilities to take up, as it required many hours or days of solitude.)


There is also intense concentration in his expression. The perfect egg could be ruined by one careless slip with the sword. So his act of bravery must be carried out as precisely and skilfully as possible.

Setting out on the Path

Alchemy is about change. Each of us changes – life itself does that to us. Age, environment and experience affect us, altering our appearance and our outlook. Hopefully, we all finish our lives a little wiser than we started. But the work of alchemy makes different demands. It is for those who consciously seek change on a bigger scale – not change for change’s sake, but for the growth of the spirit.


Alchemists have always said that there is a right moment to start the ‘great work’, and to initiate the alchemical process, sometimes according to astrology, or the lunar cycle. But perhaps more critical is the time that precedes that, the moment of choice, which is shown here. This can be triggered by a key event. In the 16th century, a young man called Jakob Boehme had a mysterious encounter. One day, he was at work as a humble apprentice in a shoe shop, when a stranger appeared in the doorway. His eyes were burning with an unearthly light, and he said: ‘Jakob, thou art little, but shalt be great, and become another man, such a one as at whom the world shall wonder.’ From that day, Boehme became aware of his destiny, and went on to become a famous alchemist and mystic.

Below: Jacob Boehme and his own version of the ‘cosmic egg’ – ‘The Philosophical Sphere, or the Wonder Eye of Eternity’


Even though such a dramatic revelation may happen rarely, perhaps on this occasion from an angelic messenger, similar experiences can happen even in ordinary meetings with normal people. Someone may speak a few words that strike us with great power, and which become our imperative, spurring us to take a different direction. Or a seemingly unrelated event may also bring us to that moment of change.

A Road Trip in Mexico

In 1968, when I was student of nineteen, my boyfriend and I headed off to America for the summer. We reached the West Coast, hung out in San Francisco (as you did, the year after the Summer of Love), and decided to drive down through Mexico in an old camper van. One morning, after a showery night, we were heading through the hills in central Mexico towards a little town called Zacatecas. Chris was driving, as I hadn’t passed my test at that time. The surface was slippery and suddenly, as we were rounding a bend, the car skidded and veered towards the edge of the road. Below us was an almost sheer drop down a high earth cliff. I watched the whole process happen with great clarity – there was no room for fear – and I remember thinking quite calmly: ‘This is the last thought that I shall ever have. What a shame.’ Then the van plunged over the edge, and I fell with it into a kind of grey limbo. I ‘woke up’ after it had rolled over and over and came to rest at the bottom of the cliff. Miraculously, the two of us in it were almost unhurt, apart from bruises and minor cuts, and a bristling mass of cactus spines in my legs. But nothing was ever the same again.


For several weeks prior to the accident, I had sensed that something very frightening was about to happen, though I had no idea what. I felt that my world – my egg – was about to burst open. I would wake up at night in distress from nightmares, and yet I couldn’t say what they were about. And after the accident, there was no blissful state of relief that I was still alive. In fact, we lived through a horrible period; to begin with, when we climbed back up to the road, no one would stop to help us although we were visibly bleeding. When kind strangers finally took us to hospital, we were treated and released within a few days, but then we had to live in the little mountain town for weeks while they sorted out our insurance claim. It turned out that the drunken official who’d issued them at the border hadn’t actually signed our papers. The police who’d eventually attended the scene of the accident had stolen not only a camera but also our travellers’ cheques. Thus, while this was being sorted – they eventually handed the camera back, but the travellers’ cheques involved a lengthy replacement process – our money ran out, and we had to sleep in a hut where rats ran across the floor. At night, I began to indulge in a fantasy that we had really died, and that now we were trapped in some kind of curious and unpleasant otherworld.

Here I am, sitting in the car repair yard, wondering if they’re going to be able to fix our VW camper van. Zacatecas, Mexico, 1968

By day, everything began to polarise into the good and the bad. There were kind people who helped us, fed us, and acted like Good Samaritans. There were also corrupt officials and those too callous to help. And the terror of the accident haunted me, as it did for months to come.

