Angels in the Roof

An angel in the roof of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich (photo by Michael Rimmer)

Next time you’re in a medieval church, look up. Do you see angels? Are they gazing down upon you from the heavenly firmament, forever flying forward from the roof beams? If so, then the chances are that you’re gazing at an ‘angel roof’. Or else perhaps you are a close ally of the poet William Blake, who saw angels in many places on many occasions. Scorn not – he was a man of vision. See William Blake and the Moravians. Either way, ‘angel roofs’ are a fascinating but little investigated feature of British medieval architecture.

Angels at the Lying-in-State

When Queen Elizabeth II died in September this year, her body lay in state at Westminster Hall from Wednesday 14th to Monday 19th September. Thousands filed past her coffin, and the whole event was live-streamed on TV. Most of us have probably never viewed the interior of Westminster Hall before, and still fewer may realise that its construction back in the 14th century marked a special moment in English architecture: the creation of an ‘angel roof’. Take a look at the photo below, and you’ll see that there is a carved angel on the end of each roof beams.

Why Angels?

Why was the positioning of carved angels in a roof be so significant? You might after all expect to find them in churches and state buildings, given the importance of angels in Christian theology. But this kind of representation of angels was not a part of our architecture until the time of King Richard II. For his coronation procession in 1377, he decided that angels should be on hand to confirm his new status, which included a mechanical moving angel who bowed down and offered him a golden crown. Many angels appeared subsequently in other royal pageants and state occasions of his reign, either human players dressed as angels or further inventive mechanical versions. And then the carved ones were brought into play, when the angel roof of Westminster Hall was built in about 1395, leaving a lasting testimony to Richard’s urge for angelic recognition. Angels in general stayed in fashion too, and their evocation spread to the provinces too; in parish churches, it became common for ‘angel’ characters to appear in the Mystery Plays and other ecclesiastical ceremonies. And as beams decorated with angels began to be built in some of these regional churches, certain styles of angel became common – both the carved angels and individuals acting as angels tended to wear the same kind of ‘feather suits’!

However, despite Richard II’s endorsement of angels, an angel roof in a parish church was something of a luxury, not do-able everywhere in the country. The chances of seeing an angel roof in East Anglia are relatively high – elsewhere in the UK, they are low to zero.

But there is one here in Exeter, where I live, and rather surprisingly, it’s not in a church. Exeter city was once filled with medieval buildings, many of them blown to smithereens by wartime bombing raids, and many more demolished as a consequence of ill-judged re-development plans by the Council. The building does however stand in close proximity to the Cathedral, in the Cathedral Close, and inside Number Eight is the remarkable feature of an angel roof.  It is a hammerbeam roof, dated by dendrochronology to between 1417-1422,  with carved wooden angels stretching out from the beams. It is also, seemingly a copy in miniature of the roof at Westminster Hall; this was built by Hugh Herland, master carpenter to Richard II , and constructed as mentioned between 1393-1398.

No 8-9 The Close is the central building; the little passageway on the side leads to the entrance of the medieval hall with its angel

The Mystery of Number Eight

But how did this come about? It’s tucked away down a side alley, largely unknown to visitors and residents alike, unless they visit the ‘Helen of Troy’ boutique which presently occupies it. The building is also known as the former Law Library of the university, but this only dates from recent centuries, and tells us nothing about its origins. The mystery and provenance of this extraordinary roof has long been argued over by historians, but now some light has been shed on this by Cathedral archaeologist and historian, John Allan. I’ll reveal his conclusion a little later on!

The angel roof at no. 8 The Close, Exeter

The Angel Roofs of Britain

So what is an ‘angel roof’ when it’s at home (or in heaven)? To pursue this further, I consulted an excellent study The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages by Michael Rimmer. Many of the details given below are taken from this book, as I fully acknowledge.

