Exeter dreams of its past, through paintings and photos which capture the romance of years gone by. I love to look at old photographs of the city, but even more I love gazing at the old postcards with softly coloured paintings, bought and were sent in their thousands during the early days of tourism. In the late 19th and early decades of the 20th century, before colour photography became the norm, artists of calibre were commissioned to paint scenes of Exeter’s historic streets, buildings, parks and waterways. I’ve collected a few of these, and share some of the city’s ‘dreamtime’ with you here.
Over the past autumn and winter, I trained as a city guide for Exeter, and tramping the streets with my fellow trainees, learning about their history, and reciting their stories, it’s as if we were walking the ‘songlines’ of the city. I feel that it’s akin to the way that Australian Aborigines walk their ancestral paths across the terrain, in order to recall and enact the old myths of creation, and the history of their people; this is known as ‘the dreamtime’.
Although much of Exeter has been redeveloped, following the devastating bombing raids of World War Two, there’s still a great deal of its history to be seen. And as well as seeing what’s evident now, I also came, eventually, to experience the city as multi-layered. The city’s past is there, and what is not visible to the naked eye starts to become alivee and vivid to the mind’s eye. Below my feet lies the remains of the Roman bathhouse…here is where Perkin Warbeck besieged the city…and this is the place where lived Gytha, mother of King Harold.
Here are the first four postcards of my collection, three of them with named artists.
Exeter from the Canal
Henry B. Wimbush evokes for us here a stately panorama of the city, with the Cathedral as a luminous landmark on the hill at the horizon. But although everything looks serene, the canal itself has a most contentious history. In 1913, when the postcard was sent, time was fast running out for its use as a shipping canal.
It was first proposed around 1280, when Isabella de Fortibus, Countess of Devon, blocked off most of the river Exe downstream, in order to bring more waterpower to her paper mill. (The area is known today as ‘Countess Wear’.) She left only about nine metres clear, which made it hard for large ships to pass through, and thus caused much complaining in Exeter itself. The city was dependent on its port, for the export trade of its woollen cloth, which is what made the city wealthy and famous from medieval times until the 18th century.
But matters were about to get worse. Around 1330, her descendant and kinsman, Hugh de Courtenay had a falling-out with the mayor over whether he or the bishop was entitled to the last pot of fish in the market! Courtenay swore he would get his own back on Exeter, and completely blocked the river. He set up Topsham, a few miles downriver, as the port where ships would now dock and he could collect the revenues, since he owned the quay there. This lined his coffers nicely. Eventually, in the 1500s, Exeter was granted the rights to remove the weir, but as the river was largely silted up, there was no choice but to dig a canal instead, to bring goods to be landed in the city itself. However, it took until the 1830 to complete the project in its entirety, and although Exeter partly got its port landings back, goods had to be transferred to small lighters (boats) and pulled upriver by horses. The canal now ran to what is known as Turf Locks, just past Topsham on the opposite bank. But it was too late to be of great use. Seagoing ships had become too large to pass up it, trains were shortly to take away much of the trade, and Exeter was no longer a chief centre of wool production.
The postcard of 1913 shows one larger ship berthed at the quayside (on the very left), but already the serenity of the scene indicates that its days of glory were in the past. And the little lockkeeper’s cottage on the right would later be demolished – by mistake, as it happens!
The artist was Henry Bowser Wimbush (1858-1943), who was known for postcards and book illustrations, as well as for paintings, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy. He roamed both in Britain and abroad to create his art, but settled in nearby Taunton later in life. (see also The-Postcard-Depot)
The postcard was sent to one Miss Connor in Acton, and the message simply reads: ‘We shall arrive at Padd[ington] at 8.30 tomorrow so expect us home soon after 9.’ In those days, you could confidently send a postcard to announce your imminent arrival!
‘Old House, King Street’
Exeter lost around two thirds of its old buildings in the Blitz of World War Two. Of those that remained, many were demolished later when the Council went on a re-development spree. Some that could have been restored were removed in the name of ‘progress’. (An anonymous website Demolition Exeter sets out to explore this outrage ) Buildings around King St, named in the postcard, and Preston St in the ‘West Quarter’ of the city took direct hits, and are nearly all rebuilt today. At first I thought this was just a charming scene of old houses, in a bygone street where the women are perhaps carrying bales of cloth – the staple of the wool trade. There is what seems to be a pedlar with his basket on the right, a workman with a wheelbarrow, and a family grouped in the distance. The artist Sidney Endacott is well-known for painting scenes on Exeter postcards: his views are both delightful and collectable. (More about Sidney and Worth, the postcard publisher, below.)
But there is more to this ‘old house’ than meets the eye. It was in fact known locally as ‘The Norman House’ and was probably one of the very oldest in the city. The Normans arrived here in 1068 under the banner of William the Conqueror himself, who chased the mother of the defeated King Harold out of the city, seized her lands, and set up a castle for his own soldiers at Rougemont, near the East Gate. Remains from Norman times are rare, though, in domestic buildings. As Exeter Memories put it: On the corner of Preston and King Street was what appeared to be just another slum property, with a few ancient features. In 1914, the City Council purchased the building with a view to clearing the area. In 1915, they sent a photographer to record the building–the photographs revealed a building far more interesting, than originally thought. It had many Norman mouldings, one over the door, and stone decorative strips at the base of the interior walls. The house had many 16th-Century features, including Tudor plaster work ceilings and a collar-braced roof. It was for the Norman features it became known as the Norman House. Alas, although it was taken care of for a while, it was eventually allowed to become derelict, and was then finished off by the bombs of 1942.
Here is another image to dream over, therefore.
Mary Mol Wildy and her famous Coffee House
This gorgeous building was built as Exeter’s first Customs House in 1596. Later, in the 1720s, it became Mol’s Coffee House, a place for gentlemen to gather with their business chums and read the latest newspapers from London. It ran for over 100 years – presumably presided over by subsequent hosts to Mol! – but is still known by her name today. In the first part of the 20th century though it became Worth’s Art Gallery, which in the years after it finished business as a more general art gallery, has best known for the series of postcards it produced and printed. This is where the postcard of King St was published, and the man who painted it was Worth’s best-known artist: Sidney Endacott (1873-1913).
Sidney was a local lad, born in Ashburton, and a pupil at Blundells School, Tiverton. He was capable and talented, but unfortunately suffered from a permanent bone infection (osteomyelitis), which cut short his life. However, he still managed to join his brother in America for a while, where he created wood carvings for a grand mansion in Kansas. After his return to Devon, he taught art but then hit a winning streak by painting postcards for Worth’s. These became very popular, catering for the growing number of tourists in the city. It’s thought that he probably created around 500 designs overall, delightful paintings which create a romantic atmosphere around the city sights.
This corner of the Cathedral Close where Mol hangs out still looks much as it did in these postcards – one of which is a painting by A. R. Quinton, and the other a photograph. The Saxon church of St Martin of Tours still sits next to Mol’s and two of the medieval houses on the left in Quinton’s painting, built originally for priests in the 1300s, also survive as Loake’s high quality shoe shop. (They are also famous for having garderobes, which can be described as luxury medieval toilets with ‘a long drop’.)
As for Alfred Robert Quinton (1853-1934), his landscapes and cityscapes were drawn from his annual tours by bicycle around the British Isles. His work routine would be to travel around England and Wales for three months of the year, mostly during the summer months and often by bicycle, during which he would draw sketches and take photographs of locations which he would then work up into paintings in his studio during the winter months. Many of his artworks were also published as postcards by Raphael Tuck and J Salmon Ltd and remain popular with today’s collectors.
The painting of Mol’s, aka Worth’s Gallery, in Quinton’s postcard is more matter-of-fact than that the other two in this blog post, but enjoyable for its detail, including the little figure poring over Worth’s art prints, and a woman and child about to enter the gallery. The card was posted in 1933, so I suspect the wagon was a bit of an anachronism, although the painting could have been made some years earlier. The message on it, sent to Jersey, begins, ‘Dear Alice – Tell mother that I am anxiously waiting for a letter I sincerely hope that …alright’ and then descends into a scrawl.
The photographic postcard was sent by a young man studying at St Luke’s religious educational college, writing home to his father. By contrast to the other one, it’s a model of neatness. ‘The weather today is summery, with hot sun and no clouds… Thechurch on the left is the oldest in the city about 1050’. (Good try, but not quite! Being more precise, it’s from 1065 but still qualifies as Anglo-Saxon, preceding the Norman Conquest by three years!)
That’s the end of today’s dreams of Exeter! I hope to be sharing some more with you later, when I’ve acquired more old postcards to share with you.
I have always admired William Blake as poet and artist, and have a battered copy of his poetry from university days. But shortly after I left university, as I began to explore the practice of meditation, and the philosophy of Tree of Life Kabbalah, his work became even more meaningful to me. He was a natural visionary, but behind his blazing revelations and frequent conversations angels and spirits from another realm, there appeared to be a kind of philosophical framework. How did that come about? And was it really similar in some ways to the Tree of Life, which I had been studying?
Further reading revealed that he was a man of some knowledge, as well as a spontaneous mystic. This was still somewhat at the fringes of scholarly research into Blake, however. Although Laura de Witt James had already published her study of ‘William Blake and the Tree of Life’ in 1956, it didn’t hit the bookshops widely until it was republished by Shambala in 1971. Following these scanty leads, in the mid-70s, I persuaded my husband that we should take a long detour, while on holiday in Devon with querulous small children in tow, to see Blake’s famous ‘Sea of Time and Space’ picture which then hung at Arlington Court. I can’t say that I understood it at the time, but it definitely pointed towards a more structured understanding of the spiritual nature of the universe.
My connection with Blake over the years remained enthusiastic, if mostly unscholarly. When the Tate housed a recent major exhibition of his work in 2019-2020, I travelled to London twice to view it, , and marvelling over his paintings and engravings for hours each time. The vibrancy of his work in its original form has a presence which surpasses the experience of seeing it in print.
But at the same time, I decided to pursue a new line of enquiry, which began with a conversation with the author R. J. Stewart, a specialist in magical and esoteric traditions. I hoped to find out more about Blake’s connections to these traditions, a theme which is close to my heart. (See ‘Soho Tree’, a blog I co-write with Rod Thorn.)