The VW van in the repair yard, with my boyfriend examining the rear door. Would you trust any of these guys standing around? We had little choice, though.

But – and here is the promise of gold among the dross – this event brought me to the most important choice of my life. I had come close to death, and I had to face up to this. It had haunted me, as it probably did many of my generation, with the threat of nuclear war in our early teens. The threat was indeed very real, and my sense of a dark, terrifying void beyond life wouldn’t go away. Now I couldn’t shelve the ‘big questions’ any more, about life and death and my own place on this planet. Back in the UK, I began attending a meditation class (you can find details of this here), and soon afterwards I found the line of study that I have followed since, based in the Western Hermetic and Cabbalistic tradition. The accident had shattered my world, but it brought new hope and a new way forward.

The Egg Breaks Open

When the moment is seized, and the egg broken open – either by your own agency, or by powers seemingly from outside – there is a real shift in life. It is like becoming a driver instead of a passenger. Your range of options increases – where to go, what speed to travel at, and what to see along the way. Of course, there are different dangers and responsibilities too, when you take charge of a fast and potentially lethal vehicle.


Alchemy itself is often described as the speeding up of a natural process. Alchemy accelerates the work of nature, and traditional alchemists often put themselves at serious risk in their laboratories, where explosions and escape of poisonous gases were common. You may be relieved to hear that I’m not recommending any dangerous laboratory experiments! (Which are, in any case, entirely outside my area of expertise.) However, even as an ‘everyday alchemist’, working on the material of your own life, you may discover highly charged areas of energy in your own being. This is still work that has to be handled with care and skill. And as the alchemists themselves have said, it also needs discipline, hard work and patience. Meditation, for instance, requires a regular habit of taking time out and dropping immediate concerns.


If you choose to take such a path, the alchemical view is that you’re speeding up the process of spiritual evolution and perhaps taking it further than would normally happen over a lifetime. In terms of gold itself, the alchemists believed that all matter is slowly evolving into gold, and that the chosen ‘work’, whether in a spiritual or material sense, is to do with conscious acceleration of that development.

The Story of the King’s Son


This sense of purpose and destiny is embodied in an ancient and beautiful Gnostic poem called The Hymn of the Robe of Glory. (It is sometimes also known as Hymn of the Pearl.) It tells the story of a king’s son, whose parents send him on a quest to find a precious pearl hidden in the depths of the earth.
The King’s son leaves his heavenly palace, and descends to this world. Here, he forgets his true origins and the task which he has to perform. He goes to live in the land of Egypt, which is a symbol for the dark land of sleep, and indulging of base desires. (Egypt is also, incidentally, a metaphor for the ‘black earth’, the primal material of alchemy, and alchemy itself may have originated in Egypt.)


His royal parents wait for him, but he doesn’t return. So they compose a letter to him, and send it in the form of an eagle, the ‘king-bird’ and divine messenger.


It flew and alighted beside me
And turned into speech altogether
At its voice and at the sound of its wings
I awoke and arose from my deep sleep.
The eagle speaks the message to the drowsy prince:
‘Up and arise from thy sleep…
Remember that thou art a King’s son…
Think of the Pearl
For which thou didst journey to Egypt.’


So the son remembers who he is, and what he has to do. He finds the pearl, and begins the journey home. As he finally approaches his parents’ palace, he sees the Robe of Glory spread out before him, the garment of light that he is destined to wear. He accepts his true birthright.


This allegory declares that we are all royal sons and daughters, who have forgotten our heritage. Every one of us has a chance to awaken to the message of the eagle, and remember the mission we are on. Such a message is not found exclusively in ancient texts, but also closer to our time, for instance in ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’ by Wordsworth:


Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come…


But we become so immersed in both the cares and the delights of everyday life that we lose sight of our real destiny, and it takes a conscious choice to fulfil it. We are given fresh chances; the message comes, often in an unexpected form, but we have to awaken to it, and choose to act. The pearl will lie forgotten in the depths of the earth, unless we remember to look for it.