Angel roofs date from the medieval period, a time when churches were shaped, decorated, carved and painted to represent the spiritual world. As you stood in a church service (no pews then!) you would be immersed in the Christian cosmos, and seeing representations of its stories through the statues, vivid wall paintings and ehtereal stained glass windows. Mystery Plays were also performed in the churches at appropriate times of year, bringing alive the Bible narratives, and acts of worship were felt to be within the presence of Christ and the Virgin Mary, plus at least some of the saints and – in this case – angels. There was drama, passion and beauty all around. Looking up to the roof and seeing angels there would be like getting a glimpse of heaven itself.

Angel roofs, therefore, were in keeping with the general religious experience. Once, there were probably several hundred ‘angel roofs’ in England and Wales, some on hammerbeam (short beam) roof supports, some as non-supportive elements of the roof. They were built in the years following on from that first one in Westminster Hall, until the Reformation of the mid-sixteenth century put a stop to such ‘idolatry’. One of the final angel roofs was built in about 1540,at Llanidloes church in Wales, according to Rimmer, and I would also include Cleeve Abbey in North Somerset, which dates from the same period.

The roof of the refectory, Cleeve Abbey, N. Somerset – left with a little section unfinished due to the onset of the Reformation, which denounced such idolatry

Locations of angel roofs

Around 170 angel roofs survive in Britain today, and the vast majority of them are in East Anglia. (A map from Rimmer’s book can be accessed at There is also a smaller pocket of them in the West Country, with just two in Devon, of which 8 The Close is one. (I’ve not yet been able to identify the second angel roof in Devon. Rimmer’s map seems to point to the Great Torrington area, where archaeologist John Allan singles out Orleigh Court and Weare Giffard Hall as the two most notable medieval roofs there, but, as he says, these seem to be more adorned with beasts than with angels!)

Why do these two areas of East Anglia and the West Country host the most? The answer, as with many things, lies with the resources available: primarily money, timber and skills. Building angel roofs required great expertise, plus a lot of good timber and generous amounts of money to pay for it all. There were renowned master carpenters in both these areas, the far East and far West of England, and both areas too became wealthy from the medieval wool trade. Additionally, the required timber for the roofs was best transported by water, if it wasn’t to be found in the immediate vicinity, so again these two coastal areas had the right conditions. It’s probably no coincidence that these regions also boast the best carved church bench ends in the country, a testimony therefore to the presence of master carvers, and the money to pay them.

An angel from no. 8 The Close, Exeter

What about the Reformation?

In the English Reformation of the 16th century, the new wave of Protestantism endeavoured to get rid of decoration which might be considered distracting and even idolatrous. Away with worshipping the Virgin Mary and the Saints, and all the statues and images which took attention away from purer forms of prayer! (Church music might have gone too, were it not that Elizabeth I was very fond of choral music, apparently.) But whereas it was easy enough to smash stained glass windows and break statues, it was actually very hard to take away angelic roof supports. Moreover, they were high up and thus almost inaccessible. So given that the Reformers generally wanted to keep the outward shell of a church, it would have been foolish to start knocking the roof about. On a recent trip to North Somerset, I was delighted to discover the angel roof in the refectory of Cleeve Abbey, (well worth a visit) which, as I mentioned earlier, was begun later than most, in the mid-1500s. This has been left intact, but there is a little stretch left unfinished, probably because the Reformation had just started to take hold, and the monasteries were dissolved on the orders of Henry VIII. But we need to remember that not everything happened fast in those days; in his book, Rimmer considers that the Llanidloes angel roof of 1540 may have been completed after the Reformation began simply because Wales was a long way behind in catching up with the news!

The carvers

The actual creation of the angels, as opposed to the erection of roof timbers, was carried out by master carvers rather than carpenters. These specialists were highly skilled, highly paid, and tended to be peripatetic, and sometimes even brought in from abroad. Records show that the going rate was about 15 shillings an angel, equivalent to 30 days pay for a master carver of the period. There was scope for creativity, and angels often hold other objects and emblems, such as musical instruments, symbols of Christ’s passion,or the coats of arms of benefactors. Some angel figures may even be carved as ecclesiastical role-players – examples include a chalice bearer, a celebrant or a choir master in one church.