I should warn you that this is a somewhat long article! You may prefer to scan it, and enjoy the visuals and video clips, or pick out the sections of interest. Don’t miss the exotic Count Zinzendorf… I emphasise again that I am not a Blake scholar – I’ve merely drawn on the findings of others, and have endeavoured to make these more accessible. I feel that this element of Blake’s work deserves to be more widely known.
William Blake, 1757-1827 and the Moravians
A few years ago, therefore, R. J. Stewart told me that William Blake’s parents had belonged to the Moravian Church in London. This was news to me, and I decided to try and find out more. With the access I had at the time to JStor, that wonderful repository of academic articles, I was able to follow the trail which certain modern scholars have opened up. (I give the sources for these at the end.) No doubt there is more information and possibly argument to come, but even as this early research stands, it brings an extraordinary new view of Blake’s mystical affiliations and practices.
The question turns on the religious allegiance of the Blake family. They were known to be Protestant dissenters, but speculation hadn’t previously managed to pin down what type of sect they belonged to. Even when Peter Ackroyd wrote his major biography of William Blake in 1995, nothing definite was known, and he considered that the issue wasn’t of great importance: ‘The identity of that sect has never been determined…It is of no consequence at this late date.’ He accepted, however, as most other scholars have done, that Blake’s family had some connection with the the followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th c. Swedish scientist and mystic. For the Swedenborgians, conversations with angels and knowledge of the higher realms of beings was central to their practice, and this is something s certainly reflected in Blake’s own visions and writings. But just over ten years after Ackroyd wrote the biography, new evidence came to light.
Catherine Blake and the Moravians
One of the most important new discoveries is that William Blake’s mother Catherine had made an earlier marriage to a Thomas Armitage in 1748, before she married James Blake, William’s father. And it’s on record that both Catherine and Thomas were both members of the Moravian Church. There had been earlier, inconclusive hints from writers on Blake that the family had Moravian connections, but these hadn’t been taken very seriously, especially without firm evidence. However, the Moravian archive at Muswell Hill has now yielded the evidence which confirms this. This also scotches the notion that the Blakes were ‘Muggletonians’, a curious sect who based their belief on the Book of Revelations.
And now further investigation is revealing how much influence the Moravians may have had on Blake’s upbringing, along with his sources of inspiration. This Moravian connection also includes links to Rosicrucianism, the teachings of the alchemist and mystic Jacob Boehme, and to Kabbalah. ‘Through their association [the Blake family] they enjoyed unusual – even unique – access to an international network of ecumenical missionaries, an esoteric tradition of Christian Kabbalism, Hermetic alchemy, and Oriental theosophy, along with a European “high culture” of religious art, music and poetry.’ (Schuchard)
Catherine, Blake’s mother, was granted admission into the Congregation of the Lamb, which was the elite group at the heart of the church. The letter of application she wrote is still extant (Moravians are known for their detailed documentation of personal lives), and shows that she was a fully committed member, rather than an occasional attender. This letter would have been read out to the Congregation for their approval, but applications had to be further tested through the ‘drawing of the Lot’. Human decisions were put to the test of holy divination -‘the casting of lots was seen as God’s intervention in directing human affairs.’
It’s likely that William Blake’s uncle and aunt (on his father’s side) were also members of the Church –Brother and Sister Blake, Butchers of Pear St were also referred to in the records. Catherine’s first husband Thomas died in 1751, only three years into the marriage, and she married James Blake in 1752. She may therefore have met her second husband and his family members through this Moravian Congregation.
Surprisingly, it was perfectly acceptable to be both a member of the Moravian Church and the Anglican Church. In fact the majority of the English Moravian Brethren followed this practice. Their religion was officially classified as ‘episcopal’ and as a ‘sister church’ to the Church of England. Nevertheless, the law demanded that their places of worship should be licensed as Dissenting Chapels. It was probably from this odd hybrid, that the traditional scholar’s view of the Blake family as ‘radical dissenters’ grew up, even though they were in another way within the fold of the official Anglican church.
Origins of the Moravian Church
‘The Hussite movement that was to become the Moravian Church was started by Jan Hus in early 15th century Bohemia, in what is today the Czech Republic.’ The Moravians were classed as Reformist and Protestant. But after various upheavals in Bohemia, when Catholic influence was restored, the Moravians ‘were forced to operate underground and eventually dispersed across Northern Europe.’ The chief remaining communities of the Brethren were thereafter located in Leszno in Poland, andas small, isolated groups in Moravia. These latter were referred to as “the Hidden Seed” which Bishop John Amos Comenius prayed would preserve this faith.
Comenius himself had Rosicrucian links, including a friendship with Johann Valentin Andraea, the putative author of the mysterious and significant Rosicrucian Manifesto and/or The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. These have retained their mystique in Rosicrucian and alchemical circles right up to the present day. So the influence of the Rosicrucian movement too probably fed into the Moravian Church’s philosophy.
The Moravian Church in England and its Teachings
Once the Church, known as Unitas Fratrum, was displaced from Bohemia, it established branches in England too, where it was known as ‘The Renewed Church’ from 1722 onwards, the period relevant to the Blake family. The first Moravian ‘missionaries’ arrived in London in 1738, spending a few months there on their way to America. (America proved fertile ground for the Church to take root.) They took John Wesley (brother of Charles and co-founder of Methodism) into their religious group, and there was a degree of mutual influence, although he later separated from them. By 1742 they were ready to lease a Meeting House in Fetter Lane, which then became the main London HQ and Chapel for the Moravians for the next 200 years.
Swedenborg himself attended Fetter Lane Moravian services and became friendly with members of the congregation. This too may have had a direct influence; his visits were in 1744-5, during the year he spent in London, and around the time of Catherine’s early involvement with the Church, before Blake was born. There is also a historic claim that Blake’s father was a Swedenborgian, which is as yet unproven.
The Moravian Church philosophy was to seek transcendence and joy in the context of everyday life, and to aspire to Unity. It was considered important to ‘be still’ and await God’s grace, rather than becoming too fervent in worship. (Something we might consider to be in harmony with the contemporary interest in meditation, and with enabling a personal connection with spiritual experience.) The Moravians also attempted to reconcile the teachings of Judaism and Christianity, and carried a semi-secret Christian-Judaic form of Kabbalistic teaching – which, as mentioned earlier, accords with Blake’s own acquaintance with the tradition.
The Lamb (as in the Congregation of the Lamb which Catherine joined) has been a key symbol for the Moravians, with strong mystical associations. It sheds light on Blake’s use of the Lamb in his poetry, and his frequent references to sheep and shepherding.
The concept of the divine feminine has also been extremely important to them. There are mentions in their hymns of the Shekinah, the female emanation of God who is found in the Kabbalah and in mystical Judaism. At the time of Blake’s upbringing, they believed in treating children gently, and introducing them to art and music in mystical contexts early in life. They also encouraged home schooling, considering that the best teacher was the child’s own mother. In the church, special services were held for children, with plenty of singing; reports declare how joyful some of these occasions were. Overall, the Moravians were renowned for good pastoral care, and members could request one-to-one visits for a form of counselling – Catherine Blake, William Blake’s mother, requested this herself.
Becoming a full member was very time-consuming and involved many monthly meetings, plus ‘love-feasts’. These may sound extraordinary today – the feasts involved a sensual identification with the body and wounds of Christ. Followers were encouraged to visualise holy scenes of Christ, and to feel like active participants in these. (A modern and more restrained version of the love feast in America is described here https://www.moravian.org/2018/11/the-lovefeast/ .) So visualisation and imagination played a key part in their religious practice, which again chimes in with Blake’s own approach to writing and art. There is also an erotic element to this mysticism which has recently been explored by academic Marsha Keith Schuchard in William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision. However, overall propriety of conduct was always emphasised, and stricter than it is today. Men and women were strictly separated, but seem to have played an equal part in the church. One John Blake (possibly William’s uncle) was expelled from the elite Congregation for flirting with a ‘Single Sister’!
Among the Moravian mystical practices was that of ‘Frakturschriften’, defined as the ornamental fracturing or breaking of letters. It seems to have been a kind of contemplative calligraphy where the letters were allowed to break up into whorls and flourishes and labyrinthine patterns. This became a speciality at the community of Ephrata, in Pennsylvania, which operated on principles drawn from the teachings of Jacob Boehme and the Rosicrucians. The notion of writing sacred letters and the names of God, in a meditative state, is of course found in other traditions, in particular as another aspect of mystical Kabbalistic ‘letter permutation’. It also has resonances with the Christian pre-Reformist Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life in the Low Countries, who worked mindfully with calligraphy both as a religious practice and as a way of earning money.
One of the most important figures on the Moravian scene was Count Zinzendorf (1700-1760), leader of the Unitas Fratrem movement in the Moravian Church. A fascinating and flamboyant character, he paid visits to London from his base in Saxony, at a period which coincided with the Blake family’s church membership. His input helped to cement the London congregation that threatened to fall apart when John Wesley left it in 1740. More remarkably, though, he also influenced the Moravians by promoting a kind of full immersion into a fusion of vision, music and mystical experience. Demonstrations took place at Lindsey House, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, once Zinzendorf’s London home. (It is now National Trust but not usually open to the public.) Both here and in the Fetter Lane Chapel, the walls were painted with mystical scenes, and further images were also projected by lanterns or candlelight. The practice was to gaze at these, sometimes with music playing to heighten the experience. It was an unusual experience for the 18th century, to say the least!
To us today, it might seem gruesome, since there were often bloody images of Christ’s wounding and crucifixion, and in contemplating these, followers sought a kind of intense combination of agony and ecstasy. And Zinzendorf believed that this wasn’t an ‘adults only’ experience; he advocated that mother and child should contemplate these together, and that even pregnant women should mystically assimilate these images to influence the baby in the womb. (No X ratings or ‘over eighteens only’ held sway at Lindsey House!)