(End of extract from Everyday Alchemy. )

To round off this post, I’ll include the exercise which immediately follows this extract in the chapter. You never know, you might like to try it!

Following the Thread
What turning points can you identify in your own life? Review a crucial event in your life. Remember, as clearly as you can, what happened in terms of the outer sequence of action. You may feel emotional about this, but although you should acknowledge your emotions, it’s important that they don’t cloud the story.


Put the event in context: what led up to it? Follow the thread back from the event itself. Try not to judge the reasons and causes, but rather see what comes to mind.


Then follow the thread forward. What changed as a result? Try and see it as a story, almost as though somebody else was telling it.


Write down what you have discovered. Repeat this exercise over the next few days, and see if any of your perceptions change.

You may also be interested in:

Alchemy and the Trickster

Alchemy and Cooking

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Tigerlily at the Posh End

Tales from Tigerlily no. 3

This is the third in a series of stories from my vintage clothes shop, Tigerlily, which I ran from 1974 to1979 on Mill Road, Cambridge (at the town end, before the railway bridge, for those in the know about the two parts of Mill Road). We were a destination!


I’ve already described how I bought bin bags of stock from the rag mills, and the next post will be about the street markets I frequented too, but for this account, I’ll reveal how Tigerlily sourced stock in a far more upmarket manner – at the ‘posh end’ of the trade.

Finding Tigerlily treasures at ‘the posh’ end

At that time in the ‘70s, the term ‘vintage’ hadn’t been coined for clothes. Even using ‘period’ was a novelty, and most older clothes were considered only fit for throwing away. In the frugal decades earlier in the century, the majority of people had much smaller wardrobes and couldn’t afford new clothes on a whim, or because fashion dictated. However, at the other end of the scale ‘period costume’ meant couture items and their accessories which might prized as heirlooms, such as hand-made lace, exquisite embroidery, and silk or chiffon evening gowns. Such items rarely turned up in the kind of places where I was searching for stock – rag mills, street markets and jumble sales. But then I discovered that there were some collectable ‘antique’ clothes and textiles which could be within my reach. And the key places to find these happened to be at the high-class auctions in London.

An Edwardian lace blouse – the kind of collector’s item we could occasionally source and easily sell

So off I went to discover the delights and perils of buying at auctions run by Phillips and by Bonham’s, both household names in the world of fine art and antiques. It was an eye-opener. On the pre-sale viewing days, I marvelled at the wonders which were hung quite casually on clothes rails, or folded in old trunks and boxes. There were silk shawls, Edwardian blouses, and slinky silver lame evening dresses. I recall too pleated Fortuny dresses, original William Morris curtains, a set of antique Tibetan Temple hangings, and glorious panne velvet opera cloaks, trimmed with swansdown. Some of these sold for huge prices, others for very little if they were not in mint condition. ‘Good enough’ condition meant that they might be within my price range.

Another feature of these ‘costume’ auctions was fine lace, the prime examples ready to be snapped up by specialist collectors. However, there were also ‘lots’ of lace which had no particular place in a museum or collector’s display, and were thus were more towards my end of the market. So I was sometimes able to buy large cardboard boxes full of lace trims, panels and collars. With the help of a book I acquired, I took a beginner’s crash course in learning the difference between hand and machine made lace, and between some specific types, such as Honiton or Venetian. The lace pieces sold very nicely in Tigerlily, for modest prices.

These gorgeous dresses above were in the iconic style of Mariano Fortuny – which typically sold for a fortune, both in the early part of the 20th century when he was working as a designer, and when they came up for auction decades later. Sadly, they were never within our budget. This quote describes the design:

‘Registered in Fortuny’s name in 1909, his emblematic ‘Delphos’ dress—named after the Charioteer of Delphi—took its inspiration from the chiton, the long woollen Greek tunic, and reflects the craze for Greece whose interpreter at the time was Isadora Duncan. This one-size-fits-all dress, made of finely pleated silk and open to all sorts of subtle variants of neckline and sleeves, was an ongoing success for forty years. Its admirers among the modernist elite included Comtesse Greffulhe and her daughter Elaine, the Marchesa Luisa Casati, Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse and, of course, Isadora Duncan.’  