Keeping it pure and simple

But a surprising fact, in the face of such imaginative representations, is that nearly all of the roof angels were left unpainted. This is in contrast to the medieval habit of painting the interior of churches and their contents in bright colours. It may have been just too difficult to paint them, or to keep up their maintenance. Occasionally some angels, for instance those nearest the Chancel, might be painted, or coats of arms might be picked out in colour. But the natural look was the general rule.

A further angel from no. 8 The Close, Exeter, above. Arguably, the one below from Cleeve Abbey is finer, but the overall effect of the Exeter angel roof is imposing.

Not a church!

But despite the predominance of angel roofs in churches, very few are found in other contexts, and one of these is the Exeter angel roof . Indeed, only a handful exist outside parish churches – Coventry Guildhall, as well as Westminster Halll, for instance. What was Number Eight, Cathedral Close, therefore? It is, after all within the Cathedral precincts. John Allan, Consultant Archaeologist to the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral, has come to a conclusion after many years of research, and wrote to me as follows: …. The purpose of the fine late medieval building containing the Law Library has been much discussed; it has been claimed as the chancellor’s house or as a building accommodating a notarial bureau. It was in fact simply a canonry. In other words, the house or complex of buildings inhabited by a canon, a cleric of the Cathedral.

On a tour around the Cathedral Close, John also told us something about the life of these medieval canons, which I’m paraphrasing here. Once again, quite a lot of it was to do with money! ‘In Exeter, canons had to be resident to benefit from the ‘Common Fund’(their source of a living), whereas in other areas canons without this obligation often stayed in their country residences. Although living humbly was in the basic ‘rule’ for canons, they were required to give generous hospitality, and so were expected to provide meals to all and sundry. Originally canons were required to live in humble abodes, but the argument they could muster to build something grander was, therefore, that while in residence they needed a big hall to do their duty of hospitality! Guests would regularly arrive at the door, and include choirboys, Vicars Choral, and so on.‘ So a canonry was also a kind of drop-in diner, and perhaps here the Canon concerned had a nice inheritance that he could spend on something lavish which would be admired, especially at times of feasts and gatherings. Bishops too were often judged favourably according to how much money they could spend on appropriate buildings, hospitality and city improvements.

Remains of another medieval canonry in Exeter, close to the Cathedral. The large fireplace can be seen, and there would have been another large-scale dining room to accommodate guests. (Site of St Catherine’s Almhouses)
Another dizzying view of Exeter’s angel roof

We have a building, and an angel roof, to treasure, in no. 8 Cathedral Close, Exeter. And I will be craning my neck now every time I visit a medieval church – or indeed a medieval hall! – to see if there is another roof full of angels to marvel at.

The angel roof at Westminster Hall, designed by Hugh Herland – the roof that started the trend! And has recently come into prominence, with the lying-in-state of Queen Elizabeth II.


The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages Michael Rimmer (The Churches Conservation Trust 2015)

Red Coat Guided Tours – I was introduced to No. 8 The Close as part of my training as a Red Coat Guide for Exeter, which whetted my curiosity to investigate further. The wide range of tours are offered free throughout the year, with themes such as ‘Medieval’, ‘Introducing Exeter’, and ‘Cathedral to Quay’. Please click on the link to see these.


Turbulent Times in Cambridge

The second instalment of ‘Crazy Times in Cambridge’

At Cambridge, 1968 – Botanical Gardens

There was plenty of opportunity for some fun at Cambridge, for students in the late 1960s. Our hours were little troubled by lectures (unless we were scientists), and provided that we read the set books, produced our essays on time, and turned up for supervisions, we could do more or less as we liked. This was not necessarily a good thing. Even then, despite enjoying the freedom, I felt the lack of interactive sessions such as seminars, which played no part in the rather ‘hands-off’ teaching system. I missed the stimulation of classes and exchanges of views that we’d had, ironically, in the sixth form at school. I only understood the process at Cambridge some years later, when someone said: ‘It’s set up for graduates and their research – undergraduates are largely irrelevant.’ I loved my time at Cambridge for all the opportunities it offered, but these were largely extra-curricular. Ironically, it was only after leaving university, that I taught myself how to research properly, a skill which I’ve relied on ever since. No thanks, really, to the tutors.