Blake and the Moravian influence
The importance and power of language, especially when combined with music and imagery, would have been brought home to Blake in the Moravian context. The obvious correlation in his own work are his Songs of Innocence and Experience, where poetry and images are intertwined, beautifully and symbolically. We don’t know whether he directly experienced love feasts and lantern gazing, but the influence would have been within the family experience of Moravian practices. And his polarised view of primordial, bright ‘innocence’ contrasting with the suffering of ‘experience’ certainly resonates with the unusual Moravian culture.
Other papers on this topic also emphasise the connections between Blake’s own writings and the Moravian outlook on parenting, mysticism and indeed its music. Moravian hymns bear a strong resemblance to some of Blake’s poetic forms. You can listen to modern recordings of these. I’m struck by their pleasing, tuneful quality; they have an appeal which is innocent and fresh. Some are within the more mainstream repertoire of church music, and probably many of us have sung a few over the years without realising where they came from.
And we can imagine William Blake, as a young boy, sitting on his mother Catherine’s knee, as she sang these to him as nightly lullabies.
Morning Star I follow thee’ Lead me here or lead me there: Thou my staff in trav’ling be I’ll no other weapon bear; Me may Angels guard from ill, When I am to do thy will: So shall I with steady pace Reach the dearest City, Grace.
Blake’s own faith therefore may have been profoundly influenced by the Moravian religion and worship. It may have given, at least in a part, a framework for his psychic and mystic experiences. Possibly, too the contrast between their fostering of the love and innocence of childhood along with a strictness about sexual separation may have induced a dichotomy in Blake which revealed itself in his Songs of Innocence and Experience. I’ll end with some quotes, however, that I have taken from Blake his letters, to show his own very personal and intense connection to nature as a sacred force and to a realm of spirit which lies beyond the senses:
‘I know that this world is a world of IMAGINATION and Vision. I see everything I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike…The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.’
‘I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the Spirit and see him in my remembrance in the regions of my imagination. I hear his advice and even now write from his dictate…it is to me a Source of Immortal Joy: even in this world by it I am the companion of Angels…The Ruins of Time builds Mansions in Eternity.’
‘That which can be made explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the Ancients consider’d what is not too explicit as the fittest for Instruction, because it rouses the faculties to act. I name Moses, Solomon, Aesop, Homer, Plato.’
And when Blake died, George Richmond wrote to Blake’s friend, the artist Samuel Palmer:
He said he was going to that country he had all his life wished to see and expressed himself happy…Just before he died his countenance became fair. His eyes brighten’d and he burst out into singing of the things he saw in heaven.
‘The Lost Moravian History of William Blake’s Family: Snapshots from the Archive’ – Keri Davies (Literature Compass 3/6 2006) A very useful and clear account of the Moravians and the Blake family.
‘Young William Blake and the Moravian Tradition of Visionary Art’ – Marsha Keith Schuchard (Blake – An Illustrated Quarterly Vol 40, Issue 3, Winter 2006-7) A fascinating study of Moravian practices, including those of Count Zinzendorf
‘The Influence of the Moravian Collection of Hymns on William Blake’s Later Mythology’ – Wayne C. Ripley (Huntingdon Library Quarterly, vol. 80, Autumn 2017) This is a detailed study of hymns and Blake’s terminology, more than is needed for general understanding, but probably very useful for those who want to analyse the poetry closely.
‘Anglo-German Connections in William Blake, Johann Georg Hamman, and the Moravians’ – Alexander Regier (SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900,Vol 56, no 4, Autumn 2016 Closely examines the influence of German connections on the English Moravians, and the way that Moravian spiritual thinking and hymnody could have influenced Blake.
‘The Moravian Origins of Kierkegaard’s and Blake’s Socratic Literature’ – James Rovira (Chapter in Kierkegaard, Literature and the Arts, ed Eric Ziolkowski, Northwestern University Press 2018, via JStor) Draws the threads between their Moravian connections and their literature and philosophy.
Books William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision Marsha Keith Schuchard (Inner Traditions, 2008) Blake – Peter Ackroyd (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995) – A biography William Blake – Tate Catalogue 2019
Videos about the history and style of FrakturSchrift can be found here and here
You may also be interested in some of my earlier posts:
Sweet Chance, that led my steps abroad,
Beyond the town, where wild flowers grow --
A rainbow and a cuckoo, Lord,
How rich and great the times are now!
Know, all ye sheep
And cows, that keep
On staring that I stand so long
In grass that's wet from heavy rain --
A rainbow and a cuckoo's song
May never come together again;
May never come
This side the tomb.
'A Great Time' by W. H. Davies (1871-1940)
I recently re-visited Amberley and Nailsworth, the area in Gloucestershire where we lived not too long ago. We were there for seven years, in fact, and it’s seven years now since we moved. Although it’s not too far from our present home in Topsham, Devon, I’ve only once before made the 100 mile journey back there in the intervening period. This time, in glorious May, I rejoiced in the profusion of the local flowers of the woods, upland commons and meadows: starry wild garlic, ethereal cowslips, buttercups, bluebells and hawthorn blossom.
I’m forever interested in our experiences of ‘place’, and how they lodge in our memory as touchstones of emotional succour – or sometimes as the opposite, as places of doom or of energy drainage, best avoided in the future. For myself, this refers mostly to places where I’ve lived, and which have time to seep into the soul. That’s around twelve different places, plus one in Russia and one holiday home in Turkey. It’s a somewhat indefinite number as on more than one occasion I’ve lived in the same area but in different houses. Anyway, without getting too involved in intricate analysis here, I’m going to call it the round figure of twelve.
On Minchinhampton Common, it was – and still is, writing this a few days later – a time when the long grass is studded with flowers in the days before the cows are let loose to tear at the new fodder. Commoners have rights to graze stock – our house deeds there allowed us to graze ‘two beasts’! So in mid-May, farmers with similar rights drive their cattle lorries up there, and unload them. We witnessed it once, and laughed at the clumsy exhilaration of the cows as they kicked up their heels, snorted, then set off at what passes for a bovine gallop, stampeding and wheeling in circles, like something from a Western. Most had probably been confined to their stalls over winter, and their joy was a pleasure to behold. It wouldn’t take long before buttercups and cowslips were munched and you’d need to go to the margins of the common to find orchids, Solomon’s seal and other wild flowers not yet discovered by the herds.
Below: Cowslip, Early Purple Orchid, and the much rarer Bee Orchid, all of which I photographed on Minchinhampton Common
The cows themselves were mainly a motley crew of mixed brown, white, black and even a curiously sort of striped one, who we nicknamed Tiger. The National Trust kept a herd of belted Galloways, black and white like striped humbugs, and an elite herd of a few little Highland cows, with woolly coats and long horns, kept their own company away from the madding crowd. All the cows roamed as far as they could until stopped by cattle grids, and it was a frequent sight to see one leaning over our back wall, wondering what she might be able to reach in our vegetable patch with her rasping tongue. Or strolling through the village past our front gate, snatching at grass from the so-called village green.
And on my visit this time round, it happened to be the day of the annual ‘Cow Hunt’. No, not taking pot shots at innocent animals, but a kind of Cow Scarecrow event, with named cows dressed up and dotted around the village, such as Emma Radu Cow Moo or the like.
Hordes of families spread out through the village and over the common, parents diligently ticking off discovered cows on their lists, while excited children scampered ahead, trying to spot them in fences, gardens and the wilder spots. After which, it’s tea and cake for all on the aforementioned village green.
I began this piece with the poem by W. H. Davies, which wonderfully evokes the kind of ecstasy of a moment when impressions flood our consciousness – sights, scents and sounds arising simultaneously from the natural world around us – in his case, a rainbow and a cuckoo’s song. In my case, the sweetness of spring flowers, the silvery stone of the villages I know and love – Amberley, Box, Minchinhampton, and the leafy ancient woodland, all brought joy. For me, too, the open common and its free-ranging beasts has always carried a resonance of an older, freer way of life in the English countryside, which has now largely gone from our land.
A beautiful rendering of ‘Sweet Chance’ set as a song by composer Michael Head
But – and here’s the thing! – it’s also ‘sweet chance’ that W. H. Davies himself lived in this very area, and was a native of Nailsworth in his later years. He was a self-styled ‘super tramp’: born in Wales, he roamed far and wide across the world, living as a hobo. He travelled round Canada and America, trying unsuccessfully to make his fortune in the gold rush, and losing his leg in a freight train accident. But being something of a genius too, his writings took the more bohemian elements of literary London by storm, and he became an established poet, as well as publishing his autobiography. Notable figures such as the Sitwells, George Bernard Shaw, and the poet Edward Thomas became his friends. It was not a simple outcome, as you might imagine, given that a rough life and the sometimes genteel expectations of his behaviour did not always sit well with his upper class admirers. But his status as a ‘super tramp’ helped to kick start a kind of vogue for ‘tramping’ so that even much later, in the 1950s, writer Colin Wilson and his circle took to sleeping out in the rough – though in Wilson’s case, just as far as Hampstead Heath! And a well-known Soho character, ‘Ironfoot Jack’, wrote an entertaining memoir about his time on the road, and as a showman. Tramping became almost respectable.
In later years, W. H. Davies settled in a little cottage called Glendower, in a hamlet called Watledge, I used to walk past it often, if I was taking the scenic downhill route into Nailsworth, and admire its picturesque look. This was his last home, after he and his wife had inhabited several other houses in the area. His wife was much younger than him, and a former prostitute, but it was apparently a happy, settled union. His novel ‘Young Emma’ shows his sympathy for young women who got into trouble on account of their poverty and innocence. It was a close-to-life account of his wife’s beginnings, and not published until after his death.
There is much more that could be said about W.H. Davies, Nailsworth, our time in Amberley, free-ranging cows and common land, but I’ll just let this short tribute stand as a kind of marker of those special moments which can come when we revisit old haunts. A rush of memories can fuse with current impressions – for me here, ‘sweet chance’ was the scent of wild garlic, the delight of meeting with old friends, the sight of the steep valleys and tender green of the woods in May. I may experience this alchemical elixir, as indeed all of us may, but perhaps only a poet or writer of genius such as W.H.Davies can express it
The next post will stay with a literary theme, exploring the connections between William Blake and the Moravian Church. Are Blake’s visions, poems, and even his views on love, shaped by this unusual Christian church with its emphasis on visualisations, the feminine spirit, and delight in music? Join me in a different setting, but with another wild, independent genius!