Antique lace, of which these are examples, used to come my way in the job lots at the costume auctions. I was able eventually to identify most of the more common varieties. Machine-made lace curtains were also back in favour again. They lasted well, provided that they hadn’t been starched, which tended to rot the material over time.

The perils of lace, chiffon and silk

I also found some dresses and job lots of garments at auction which might have represented, say, the back end of a 1920s wardrobe, or even of a theatrical costume collection. These too went well in Tigerlily, with one notable exception. I’d purchased a large suitcase full of chiffon and silk dresses and nighties from the 20s and 30s, which no one else seemed interested in. They weren’t exceptional, but they were fun, and wearable, with a touch of glamour to them. I priced them up, and started to put them out in the shop, a few at a time.


However, a couple of weeks later, I reached into the box to see what was left, and to my horror, the fabric of a dress literally fell apart in my hand! I pulled out others – they virtually crumbled as I touched them. I realised that whoever had kept the collection hadn’t opened it up for years, and now, as the air began to reach the textiles, they were disappearing like fairy gold in the daylight.


Later that day, a young woman came into the shop, looking anxious, clutching one of our brown paper bags.


‘I bought this dress last week,’ she said, ‘but look at it now!’


I knew what was coming, before she held up the garment, now in shreds. Once a chiffon 20s shift, it was now not even suitable to use as a duster.


‘I wouldn’t mind,’ she continued earnestly, ‘if I’d worn it a few times, but it was only the once!’


I hastened to put her out of her misery, and refunded her money with an apology and an explanation. After all, we didn’t want to get the reputation of a shop whose clothes fall apart after a first wearing.

A flirtation with ‘The Lady’ and Victorian underwear

Another strategy I used at the posh end was to put advertisements in magazines like Vogue and The Lady. They carried ads for ‘dress agencies’ at the time, where, I supposed, impoverished gentlefolk could sell off last year’s ball gown or suit they’d worn to a Royal Garden Party. So my ads were a little different, as I asked for antique or period clothing. Extraordinarily, it worked, and people started contacting me. We would exchange letters or phone calls first to try and establish if what they had to offer was potentially of interest, and if what I could offer financially would be acceptable. Then boxes would arrive by post, if the location was too far away for me to visit. Occasionally, I had to send back a box of unwearable items, but on the whole the surprises were pleasant ones. One in particular was a set of exquisitely stitched and embroidered white cotton lawn underwear and nightdresses, a never-worn trousseau for an Edwardian bride. What was the story there? I was bowled over, and sent the seller a price she was both astonished and pleased to receive. She was so pleased, in fact, that she sent me more!

Victorian ladies’ underwear was often finely-stitched and decorated with lace, embroidery and cut work. Although the drawers weren’t an obvious draw, as it were, the camisoles and beautiful white cotton or lawn full petticoats were very popular. For a while, a Victorian camisole became ‘the’ summer blouse to have – I’m guessing the supply has largely run out now!

There were the ones that got away, however – I arranged to meet one lady at a Cambridge bus stop in the rain to see her treasures. (Why? Perhaps she was just changing buses and couldn’t come any further? I can’t recall.) She opened a ancient cardboard dress box and revealed a perfect fully-beaded 1920s flapper dress in black-and-white geometric designs. It was accompanied by a matching Juliet cap (a skull-fitting cap rather like a bathing hat) in the same delicate fabric and beading. As soon as I saw it though, I realised that it was probably too good for me. It was really a museum or collectors piece, and we mainly sold pieces for wear by people with modest budgets. I couldn’t afford the price she wanted, and regretfully had to let it go. Could I, should I, have bought it? It would have been an investment, but I suppose there’s a chance that it too might have turned out like the box of vanishing fairy gold, and crumbled away. Many 1920s items of clothing were really very fragile, and didn’t stand the test of time. A Victorian cotton nightie can be good for 150 years, whereas a 20s flapper dress might not outlast the decade.