So what did we do instead? Well, my previous post on Cherry’s Cache involved a dancing gig, as you may read in Crazy Times in Cambridge. There was also radical theatre, the subject of my next post, clubs of all kinds, parties, long discussions into the night, great acting opportunities and, in the sixties, student protests.

Our brand new college, New Hall, now Murray Edwards College, and then known also as the Great White Breast. The clue to the name is in the dome, which you can just catch a glimpse of here.

I was never a keen protester. However, our visit to the USA in the summer of 1968 had sharpened up my awareness of world affairs, and first-hand experience there had led me to be wary of police who attacked and arrested people for no good reason. And I knew we should take a stand against apartheid and war; it would be shameful not to. The chief focus of the day was the Vietnam War. In Cambridge we students also protested against the Greek Colonels, against Barclay’s Bank investment policy, against Government minister Denis Healey, and closer to home, against the University itself. This was largely due to its antiquated restrictions. Unbelievably, we undergraduates could be sent down for having a member of the opposite sex in our rooms overnight, for instance, and certainly for anything involving drugs. To be fair, it has to be remembered that the universities were in ‘loco parentis’ at this time. The age of majority was still 21, rather than 18, until 1970; most students therefore were technically ‘children’. Even though some rules were very outdated, the university was obliged to act ‘in the place of parents’. College ‘proctors’ patrolled the streets, especially at night, looking out for miscreants and misdemeanours. More of that later.

The Cambridge Senate House, occupied briefly by protesting students, who set up camp there for a few days. Nothing much else happened, as I recall.

In protest against the university – just what aspect, I can’t remember – there was a student Sit-In at the Senate House, normally closed to all but those with official business. I wandered in to take a look, just to check on who was there. I stayed all of 20 minutes, then strolled out again. Next day, I was summoned to meet the authorities, who asked what my part in the protest was. Fair enough – the tone was friendly, and willing to listen, but it meant that there had been some element of spying and identifying those present. I explained that I was merely ‘visiting’, and hadn’t been a protestor as such, and the matter was dropped.

The most dramatic protest staged by a single student, a college friend of mine, was to stand up at the start of her finals in English Literature, and declare: ‘Fuck exams!’. She then tore up her exam papers and strode from the room. I still feel rather sorry that she chose that path, after all that time studying. Was it worth it? And after all, our own college, New Hall, was liberal in its views, as a pioneering post-war college for women. It is still exclusively for women today, known now as Murray Edwards College, and has a very fine collection of women’s art

Inside the Dome, or Great White Breast, with some of the art collection on display.

So did I play any part in these protests? Yes – my boyfriend Chris and I joined in with the protest against Denis Healey in March 1968, who was visiting Cambridge at the time, and whose foreign policy displeased us. (I’m afraid I can’t remember how!) According to reports, nearly 1000 students turned out. We charged up Trumpington Street with the mob. ‘As he attempted to leave, they surrounded his car and lay down in front of it. As students threw themselves in front of Healey’s car, the police tossed them into the gutter, injuring many.’ (British Student Activism in the Long Sixties – Caroline Hoefferle) Chris didn’t get as far as any car surrounding posse, as he tripped up while running towards it, and had his hand stamped on by a passing policeman. (Accidentally, to be fair.) The marks on his knuckles didn’t go for years. I stuck to the margins, somewhat lukewarm in my efforts, and not entirely sure what Healey had done.