Have you ever been to a school or college reunion? They can be delightful, terrifying, frustrating, intriguing, heart-warming or puzzling – or a mixture of all of these experiences! I have been to several for our secondary school, King Edward VI High School in Birmingham, where many of us have kept in contact over the years anyway. But the reunion that I went to about ten years ago was completely different – it was for pupils from my first school, where I started when I was only three and a half. And as I was moved from there aged seven, the time frame was in my very early years. As far as a reunion was concerned, it was something of a challenge – a real case of stepping into the unknown, since I had only been in touch with one other friend from there ever since the day I left. The experience led me to think about reunions in general, and how they can affect us, as they stir up memories from the depths. Or not, in the case of some major blanks! I decided to write down my impressions afterwards. This is how it went:
Arrival at Wottonley House School
I look around for familiar landmarks. I’ve stepped out of my car into the dark and wet, and notice other cars also pulling up, occupants getting out and casting an eye about, just as I am. The few lights shining show up a jumble of buildings which don’t bear an exact resemblance to my memory of this place. The main school house looming behind them is very much as I remember it though, a solid Victorian detached villa, which in the eyes of a child was large and imposing. Now I see that it’s a generous, one-family house, but not much more.
A deep breath, and I’m ready to go in. I haven’t set foot here since I was about eight years old. It was my first school, in Ash, a village near Sandwich in Kent, where I spent four or five happy years. It was known then as Wottonley House and was really, as one former pupil unkindly called it, ‘a dame school’. Indeed, it was started by a middle-aged spinster for the children of parents who were respectable, if not wealthy; they were prepared to pay modest fees to set their child on a rung of the ladder above that of the local Council Schools, as they were known. It aspired to some of the rather grim traditions of British private education – uniforms with ties, exams from an early age, strict rules on behaviour – but it was nevertheless a kindly setting for small and bewildered children. I was only three and a half when I first went, and I loved it. Not that I had much to compare it with! It’s still a school now, but under a new name and management, extended into bigger grounds and extra portacabin classrooms.
So here I am, back again. At the door to the new School Hall the two organisers sit smiling, handing out name badges. Here is Shirley, who has been working indefatigably for six months or more, gathering all the info from the far flung reaches of the internet, contacting someone who knows someone, and following up obscure leads until she has over a hundred names whose whereabouts are known, almost fifty of whom are coming this weekend. We are meeting for drinks on the Saturday evening, and lunch on the Sunday. Her friend and helper Maggie I suddenly remember. The doctor’s daughter, in whose fabulous house and garden we used to hold the Sports Days. It’s to be like that over the next two days, as memory is jolted out of its slumber, and all sorts of names and details bubble up to the surface.
I remember some people, and others remember me.
‘It’s Cherry Phillips!’ (my long-abandoned maiden name.) ‘You look just like your mother!’
My mother was a teacher at the same school; no matter that she was 5’ 2”, and I am 5’ 9”, that she had red hair and mine was dark brown, she was plump, and I am – no, let’s face it, not as slim as I used to be. Fair enough.
Now I meet in quick succession a dazzling array of blasts from the past, each arousing brightly-coloured snippets of memory, waving like flags in the breeze. Philippa, who I often played with on Saturdays, and whose mother sang opera lustily as she cleaned the house. Bob, whose father ran the local tobacconist’s shop which also inexplicably sold tennis rackets. (Or did they? Is this a curious trick of memory?) Sometimes the memories are best kept to myself, so I refrain from telling a solid pillar of the community that I remember his big feet with flapping sandals, or remind a well-groomed woman of how she once wee’d in the middle of the classroom floor. I can still see the puddle in my mind’s eye. I get on well with some that I scarcely remember, including an elegant lady who, unknown to both of us, lived close to me in Bath for many years, and some cheerful cousins of Carolyn, my former best friend at the school. (There are twenty-nine of these cousins, she tells me, though not all of them are here, which is probably just as well.) And as for Carolyn herself, we lost touch in our 20s about the time we each got married and started families. But now, to my utter surprise and delight, it’s as if we’d never drifted apart.
To my astonishment, one of our former teachers is also here. She must be well over eighty. Miss Bourne was sweet and cheerful, a safe haven to run to, and someone who would be kind rather than critical. She erroneously taught us that camels store their water in their humps, and that Jesus made a sparrow out of clay which flew away – a story I was fascinated to discover later which is only found in the folkloric apocryphal gospels. Where had she heard that? She also read us good stories after lunch during our enforced rest on thin army blankets on a hard wooden floor. Those restless, uncomfortable half-hours were made bearable by listening to ‘The Secret Garden’ or ‘The Jungle Book’.
But of Miss Cowell, the headmistress, people tell terrible tales, of how she flew into rages, and pulled them down the stairs by their hair or their ears. I do remember how she snapped and snarled, but she never dared to have a go at me – I had a charmed, protected life there, a teacher’s pet I am told now, under the aegis of my teaching mother. Once or twice I was even sent to stay with Miss Cowell in the holidays, at which point she dropped her fierce manner and became placid, and even motherly. She allowed me to paint large square biscuit tins white, to serve as rubbish bins. It was the first time anyone had let me loose with an adult brush and pot of paint, and I was in heaven. It was hot; I sat in the corridor where usually we left our coats and shoes, an area where in term-time children came thundering to and fro, and in perfect peace I painted away. I just had to take care that the blue bottle flies didn’t settle on the white paint.
The reunion restores fragments of my past to me, but also begins to give me a more objective and disturbing view of how I was then.
‘You had to have a sleep on Miss Cowell’s bed after lunch every day! We were told to be quiet and not to disturb you.’ Golly. Either I was a cute little lamb (I was certainly younger than most at three and a half) or a precocious pain in the butt.
‘You called your mother Mrs Phillips in class, but Mummy the moment you got into the car,’ recollects our surviving teacher.
Did I? That was quite a feat. And it’s a prompt: I suddenly recall letting slip ‘Mummy’ in class, and all the children roaring with laughter, my face feeling hot with shame.
‘You had been looked after by someone when your mother started teaching here,’ she continues, ‘but it didn’t work out, so she asked if she could bring you to school.’
Interesting. I have snapshot memories of being cared for by a woman called Vera who was unkind and regularly smacked my bottom. Even though, as a small child, I never thought that complaining would do any good, maybe my mother figured out the situation. I was certainly ready to come to school, and have an enduring memory of sitting in the dining room after lunch with ‘Listen with Mother’ on the radio, watching the dust motes dance in the sunbeams that were coming through the serving hatch while Mum did the washing up. Through the hatch, my mother asked me from the kitchen, ‘Would you like to go to school?’ Oh yes! I would, I would!
But memory is a trickster, artful in layering recollections together. Perhaps the conversation happened earlier, somewhere else in the house, and I was just remembering it as I sat listening to the radio. It seems odd that she would have asked me something so important through the serving hatch. And, as the former pupils dig into the detail over the next two days, we find gaps and clashes in our narratives. Some things we all remember – Swedish drill in the playground, and a new classroom being built. One person remembers elocution lessons, and the rest of us deny that we ever had them. With difficulty, we recall that the art teacher was called Miss Painter (yes, really). But I seem to be the only one to recall the big drawstring bag that held masses of polished wooden bricks, some shaped like arches and pillars, with which you could build impressive structures. I wasn’t alone though in recalling ‘Music and Movement’, broadcast through primitive speakers. ‘The sun is out, children, so skip, skip! Oh dear – now a rain cloud is coming! Jump over the puddles.’
Photos that people have brought of past events trigger distant memories. I see my mother in one, organising a race on Sports Day. This stirs me up, because here is another moment of her life, just when I thought I there were no more to be found. After her death, my brother and I went through all the photographs, which have since become imprinted on my mind as the total of her recorded life. Now I get a different take on her. Everyone keeps saying, ‘Your mother was a wonderful teacher!’ I didn’t know that. I struggle with this new definition, then step back from my own childhood impressions till I suddenly see her more objectively: at the time, she was still keen and relatively young, with a first-class training from Homerton College, Cambridge. After the disruption of the war and two children later, she was at last having a chance to use all that training. She could teach history, French and English, and play the piano for country dancing.
My father was teaching in another school in the area at the time, a boys’ grammar school where he was deeply unhappy, under a headmaster whom he hated. Stories about him, which I now heard from a man who’d gone on to that school from Wottonley House, were grim. His temper, always easily triggered, led to swiping his badly-behaved pupils with a metal-topped cane. I feel shame. But Mum, I realise now, was possibly at her happiest. She loved the little town of Sandwich, as I did too. But my father won out in his dissatisfaction and permanent restlessness; we moved house so that he could change jobs. Mum was sad, and I was devastated. One day, out on a walk by the river, I overheard my parents telling my maternal grandparents, who had come to stay, that we were going to leave Sandwich. It as like a bucket of ice tipped over me. I kept the dreadful knowledge to myself, till someone saw fit to mention it to me at a later date. And perhaps that first traumatic experience of uprooting has led to my own desire to switch locations every so often, much as I hated it at the time. As children do though, I adapted quite easily to a new life in the Midlands.
I relish a memory which three of us now share at the reunion. It’s of an extraordinary birthday party; we agree that it was the best one we ever went to, held in the garden of a huge, Lutyens designed house in Sandwich, known as The Salutation. A titled family lived there, with their two daughters and son, all of whom were pupils at Wottonley House. There was a treasure hunt in the orchard for the party, where we were each given a different strand of coloured wool, which we followed through the trees, unwinding it from branches and trunks, untangling it from the web other bright threads, until we reached the present at the other end, beautifully wrapped in tissue paper whose colour matched that of the thread. In dreary post-war Britain such things as coloured tissue paper were a luxury, that is if you could find them at all. ‘I tried to re-create this treasure hunt for a party recently,’ says the now well grown-up birthday girl, ‘but I couldn’t. I asked my mother how she did it, but she couldn’t remember.’
And it’s curious how facts can get distorted. Carolyn’s cousin clan begins to discuss their family history, and her older sister Jan says, ‘Our great grandfather was a Brook.’ It’s noisy in the school hall, and Carolyn hears this as, ‘Our great grandfather was a crook’. I, on the other hand, hear it as ‘…was a drunk.’ We discover our mistakes just in time before his reputation is lost forever.