One of the panels of exotic embroidery on a Chinese jacket, which was about to come my way

An old lady’s story

And sometimes, people brought items unbidden into the shop, to see if we wanted to buy them. That was fine, but they could cut up rough if politely refused. One woman brought in a dress she had bought new from a shop in London the day before, and decided she didn’t want. Not vintage – I’m talking about a ‘modern’ 1970s dress, expensive and rather ugly. She graciously offered me 10% off the price she’d paid, which would ensure there was ‘something in it’ for me. Thank you, but no thank you. She was indignant. She plainly didn’t realise that the average mark-up from buying a garment wholesale to selling it from the shop floor is 100%, so even if we had been interested, the discount was negligible. Even to this day, I think many people don’t realise that to cover overheads and make a modest living, many types of shop have to mark up their merchandise by doubling the wholesale price, then adding the VAT.


But there was also a wonderful surprise one day, when a very elderly lady came in, with something in a bag to show me. It was a Chinese silk shawl, heavily embroidered with coloured flowers on black silk, and a deep knotted fringe. I had long admired such shawls, but couldn’t afford the inflated prices they reached at the London auctions. When she saw I was interested, she told me she had other similar items at her home which was just around the corner from the shop. I made an appointment to visit with alacrity.

The richly-embroidered shawl that I bought from the old lady in Cambridge, given to her by a suitor many decades earlier in China. This is how it looks today, spread out over our sofa – the colours are as fresh as when the shawl was first created. Below is the jacket of the ‘trouser suit’ which I still have, and occasionally wear.


‘I was out in China, you see,’ she told me, when I went round. This had been between 1900 and 1920, when she was a glamorous young Englishwoman who attracted the eye of various handsome young men out there. ‘One of my suitors bought me some of these pieces. But I didn’t like him, so I never wore them.’


The items in question were not only the shawl, but a beautiful black silk trouser suit, embroidered with orange and white flowers, birds and fish. They were in pristine condition. She also had an unfinished square embroidery, lacking its fringe but perfect in every other respect, with immensely detailed scenes of Chinese life.


I bought everything, at a price we were both happy with. Some items I earmarked immediately for my own collection. Gradually, over the years, I disposed of my hoard, but these Chinese items are with me or my family for keeps! They are treasured, even if they can’t be out on permanent display. The fringed shawl tends to live in a drawer in case the cats claw it on the sofa. It’s also too awkward to wear, because the fringe can catch in your own and other people’s clothing – as I discovered to my embarrassment, striding grandly up the aisle of a cathedral to find my seat for a concert. The square embroidery, the shawl without a fringe, I’ve passed on to my daughter, and it’s now in safekeeping for my granddaughters.

The incredible square shawl where every inch is covered with intricate embroidery, showing different scenes.

The trouser suit I’ve worn on various occasions, not often, but enough for it to have gentle signs of wear. A few years ago, I wore the jacket to a Gala evening at our Exeter Northcott Theatre. In the social part of the evening, Robert and I got chatting to a couple who admired it. He was British, she Chinese. I was able to tell her, ‘Yes, it’s genuine Chinese embroidery, and it’s about a hundred years old.’


At that point, I felt like an antique myself. After all, the old lady, when she sold it to me, was vividly remembering the days of her youth, and now I’m remembering mine, and the time when I bought it. When does a life story turn into history?

Below: detail from the embroidered silk trouser suit


My Tigerlily dealings took me into some strange situations and up some curious pathways. It was an education, as well as a business. I still enjoy rubbing a piece of supposed vintage fabric through my fingers to detect whether it’s genuine 1930s satin, or a later revival piece, made of artificial fabric. The seams will tell me whether that so-called Victorian nightie is handsewn, or a later reproduction. The feel, as well as the eye, give the clues that you need to pick out a period pieces and appreciate its worth, not just in monetary terms but as a valuable link to costume history, and for the chance to continue its life story into the 21st century.

You may also be interested in:

Tigerlily in Cambridge

Tigerlily at the Rag Mills

Suzani from the Silk Road

A Tale of Two Samplers