Denis Healey, Defence Minister in Harold Wilson’s government, whose policy displeased us

Then there was the major Vietnam rally in London, the now famous Grosvenor Square Protest in Oct 1968. This was where American Embassy was situated at the time, and the general intention was for a peaceful mass protest against the war in Vietnam. A call went out to all students in the UK, to join in. We climbed on a hired coach leaving from Cambridge early on the Sunday morning, sleepy-headed after a late night (of course), and took our seats yawning to be bussed to the capital. On the way down, somewhere near Cheshunt (no M11 then) a squad of uniformed police pulled the coach over into a car park, where a astonishing array of some further 40 police officers stood waiting for us. We were ordered to disembark, our bags were searched, and little polythene bags full of liquid red paint (which had been handed out on the coach) were confiscated. One girl had a knife with her, which they tried to confiscate too: ‘It’s for my breakfast!’ she said indignantly, producing her sliced bread, butter and marmalade as evidence. She was allowed to keep her harmless piece of cutlery. I don’t think they found anything else, and we were sent on our way again.

Thousands of students arrived in groups from all over the country. My rather blurry memories of the protest include my sense of anxiety when we marched down Oxford Street,and some of the hardliners (not in our own group) began to smash shop windows. And I felt downright fear when mounted police charged the protestors, in Red Lion Square as I recall. Another friend was in tears as she witnessed it, and I backed off as far as I could. This wasn’t what we’d expected. Surprisingly, looking at posts from the news coverage now, the reports are remarkably fair in distinguishing the thousands of peaceful protestors (the intention of the march) from those who turned violent.

My own engagement with protesting ended – it was not for me – but in my final year of university, the infamous Cambridge Garden House Hotel ‘riots’ occurred in Feb 1970. Although I wasn’t there, the severity of the official response shocked me with a profound and lasting effect . The days of more innocent protests, when students were largely indulged, were surely over.

According to the records, The Garden House riot was a civil disturbance at the Garden House Hotel in Cambridge on Friday 13 February 1970….The Greek Tourist Board had organised a “Greek Week” in Cambridge in 1970, with support from the Greek government, which was at that time a highly oppressive regime, a type of junta. Protesters against these Greek ‘Colonels’ over several days culminated with a crowd of several hundred demonstrators picketing a dinner for 120 invited guests at the Garden House Hotel. ‘The protesters picketed the venue – in a narrow cul-de-sac off Mill Lane, beside the River Cam – to discourage diners from entering. The noisy crowd attempted to disrupt speeches inside, with a loudspeaker…playing music by dissident Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis. Protesters invaded the hotel’s garden…banging on the windows of the venue and climbing onto the hotel roof. An attempt to break up the crowd using a fire hose…failed, and violence broke out: the hotel was invaded and damaged…one policeman was seriously injured, others received minor injuries…Around 80 policemen accompanied by police dogs restored order by about 11 pm.’

Six students were arrested on 13 February, and the University proctors provided the police with the names of approximately 60 further students who they had spotted in the crowd. Fifteen students were finally tried at the Hertford Assizes in June and July 1970, on a variety of charges which included ‘riotous assembly, unlawful assembly, assaulting a police constable, and possessing offensive weapons….After a trial of seven days, the jury took nearly four hours to reach its decision. Seven of the defendants were acquitted, but eight students were convicted, including the six arrested in February and two others seen pushing in the crowd. All were aged between 19 and 25. Judge Melford Stevenson controversially gave harsh sentences to those involved…The sentences were criticised as heavy-handed….The incident led to a reform of the powers of the Cambridge University proctors.

The Garden House Riot, Cambridge 1970 – a protest against the oppressive Greek regime

One of those arrested was Peter Household, an old friend of mine; we had been at kindergarten together, where our mothers were both teachers. He was actually sent to prison for his part in the the protests. He was never, as far as I know, a violent person; our families had stayed in touch over the years, and the word back from his parents was that Peter had been pushed forward, colliding with a policeman. Even if he did deliberately push, it was hardly a violent attack. In hindsight, these sentences are considered to have been incredibly harsh and unwarranted.