The cauldron of my own past is now being stirred with a long stick. As discussion progresses amongst the assembled guests, sediment from the bottom of the pot floats up and colours the liquid above, producing feelings, vague memories, things that I can almost taste and smell but not name.
We pore over photos, trying to sort out names and faces, and ponder the geography of the school, which has changed. The playground is bigger now, but we recall its former shape, and how it held us all safely at break, the five-barred gate shut firmly while we played. How curious the games seemed to me when I first arrived at school, until I was initiated into them: ‘Farmer may I cross your Golden River?’ ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf?’ ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ and ‘Witches and Fairies’. The agony when you waited to be chosen to be on someone’s side, and the excitement when you could finally take part. I also learnt fortune-telling by counting the stones on the plate after stewed prunes at lunchtime: Who will I marry? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief! What will I get married in? Silk, satin, cotton rags. How will I travel to the wedding? Coach, car, carriage, dustcart. I suspect this kick-started my later interests in Tarot cards and astrology!
A Press photographer turns up to take our picture. One joker rolls up his trousers to expose his knees, schoolboy style. I and another woman are asked to put our arms around his shoulders and tickle his knees for a close-up shot. Then we all line up, grinning broadly, with our remaining teacher sitting in the middle, arm raised, swinging the old school bell.
The bell is also used by Shirley the organiser to summon us to lunch. She reads out the old rules of the dining room. ‘Line up quietly. Say thank you. When you have eaten your first course, talk quietly to the person on your left.’ Etc. This is news to me! I recall none of it. But along with others, I remember the horror of being forced to drink a bottle of milk in break, sometimes warmed on icy mornings and tasting even more disgusting as a result. Once I found a drowned blackbird feather in it. (Mrs Thatcher, Milk Snatcher? Maybe you did schoolchildren a favour!) I remember too one of the boys being sick after eating stew for lunch, and how I was both fascinated and repelled at the pieces of carrot spewed over the floor.
Visual memories have stuck, too, for me and others there. We had different pictures of fruit and flowers for our coat pegs so we could identify them before we learnt to read. (But did I have a Cherry? Not sure.) We drew pictures for Bible Study – I had trouble with the table legs splaying out sideways for ‘The Feast of Canaan’, but I liked the idea of turning water into wine and threw myself into portraying the ancient story with coloured crayons. We learnt simple French using picture cards for each object. I remember the deep purple of the plum, and the soft velvet of the cushion, each image painted on a varnished and slightly yellowed card.
We can’t quite agree on where the original School Hall was located, where we had Assembly every day. Apparently on my first few days I sent everyone into fits of laughter by calling out ‘Present’ after each name read out on the register. Well, I don’t remember that exactly, but I certainly did believe that saying ‘Present’ meant that I would be given one. At least one, and possibly more if I said it enough times. I must have been a very literal child.
By and large, we were all happy at this school, and the talk has been bubbly, enthusiastic. As the time comes to leave for the long drive home, I recognise, with some sadness, that this is a unique occasion, never to be repeated. I may see some of these people again, and indeed, since then I have done that, but the fact is that all of us will never be in this place together again. It has stirred and moved me, and left me both savouring and questioning the memories from the deep roots of the past.
This account was first written in 2008, and revised and updated for this blog in 2022. Photos below show a further reunion with Carolyn and her sister Jan, when they came to visit me in Devon a few years ago.
My book ‘Your Life, Your Story’ takes a look at the question of memory and of memoir writing. It also shows you how to tease out the stories from your life, and share them with others.
‘Growing Your Family Tree’ investigates the task compiling your family history, especially the aspects of field trips to ancestral places and also the lived experiences which are a part of genealogical research, such as finding new relatives, and discovering secrets from the past.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, I made a number of trips to the Silk Road, travelling both along the ancient trade routes and to individual countries such as Syria, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkey. I felt instinctively that this period offered a golden opportunity to visit Central Asian and Silk Road countries, while borders were largely open, and political upheaval was minimal. I also had the time to do this, and travel was relatively inexpensive, so I decided to seize the chance while I could. And so it proved – sadly because of radicalism, civil war and political upheavals it would be very hard to do all of the same trips today.
However, it has ever been thus on the Silk Road. Only during the reign of Tamerlane (Timur) in the late 14th century was it possible to travel through his vast empire without impediment from beginning to end – and that was because he was a tyrant who imposed complete control on the routes! So I relished my journeys along at least part of the Silk Road, and studied its history and culture further to fill in the background. The talks and lectures I was able then to give were popular; everyone, it seems, wants to be an armchair Silk Road traveller, if they can’t get there in person! And who doesn’t love the colourful pictures of its remote mountains and lively markets?
In today’s post, I’m exploring the magic of Silk Road bazaars, and in a couple of months’ time I’ll publish a post on Travellers and Traders along the Silk Road. And more may follow – so watch this space!
Times of Change
There have certainly been changes in the last fifteen years, since I visited the Silk Road and its countries, like the Chinese policy of aggression in the Uighur province, which has affected the historic town of Kashgar, with its enormous Sunday market and charming houses with painted balconies. I am not sure that I could bear to go back there now – I’d rather remember it as it was. But nevertheless, most of what I write and the pictures I show still tell a tale of Silk Road countries in general, even if some specific locations have altered.
The Life of the Silk Road
The enchantment of the bazaar
Bazaars cast their magical spell over me, every time. In Silk Road countries, I have shopped in bazaars in Istanbul, Damascus, Kashgar, Samarkand, Tashkent, Marrakesh, Fez, Cairo, and Rawalpindi, to name but some of that I have visited. They are more than markets, glorying in flamboyant display, and creating a sense of opulence. Even humble sacks of spices are arranged in a palette of pleasing colours, metal teapots are set in towers to create a dazzling array of silver, and piles of slippers with striped silk and pompoms suggest the floors of a Sultan’s palace. I love nearly all markets but the Silk Road bazaars with their exuberant offerings, turning all their goods into exotic treasures, are irresistible.
The Story of the Silk Road
The Silk Road flourished between the 1st century AD, and the 15th century, after which time better trade routes and shipping routes opened up between East and West. However, despite its romantic sound, the term ‘Silk Road’ itself was only coined in the 19th century. The Silk Road was also not just one road, but a network of branching routes connecting countries from China and India in the Far East through Central Asia and into the Middle East, with final routes into Italy, Greece, and even Britain. Silk itself had been discovered in China by at least as early as 3,600BC – the legend has it that a Chinese Empress accidentally dropped a silkworm cocoon into her cup of tea, and as it unravelled in the hot liquid, she teased out the thread and was struck by its possibilities! Sericulture, the making of silk, became de rigeur for all Chinese ladies in the centuries that followed, and much time and effort was lavished on their silk road ‘houses’ to rear the worms which spin those cocoons. Soft, strong, lightweight silk became a precious commodity, its secret guarded for centuries by the Chinese until it was spotted by the Romans and export finally began. (One bargaining chip was that the Chinese were especially eager to acquire decent horses such as bred by their neighbours over the border in what is now the Kirghystan area.) But the trade routes were used for many, many other goods sent from East to West, and West to East, including ceramics, rhubarb, gunpowder and paper.
The old trade routes of Silk Road with their caravans of camels, yaks and horses still persisted to some extent in terms of travel, right though into the early 20th century. In their final years these were documented by a duo of Christian missionaries, Cable and French, who described them in their atmospheric book, The Gobi Desert (details below). But even today, the legacy of Silk Road bazaars is still thriving, as celebrated here.
The language barrier
‘I’m talking about camels -CAMELS!’ Many nationalities of travellers and merchants have travelled up and down the Silk Road for at least two thousand years. How did they manage to communicate with each other, given that they spoke dozens of different languages? They developed a simple, but cunning way of getting round this. For much of the Silk Road, either Chinese or Turkic languages were the main ones spoken, and these all have some similarities even though they are significantly different from each other. Only very rarely did traders travel from end to end of the Silk Road, so the chances were that the other travellers and traders that they were meeting came from just a few countries away. Thus to exchange information, the merchants would first of all state what the subject of the conversation was going to be: ‘My words are going to be about woven silk – camels – porcelain bowls – bandits up ahead…’ or whatever the vital topic was. You can imagine that this might have been protracted on occasion – ‘C-A-M-ELS – got it??’ and perhaps with some pantomime or gestures: ‘BANDITS – I’m dead!’ (enacting stabbing chest with knife) That way, each could pick up enough to give a sense of the potential deal or danger, and further conversation could now be exchanged within the framework of the subject.
Goods came from far away lands, so buyers at Silk Road bazaars could expect to see some items that were new and strange to them. Even today, some exotic-looking items in a bazaar can be mystifying – the pictures above are actually of sugar, as sold in the bazaar at Samarkand! And I’ve noticed that in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, it seems that every time a new exotic design comes onto the market, it’s presented in dazzling displays, alerting buyers to something new and glamorous. One year, for instance, it was coloured glass lanterns, and the year before that, embroidered wall hangings. You can see examples of these below.
Hats, Caps and Headgear
Another way to do a quick check on the home country or region of another merchant or dealer was – and still is to an extent – by checking their headgear. Even today, in Uzbekistan and in Kashgar market, a whole variety of caps and hats are on offer. (You can see some of them in the photo above of the men arguing over their donkeys.) Pointed felt caps for the Kirghiz can easily be distinguished, for instance, from the round flat hats for the Uzbeks.
‘Another frequent sight in the bazar is the Kirghiz, wearing a pointed cap of bright chintz bordered with lambskin, and a heavy fur coat even when the day is hot. His boots have high heels…he sometimes carries a hooded falcon on his wrist…’ (The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable and Francesca French, a fascinating account of life in Central Asia by missionaries who saw the last days of the old Silk Road trading routes in the early 20th century.) Indeed, I did manage to buy some Kirghiz riding boots of black leather. I showed them to a shoe mender back in the UK – he marvelled at them, as no nails at all were used, only tiny wooden pegs, in a style that he hadn’t seen since boots made before WWII.
Immersion in the life of the bazaar
My first experience of bazaars was as a student of 20 years old, when I elected to spend the summer vacation in Istanbul. I enrolled in a scheme to match up British students with Turkish families, a homestay in return for helping them to speak English. The journey was epic – 3 days packed into a hot train with a group of fellow students, no bunks, working toilets or refreshments. We ground to a halt somewhere in a barren plain in Yugoslavia. (This was not the Orient Express, but the unglamorous version via Munich and northern Greece.) The train arrived 24 hours late, and I was met by my Turkish family, waving frantically to me from the platform, having recognised me from the photo I’d sent. I hadn’t received the one they’d sent me, so was wondering who the ‘housewife’ was that I had been asked to tutor. It turned out that the agency had got it wrong, and fixed me up with a 33 year old bachelor who fancied marrying an English girl! I was too shy to admit to the mix-up, but luckily he lived with his aged mother and father, and spent most days working in the family pharmacy with his father. So by day I was free to roam the city streets, crossing over on the ferry to Old Istanbul and its fabulous bazaar. As a long-haired, mini-skirted wearing student, I was lucky not to get into trouble! In the bazaar, I learnt how to bargain, and was entranced by the huge building, with its arches and painted ceilings, and labyrinthine layout. I’ve been back many times since; the spell was cast in those early years, and has never been broken.
The Bazaar of Istanbul
The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is known as Kapali Carsi, and is probably the most famous bazaar in the world. It’s also often regarded as the most perfectly constructed and best organised one too. Like other major bazaars, it began as a complex of strong rooms where valuables could be stored and protected, offered as a commercial service, and shut up tightly at night. This turned into the first Bedesten, or covered market, in Constantinople, created around 1461 during the Ottoman period. Its jewellery section today still remains at the centre, a traditional placing in the best-protected area of the bazaar. (Though today more modern, securely-guarded gold jewellery stores can be found at the perimeter of the bazaar.) Like other bazaars built from late medieval period onwards, it was given a domed roof, in this case with fifteen large and eight small domes. Over the course of time, it expanded; the Sandal Bedesten was built around the first Bedestan, and other side streets grew up too, ringed round with 30 caravanserais, as lodging houses for merchants. Today’s bazaar still covers 100 acres, with some 18 gates and 4000 shops. It was badly damaged in an earthquake of 1894, and by the1950s was in serious decay and decline . It was a close call as to whether it would survive, but now it is restored, and buzzing with life once again.
Not all bazaars are as grand or splendid, of course. Sometimes a small town bazaar might offer, say, predominantly water melons, hunting knives and bread for sale, depending on their local specialities. And not all are picturesque. Visiting Morocco in the 1970s, I shrank from scenes of horror in the butchers’ quarter, where stalls were hung with blood-dripping meat, darkly encrusted with flies. I also spied fascinating but sinister ‘witchcraft’ stalls selling ingredients for potions and magical spells, who knows whether to cure or curse. But I remember too the enchantment of arriving by bus at a little Moroccan town one evening, and stepping out straight into a street market lit by lanterns in the dusk – no electricity in those parts. An enticing scent of grilling kebabs floated on the air, stallholders called their wares, citizens bustled about, looking for the final purchases of the day. I felt I had entered a magic realm.
On the question of security for traders, I was reminded of the effect of Timur/Tamerlane on the safety of goods and travllers when I visited Damascus in the early 2000s. Bashar al-Assad was already President, some would say dictator, with a tight control over the city. In the bazaar, I bought a gold chain from an Armenian jeweller. He told us that he had no fear of anyone robbing his shop; he could even leave it unlocked and walk away, and nothing would disappear. This is one of the ironical effects of a tyrannical regime.
Ceramics traditions and servicing
Below: Ceramics have been part of Silk Road trading for about a thousand years, with Chinese porcelain a valuable commodity sent with great care to the West. Something of that tradition is carried on today with the exuberant pattternings of Turkish ceramics, proudly displayed for visitors and locals. I have lost several impulse purchases in breakages over the years – they don’t travel well in luggage! In Silk Road days, the porcelain could be mended at Tashkent en route if it had got damaged in transit.
Bargaining and bazaars go together. And there’s a fascinating range of customs relating to bargaining across different Silk Road countries. In the Yemen, they have a practice of using hand gestures under a cloth held over the hands of buyer and seller, so that no one else can see the deal that is being done. Fingers symbolise numbers, and ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses are signalled with the eyes. Perhaps this too relates to the need to overcome language barriers, the old challenge of the Silk Road. In the Levant, it’s common for the stallholder to state too high a price, then walk off in disgust when the buyer refuses. His son then magically appears, takes over the process and offers the customer a special discount to make up for the disappointment – the seller re-appears and berates his son for being too soft, and so the performance goes on. Somewhere along the line, a bargain may be struck.
If you enter a bazaar, be prepared to bargain. It’s expected of you. Aim at a price of about half what is initially stated, though I often feel in fact that about two thirds is fair. Bargaining is part of the game, and merchants have practised it over hundreds of years. The pantomime of expressing shock at the seller’s opening price, the gambit of walking away when an agreement seems out of reach, are all part of the ritual of the bazaar. (‘Come back, lady! Ok, for you special price…) I’ll just add a quick rider that of course there are variations, when bargaining hard is not the right etiquette, for instance for food, or in countries which may have their own accepted limits of discount (generally about 10-20% reduction in countries of the former Soviet Union).
Tips for the bazaar
Learn the basic numbers in the language of the country. I only have a little Dutch and much less Turkish, but by learning numbers to understand prices and make offers, I was able to bargain in the flea markets of Holland and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Be polite and friendly. It goes a long way. Don’t feel pressured into buying something if you’re offered a glass of tea or piece of Turkish delight. It’s part of the ritual, and the seller knows full well that not every interaction leads to a sale.
Be ready to walk away if you can’t strike an appropriate deal. If there’s more room for negotiation, the seller will call you back. Only start the bargainingprocess if you really do intend to buy something (at the right price). It’s offensive to make a game out of it. Beware of self-appointed ‘guides’, especially those who offer to take you to their uncle’s/cousin’s/brother’s shop…But you probably know that already!
All the contemporary photos of Silk Road scenes are copyright Cherry Gilchrist
My own book Stories from the Silk Road is a re-telling of traditional stories from the Silk Road area for children. Most of these stories were gleaned while I was on my travels, either by hearing them or finding them in books with local collections of stories. They are narrated here by the Spirit of the Silk Road, who also describes the its wonders as we travel down it. It is illustrated with stunning pictures by Nilesh Mistry, who carefully studied photos and historical pictures that I assembled for him, to ensure authenticity. (You’ll find different editions of this book, some with another cover; it is currently out of print, but copies are usually available on Amazon.)
There are plenty of books about the history of the Silk Road, but those most relevant to this particular post are:
The Gobi Desert – Cable, Mildred & French, Francesca, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1942) – Recording at first-hand the last traces of the ancient ways of travelling and trading on the central stretches of the Silk Road, as experienced in the first half of the 20th century. You can read about the authors’ extraordinary lives here, women who eventually received the Livingstone Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
The Bazaar – Markets and Merchants of the Islamic World – Weiss & Westermann (Thames & Hudson, reprinted 2000)
Below: Old markets in Samarkand, where the magnificent buildings have since been restored.
It’s springtime! And my blog posts will be likewise springing up again on May 1st, after a three month break. They will then continue as before, at two-weekly intervals. So, what to expect? The first post will be on Bazaars of the Silk Road, and then there will be stories with my usual eclectic mix of mystery and history, memoir and art.
If you’d like to subscribe, you’ll receive notification each time a new post is published. There’s a link to click on the right hand side of the Home Page, under ‘Subscribe’. It’s all data protected and your info won’t be used in any other way. At present there are about 320 subscribers – thankyou, everyone, for your support!
In the meantime, I wish you all a joyful Easter.
And while you’re waiting, you might enjoy some of my earlier posts:
I am training to become one of the City of Exeter Redcoat Guides, a six month long course which qualifies us to lead a variety of historic tours around the town. We tramp around the streets with our trainers – I call them ‘handlers’, as we can be a bit of a handful! – working on the different routes and the stories embedded there. All this is transforming my view of the city, as I learn to see it in its Roman incarnation, as a medieval centre of wool trade, a gracious place for 18th century gentry, a smoking ruin in the Blitz, and a trail blazer in pedestrian shopping precincts (yes, really! With a view of the Cathedral, the architect specified.) The detail of all this is enough to take your breath away, but of course we must keep our breath so we can spill it out to our future interested visitors. Exeter has minted coins, hidden the mother of King Harold, killed people with cholera, and hosted the oldest civic Guildhall in the country – the office of Mayor dates back to the early 13th century.
And I go on my own exploration tours of the city. I learned long ago that if you approach the place you live in, or near, with a specific desire to seek out its hidden treasures, you begin to see with fresh eyes and perhaps make discoveries in a serendipitous way. While living in Cambridge in the 70s, for instance, I went out on a walk one morning with this intent, and to my surprise stumbled across an archaeological dig. I’d had no idea that this was taking place; it was now empty of archaeologists, but I just happened to arrive when one of them was making her final site visit. She was able to tell me that this was an exciting new discovery of a Roman Mithraic Temple. It transformed my sense of the townscape and its ancient origins.
In Exeter recently, Robert and I went out on a cold, murky Sunday morning so that I could visit the remains of the medieval Exe Bridge, now lying beneath a modern concrete interchange of roads and new bridges. (For my presentation topic in the Red Coats training, I’ve chosen ‘Bridges over the Exe’.) I knew that it can be a dodgy area for drug dealers and the like, but we had it all to ourselves. It looked pristine, and the recent rains even gave a glimpse of what it must have looked like when water once flowed under it. We looked at the remains of St Edmund’s Chapel, patron saint of bridges, and I mused over the story of a 12th century female anchorite, who walled herself up on the bridge and refused to move to let travellers pass!
Just as we left the bridge and walked towards the nugget of medieval Exeter still preserved around Stepcote Hill, the door to St Mary Steps church opened. A congregation of two elderly ladies climbed gingerly down the steps (hence the name!) and an array of priests and servers invited us in warmly to view the church, which is normally closed. We drank in the ancient atmosphere, enhanced by recent liberal doses of incense. Another stroke of luck!