Peter Household ‘playing with a tie’ as he put it, on his way to trial for his alleged part in The Garden House Riot

At Cambridge, we did indeed get an education, in more ways than one. The usual way of considering an Oxbridge education is that it may set one up for a good job (academic, Civil Service, scientific, what have you) and that it may also create a circle of contacts which will last a lifetime. It was also a place to launch a successful acting or directing career in theatre and television. But for some of us, it was the start of something different:

In his blog, Peter Household comments: My role in the protest was extremely minor, and my presence there almost accidental; but its effect on the rest of my life was total. Everything that happened from then on stems from the night of Friday 13th February 1970. And indeed, he recalls that being imprisoned with two other committed left-wing protestors began his real political education, an ironic consequence of the prison sentence, and something that has shaped his life path since.

My own path was shaped by something rather different at Cambridge– my contact with Buddhist meditation and with groups studying more esoteric traditions. But I was nevertheless a witness to some of the more radical and political initiatives, such as the protests described here.

Hilary Mantel – Words of Wisdom

‘Ideas enter your life as strangers. They might look shabby at first, but they may be angels in disguise.’

Around forty of us sat poised, pens and notepads at the ready. We were all eager to catch the drops of wisdom which were about to fall from the lips of one of the most accomplished writers of our time. Hilary Mantel’s masterclass was a one-off, sold-out experience at the Budleigh Literature Festival in September 2018; I was one of those lucky enough to acquire a ticket.

Now, with the sad and sudden news of her death, I would like to share some of the notes that I made from her class. Hilary lived in Budleigh with her husband, in a penthouse flat with a glorious sea view that she said helped her to write. She was President of the Literary Festival, and usually gave a talk there each year. Once, Robert and I sat next to her at another talk and exchanged a few words, but I felt too shy to get to know her further – something I regret now. The last time I set eyes on her was during our week of renting a beach hut in Budleigh in July this summer, which was more or less in front of her flat – she swept out onto the balcony in her floating garments for a quick breath of fresh air – almost a dramatic appearance in itself!

Hilary leading our masterclass in 2018

She came from very humble origins, and suffered a great deal with ongoing medical problems, largely caused by poor care and endometriosis. To those who found her appearance or indeed her voice strange, her physical condition and medication were the main cause of this. It took a long time for her talent – genius – to be recognised, through her now famous ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy, and the winning of the Booker Prize twice over. If you’re interested in reading more about her life story, ‘Giving up the Ghost’ is a powerful memoir – one which I’ve often recommended in my Life Story writing classes.

The Masterclass
Hilary gave out to us generously throughout the day of the masterclass, starting with a look at the basic process of writing. Whatever our level of experience, she told us, it’s something that we never finish learning. ‘We’re all beginners. Every day when I sit down to work, I’m a beginner too,’ she told us. And the process is always unpredictable. ‘Sometimes words come out in an undisciplined torrent, sometimes it’s like pouring treacle’.

I took copious notes that day, and this is a selective version, organised into a short form for general interest. It’s aimed at being a faithful view of how she talked, and what she said, while drawing from her experience, and responding to our eager questions. Everything quoted in direct speech accords as exactly with her own words as possible. I write this as if she was still living – I don’t feel ready to relegate it to the past yet.

Hilary’s Wisdom – the process of writing
It takes a lifetime to write each book. ‘Everything you know and what you are is in that book, either on the lines or between them.’ And it won’t always work: ‘Experience does teach you to fail – and fail again – and to fail better. Nothing is wasted – not time, not paper, nor the stories that seem to go nowhere – everything remains in potential.’ It may be frustrating to fail, but ‘this frustration makes writing a fascinating trade.’ Accepting that has been part of her own journey: ‘I wish I’d stopped assuming that every good idea I had must turn into a novel.’

One tip, if you have a project not working, is to ask yourself if you’re working in the right medium. If in prose, try to think instead of how it might work visually, or as dialogue. ‘Sneak up on it with a camera.’ And there could be a staged option too; when she works with complex factual material, she often asks herself how it might be presented as a theatre or radio play. ‘This usually helps you to crunch down on what’s needed. Whatever medium you’re working in, make use of other ones to help you. Ask yourself, “Am I working in the right form?”’