I have in mind to write a post later on about ‘Pilgrimage of Place’ – of how visiting or re-visiting a town or a landscape can be a heightened experience, often, as mentioned, with happy coincidences along the way. My survey of family historians, when I was writing ‘Growing Your Family Tree’, also showed that others had shared this experience, treading ancestral trails. When I return from my break, I hope to share this with you. If any of you would like to write to me with your own experiences, I’ll be glad to read them and perhaps share them in the post. You can reach me via the Contact form on this website or on my author’s website at www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk.
A Winter-into-Spring Break
I am now going to take a break for a couple of months, as I do every now and then. This gives me a chance to replenish my writing energy and fish up a few more ideas from the deep. Thank you for coming with me thus far!
In the 1980s, our family lived near Dulverton on the edge of Exmoor, and we quickly made contacts across a broad range of people, both of rural and town origins, and from different backgrounds. Exmoor was a great leveller – our local ‘Lady’ (who shall be nameless) had a rather public affair with her builder, and hippie incomers (rather like us!) mixed happily with Exmoor dwellers who’d been there for generations.
One of our great friends was a farmer called Arthur Oakes. He came into my orbit because he was interested in astrology, which I was teaching at the time. Arthur was then in his early seventies, and one of the most open-minded, innovative people that I’ve ever met. He was born in 1908, and was brought up on a traditional mixed farm, in the days of horses to pull the carts and machinery. However, he turned to organic ways of farming before many people had even heard of it, and was an advocate for avoiding chemicals on the land, and using good husbandry and soil management instead. His memory stretched back a long time – as you’ll read in this interview, his memories of World War I were both sharp and painful. He was keenly observant in everyday life too, always noticing something to share and to laugh over if possible.
The family was not from Exmoor; it seems his father came from the Welsh borders to Norton Lindsey in Warwickshire, and that Arthur himself moved his family down to Exmoor during his own farming career. As a boy, he’d been to Grammar School in Coventry (which had to be paid for in those days – a struggle for his parents to afford) and he used to read everything he could get his hands on.
Arthur also came to a small group that Chris and I were running at the time, called ‘The Journeyman’s Way’, an approach to self-development based on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. (for the background to this, please see ‘Soho Tree‘, a website which I manage with colleague Rod Thorn). He was one of our most regular and steady members.
In terms of social life, he and his family were a lively, jolly lot, and many was the evening we’d get a phone call at about 5pm, saying ‘Are you doing anything tonight? Come over and have supper! Bring the children.’ When we’d get to their farm at Howtown, near Winsford, there would be a merry gathering of a dozen or so people entertaining each other, kids of all ages charging through the house, and generous plates of food set out buffet style, provided by Arthur and Enid’s grown-up daughters Val and Deb. Everyone would mingle and chat until those with small children or farms to run would begin to rub their eyes and head for home.
I valued our contact with the Oakes family enormously, and at one point, when I was writing a book for schools on Life in Britain in World War One, and a companion book on Life in the 1930s, I interviewed Arthur about his experiences. Much later, I transferred the scratchy tapes to digital, as I still have them – and was recently able to send them electronically to Arthur’s grandson, so that they can be preserved within the family.
Arthur Oakes died in 1989, and I attended his funeral on a brisk spring day when the little churchyard was filled with daffodils. I remember him saying a few years earlier, ‘I was watching a stream flow into the river yesterday, and I thought, “This is what will happen to me when I die – a small stream joining the bigger river.”’
You can see Arthur above as he appeared in my book ‘Life in Britain in the 1930s‘ discussing how he thatched hay ricks – the photo of him also comes from the 1930s.
THE INTERVIEW For this blog post, I’ve highlighted the extract from that interview which has always stayed clearly in my mind – Arthur’s personal memories of World War One, which shaped his subsequent views about war and poverty. It comprises the first quarter of the interview, slightly edited here for clarity, but with the aim of preserving Arthur’s voice. It’s been a moving experience, listening to that voice again.
World War One
CG Could you start off by telling me your earliest memories?
AO My earliest memories were really of the First World War. And the thing that struck me with horror, and has stayed with me ever since, was when the government, towards the end of this 1918 war –about 1917 – got into dire straits, and were requisitioning horses. They wanted them to go over to France and fight, and to pull the transport wagons and the ammunition. And I remember soldiers arriving in our farmyard and having all the horses rounded up and saying to my father, ‘We’re having that one, and that one, and that one.’ There were three that went, which were very much family pets. And one that was a carthorse. They just wrote out a chit to my father, and told him to take it somewhere or other to get his money. They said that the chit gave him the opportunity of having them back for free at the end of the war. Well, we never had them back at the end of the war – there wasn’t any end for those horses – only death.
I remember the soldiers taking our horses, leading them away, and my father leaning up against the wall in the yard and weeping over it. These two ponies were extra special, you know – he’d brought them from Wales with him. He’d used them – he’d had generations of them and bred them down, sending them to special stallions, and they were little workhorses. The ponies took them [Arthur’s parents] to market, they did the shopping, they did the shepherding, they pulled the food around for the sheep, and my father said, ‘I shall never see them again.’ And it suddenly struck me that there was no excitement in war, or any war, there was just misery. Then my brothers went [to war] and it really hit home. I wouldn’t have been very old then.
CG – How old would you have been?
AO – Eight. And up till then, the war had been an excitement.
CG – What had excited you about it?
AO – Well, it had been a total change – we hadn’t got young men working on the farm because they’d been called up. The usual razmataz of soldiers in uniforms, and blackouts too – but the things that were exciting to a boy who’d got pretend guns, suddenly turned into tragedy. And from then on, I feel now that I probably went into myself, because fear suddenly hit me. If they could take the horses, they could take other things that were my solid background, and things might begin to disappear off the road, as it were. It wasn’t long after that that the hay ricks did disappear, because they came to requisition hay to feed the horses on as well. I began to become aware that I was afraid of military dictatorship, military government.
It hit me too when I went to market with my brother in the holidays, to take some sheep along. He was about eighteen – he was ten years older than me –and there was a recruiting officer even in the market, who said to him, ‘What do you think you’re doing? You know you ought to be in uniform.’ And that scared the pants off him. And eventually he was in uniform. But that sort of thing was kicking the world from under me, kicking the solid world from under my feet.
The Armistice and aftermath of war
Arthur and his brothers worked hard on the farm – it was expected of them, and they would turn their hand to whatever jobs needed doing, whether roundingnup sheep, taking animals to market, or the carthorse to the blacksmith. Visiting the blacksmith was one of Arthur’s least favourite jobs, because the smith had a queueing system, and sometimes he had to wait in line the whole day to get his horse’s hooves and shoes seen to.
AO I think the next great step forward in memory was the Armistice, the bells were all ringing – what a relief! But even then, there were food difficulties. Very much so, because I think they didn’t get around to rationing until the war had ended. Although food stocks were fairly good – if you knew where to get them! I remember swapping bacon for Cheddar with the local vicar! I came down to him with a great chunk of bacon, on a bike, and he loaded me up with as much Cheddar as I could carry back. He’d landed a great hundredweight of sugar from somewhere, and so all these sorts of swaps were going on.
However, soon after that period my father went out somewhere – I was probably rising nine. Came home with the sweetest little pony from somewhere. which he picked up for a few pounds. He said, ‘Look here – you jump on its back, and if you can manage it, it’s yours!’ Of course. the blooming thing hadn’t really been broken in, but between us we managed it – it was only small – black, with a silvery mane, I still remember. That taught me to ride. And during that period – we kept it four or five years – I used to do a lot of work with it, driving sheep from A to B. I hadn’t got a dog, but this pony was as good as a dog – it really was a marvellous little thing.
But I also have the memory of it going, because hard times struck, really hard times. I came home from school one day and missed the pony – it had gone. I said, ‘Where’s Bess?’ and ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘bit of bad news – I’ve had to sell her.’ The rent day had come along, and she’d gone, you see. Those sorts of things knocked security out of youngsters. We had the rug pulled from under us, time after time.
CG – Now this was in Warwickshire?
AO – Yes, we lived close to Coventry at that time. However, he pulled enough money out of his hat from somewhere, and was able to pay for me to have a bit of education at the local grammar school. I used to cycle there as a day boy for five or six years.
Above: the pretty village of Winscombe, Somerset, where Arthur farmed when we knew him in the 1980s.
Below: Tarr Steps, the famous prehistoric stone bridge over the River Barle on Exmoor, where he had previously farmed and where his daughter Deb trained horses for re-enactment and film work.
The Depression Years
AO –It created the first socialism, that thirties did, really and truly, and the poverty had to be witnessed to be thoroughly appreciated and understood, because should they get out of work, which they did, I think it was a pound a week they got as compensation, to keep a family on. [This would compare to about £50 – £60 today.] And what on earth was it? They used to go out and get a rabbit, for which they’d get locked up if they got caught, and they’d pinch mushrooms.
My father got me so annoyed, because he couldn’t see the other side of the coin. These people, in his opinion, were not helping themselves. For instance, he sold a lot of trees off the farm he owned, for a second income He had a lot of big old trees and elms cut down – the trunks were taken away by horsepower to the timberyards, and the tops were left lying all around. And thinking he was doing these unemployed men a good turn, he’d say, ‘Well you can have a top, if you clear it up.’ But these poor men hadn’t even got the tools to work with! They hadn’t got the tools to work with. And he lost patience with them. His generosity didn’t go so far as to say, ‘Well, you borrow my axe’, or anything like that. He thought that somehow or other, they ought to have had one. He could not understand.
It wasn’t much better for his own men working on the farm. He was paying them £1.50 at the time, with a free cottage and free milk and free vegetables, practically feeding them as well. But they didn’t have much out-of-pocket cash. And the rule was that if a man broke his fork, for instance, it was deducted out of his £1.50. One poor old chap, he said, ‘Look, I can’t manage. I just can’t manage, you know.’ These sort of hardships were hitting me, probably turning me from Toryism to Socialism, really and truly. I can’t forget them, because there was real poverty, and real need, and real hardship. And I think if the men got condemned because they took ten shillings up to the pub and blew it on getting drunk, they were to be excused, because their life was a misery, to see their kids in need, and their wives driven frantic. These days it would end up in broken marriages and all sorts of things, but in those days didn’t because of necessity they had to cling together. The necessity just to live, to hang on. It was a horrible state of affairs.
The Wheel of Nature and Life
Arthur’s own family were never short of food, and always had a warm house, for which he was thankful. However, their farming fortunes were very mixed, and there were hard times like when his father couldn’t sell the wool from the shearing. Demand for produce varied hugely. His mother had her own small poultry business, which helped to keep them going, but nevertheless they were never too far from the bread line. But as Arthur said: ‘There was this feeling of self-sufficiency. We could feed ourselves on what we grew’. A traditional mixed farm, like the Oakes’s, could provide grain for flour, meat, butter, milk, eggs and vegetables. And although the overall picture Arthur painted wasn’t rose-tinted, he was at pains to point out that within farming itself, there was always the chance for renewal. The cycles of life and the land breed optimism, because the wheel always turns again:
‘Farming always seemed to be the remedy – however bad it was, there was always hope in farming. Spring comes along, and you plant a new crop, and you’ve got lambs, and you think things are bound to be better this year, because it’s going to be a bountiful year. And it very often was.’
A strange thing happened when Arthur died. We knew that he’d got cancer – he was just over 80 by then, but it didn’t seem too serious or without hope for recovery. One Sunday afternoon, Chris and I drove to the Gower peninsula from Bristol. As we traversed some heathland near to the coast, I had the Ordnance Survey map open and noticed an interesting ancient site indicated on our right, called ‘Arthur’s Stone’. It turned out to be a single standing stone, and as we slowed down to take a look, I noticed a curlew standing close to the road, its proud, curved beak in profile. This gave me an eerie feeling. It was also an unusual bird to see, at least in our experience at that time. Then, after we got home, the phone rang, and it was Arthur’s daughter Deb, calling to give us news of his death. I have ever since felt that Arthur’s spirit was set free to bid us and others farewell. Look at his photo above, and you’ll see why the curlew’s beak seems so appropriate!
You may also be interested in other life stories of people that I’ve encountered:
This time of the year is one of transition, but moving so slowly that it can feel as though we are caught in a spell of darkness – both in the sense of a ‘phase’ and of ‘magic spell’. Is this really the turning point of the year? It seems as if we are suspended, despite the thrust of New Year celebrations. As I’ve written previously, older cultures honoured this ‘time out’, the Twelve Days of Christmas, when work should cease, the gods themselves take a rest and the veil between the worlds is thin. In the old Irish tradition, ‘the gates of heaven are open.’
But the standstill of the year at mid-winter also poses practical issues. Our three new young chickens are enduring what are basically 15 hour nights, from the time they instinctively return to their perches at dusk soon after 4pm, to the first lightening of the sky and cry of the gulls from the river at about 7.15 – exactly the time that I’m writing this! So I’ll break off to go and open up, and make sure they have plenty of feed to peck at to restore their strength.
Just before I go, I’ll post a link below to a traditional song which has a bittersweet quality, and captures the mood of longing, wistfulness and hope which I feel is the essence of this time:
For the night is long And the day is grey The old year is fading The new comes our way.
We know by the moon That we are not too soon And we know by the sky That we are not too high We know by the stars That we are not too far And we know by the ground That we are within sound.
The blog that I’ve prepared below talks about another kind of New Year renewal, one that occurred for me around twenty years ago, but which has stayed with me as an occasion to cherish.
Renewal at New Year
It was the eve of the Millennium. Everyone else was celebrating, but I was languishing at home, ignoring the festivities as best I could. My city exploded with fireworks, fizz and general rejoicing, while I huddled deep inside my spacious house. My husband and I had recently split up and my two grown-up children now had their own lives. I felt very alone – I usually had two Maine Coon cats for company, but tonight they hid themselves in the deepest part of the basement, terrified by the noise. While the rest of the world was celebrating, I switched off my phone, detached myself from the world, and retreated to a very solitary place in my soul. Although harrowing, I realised too that it was a turning point, and from here on I needed to find a way to live positively in my home.
The house would be mine for another two years, until it had to be sold. I had agreed to this, so that we could divide up the assets, so for this period I needed it to be more than an empty shell. Right now, it felt like a place of pain and loss, but our family had spent thirteen happy years there. It had been full of friends, too, and a sanctuary for kindred spirits, with whom we’d talked on deep matters way into the night. And it was my creative hub – I’d written some of my best books there. But now, after our break-up, I felt that the atmosphere was tainted. Could I recover the joy and richness that this home had given us? Enough, at least, to begin my new life in the shell of the old?
A few days later, once the frenzy of the Millennium had died down, I came up with a plan. I knew both from my work with women’s groups and from my training in ritual, that it’s possible to make significant changes in the atmosphere of a space or a building. You can clear the space of recent clouds or conflicts. And with conscious input, you can make a sad place sing, or turn a decaying mood into a beam of hope. The home wouldn’t be again as it was – I had to accept that – but although we can’t ever turn the clock back, we can make it tick cheerfully again.
My network of women friends has always been hugely important to me, and I wanted to engage them in this task. Together, I believed we could dispel any lingering traces of unpleasantness and fill the house with laughter again. This was to be a celebration, an evocation, and a renewal. I invited about a dozen women to spend the evening with me, and indeed the whole night too if they wished. The purpose was serious, but hey, we were going to have fun too!
Women have their own way of using their collective bond to lift spirits and achieve a positive effect. As I’ve written about archetype of the Lady of Light, in my book The Circle of Nine:
“Just being with other women and doing practical, even frivolous, things can be enormously helpful. …Going round the stores, trying on clothes and rummaging through cosmetics in some ways recalls the “gatherer” women in tribal societies. These innocent and apparently light-hearted activities can be of genuine help in releasing a woman from her struggles with individual problems, and bringing renewal through the light that her sisters generate.”
For the first part of the evening, we chatted, laughed, ate, and drank sparkling wine. Not everyone was well acquainted, but I’d chosen women who all shared a devotion to something more profound, and who could honour the spiritual in our lives. When I felt the energy was sufficiently high, and the mood was warm, I asked if the group would purify and bless the house for me. They knew my situation, and were willing to help. I asked them to organise it for me; it was very important that I should step back and relinquish control, in order to truly benefit from the occasion. They must bring light and energy into the house in their own way.
The main purpose, I explained, was to re-awaken all the happiness and good which had been in this home. This in itself would probably be enough to disperse any clouds of negativity. (If the house had had a very unhappy or troubled past, it might have needed a different and deeper kind of ritual. But it had been a happy home for us, and indeed for the family who was there when we bought it.) I would give thanks for this, and then, with the spirit of the house hopefully free and cleansed, I could dwell there with relative peace of mind. After the sale, I could step forward freely into a new life, and whoever lived there next could enjoy a friendly atmosphere.
It was a large house, on several floors, and I suggested that they go through the house however they pleased, as long as they visited each part of it, including the cellars and the attic! Candles and incense were available, bells and bowls, or whatever they wanted, could be used. I reminded them of the useful technique, of striking two stones against each other so as to banish any lingering shadows. They set off like a gaggle of giggling pilgrims. I could have trailed in their wake, but it was a huge relief to leave the process to them.
They rose to the challenge wonderfully. I never discovered every detail, but my abiding memory is of a group of women carrying candles emerging from an upstairs room in a glorious wave of light, laughter, and love. Though they laughed, they were solemn; though they were not formal they brought words of meaning, and true compassion into the house.
I mark that evening as the turnaround point. It was the time when I began to love my home again without being so attached to it, and to feel that I might in due course step away from it without regret. Perhaps this was the night when I learned the immense significance of female friendship.
That was just over twenty years ago, and life has indeed moved on. I sold the Bristol house, moved to Bath, met my second husband Robert on a cruise and started a new life together. Since then, we’ve lived in Gloucestershire and now reside near Exeter in Devon. The family has re-configured, and I now have two lovely granddaughters and an amicable relationship with my ex. Sometimes when you can’t see beyond the clouds of the present moment, it’s worth just entrusting yourself to a future which you can’t envisage, but will come in its own way and in its own time. I regard those seven years which I subsequently spent living alone as very useful, and a good foundation for beginning again in a new partnership.
Hello – this is a pop-up post, rather than my regular blog post which appears every two weeks. If you’d like to find some Christmas and New Year reading, can I suggest browsing three of my earlier posts? They are all in the festive spirit!
Pangur Ban and the Old Irish Cats
How about renewing acquaintance with my most popular post ever? Some 2,500 readers have enjoyed this over the last twelve months or so. It’s Pangur Ban and the Old Irish Cats, perfect for a sense of mystery on these dark nights.
‘As those of us in the Northern Hemisphere progress through the darkest days of the year, we may perhaps find ourselves more affected by the power of poetry. Words resonate when we’re not so distracted by bright light and busy lives outside… An ancient Irish poem is set in just this context, that of a monk writing and studying in the depths of night…This monk’s notebook shows that he was working on a variety of classical and theological texts, but the poem itself is about his relationship with his cat, Pangur Ban.’
I and Pangur Ban my cat, ‘Tis a like task we are at: Hunting mice is his delight, Hunting words I sit all night….
When a mouse darts from its den, O how glad is Pangur then! O what gladness do I prove When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our task we ply, Pangur Ban, my cat, and I; In our arts we find our bliss, I have mine and he has his.
You can also read about the role of cats in Old Ireland, and how they were protected and prized in law.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
Or you could revel in the story of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas. Discover its old customs, and learn how to make Twelfth Night Cake! (I made it last year, and it was very popular with my neighbours.) There’s also a guide to confusing calendars and why the mornings go on getting darker after the winter solstice.
The Fool and his Feast
Allied to the Twelve Days, the Fool makes his rumbustious appearance at Christmas and New Year. Have we lost this tradition of folly? I don’t think so! As well as discovering its history, you might get ideas for modern mischief-making, for turning the world topsy turvy with innocent mirth. I also make an excursion into the world of the Fool in the Tarot. Take a cartwheel into ‘The Fool and his Feast‘!
And in the meantime, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! With some festive music to play us out…