The sweep of Budleigh beach – Hilary Mantel and her husband lived in a top-floor flat in one of the white houses on the left

Drawing from memory
And sometimes even the wayward stories will come good. One that she couldn’t finish for years was finally solved when she had to wait on a platform for a train for a very long time. ‘Such periods of time are frustrating to civilians, but to writers a gift.’ As she allowed her mind to go into idling mode, and to play with memory, she recalled a girl from her childhood who gave her just the right idea for her character.

She often asks herself about puzzles from the past – ‘Why was this person like that?’ Or why did she herself respond in a certain way to a person or situation? ‘When you look back you can see yourself as a character in a story. If you exercise your memory you will never, ever be short of material.’ ‘Strive to think well of yourself and your experience because everyone has a pot of gold in their memories.’

Memories don’t always make sense – you may ask yourself what was that about? But, she affirmed, the sense is extracted as you write. ‘Be willing to leave things in suspension as you write; learn to live with them incomplete. You don’t have to resolve everything for the reader either. Your task is to arouse the reader’s need to know, not to satisfy it. If your story works, it will open up in the reader’s mind a great many questions – in fact that’s a huge favour you’re doing for someone.’ In other words, questions are just as important as answers.

The Festival Programme one year after the Masterclass, with Hilary as top billing; she was also the President of the festival

A collage of ideas
Hilary told us how she tends to put her books together like a collage, with snatches of conversation, and images for instance. She has a display board, which used to be a giant pinboard, studded with index cards. But now it’s a whiteboard, where she plays unashamedly with ‘nursery school’ materials such as coloured pens. She uses pictures, writes salient points, and draws characters as if they were on stage. ‘Feel free to enjoy yourself!’ she told us.

‘Ideas come from the paths you didn’t take – the unused parts of yourself. If you are a woman, inside you is the man you could have been and vice versa.’ Other roles may also be within you, so ‘let those people out for exercise!’

Don’t judge ideas too quickly. ‘Ideas enter your life as strangers. They might look shabby at first, but they might be angels in disguise.’

Writing freely and dreaming, is always worthwhile. And reading is never a waste of time. To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader.

The book tent at the Budleigh Literature Festival

The story at work
As a basic premise:
Plot – is ‘what happens’
Characters – are actors, and must be interesting
Structure – is how to unfold the story, deciding what goes where

Your characters need the capacity to act, grow and change – and that ‘change’ is ‘the plot in action’. You need their desire to make the story go forward; your characters must want something that they struggle towards, and then the change occurs as they struggle. ‘Characters come to life through showing them in action.’

‘Also ask of your character: “How do their mind and emotions work? What filters do they protect themselves with?” And you must write a book from your whole body, not from your head.’ She found it difficult, she admitted, to get out of her head and into the body: ‘Try to look through people’s eyes, listen with their ears, feel their sense of touch. Get an all-round sensory experience.’ This way, your character will really ‘be there’ in every paragraph.

We all have an instinctive appreciation of a good story, and it’s essential to have that ‘good story’ in our writing. ‘Without that – nothing!’ Screen writers are adept at this – so if you’re stuck, use a screen-writing book to teach you how to put in hooks, mark turning points, and time the different stages of a story. Though, in her experience, you don’t have to follow this rigidly. It doesn’t all have to be laid out beforehand: ‘The best ideas come when you’re actually writing’. Even the ending of your story will often emerge while you’re writing it.

Budleigh Beach – the waves and countless pebbles an inspiration for writing. The pebbles are actually famous, being around 250 million years old, washed across from a river in what is now France. Each one is markedly individual in colour and size, yet all are washed to a smooth finish. Each one has a story to tell…

The motivation is ‘to make the best book I can’. You learn to take pleasure in shortening your writing. Cutting leaves you feeling better. And over the years, with the changes from typewriters to word-processing, editing is not so laborious as it was. But simple cutting and moving text is not editing. To edit – step back, ‘interrogate every element’. It might turn into a crisis, if you realise that you need to do a big re-write. But it creates a more powerful book.

Focus closely on dialogue; every unit (the paragraph, in her case) should bring about change in the story. Tighten it up after first draft. She herself aims to reduce dialogue by about a third, and finds this very effective.

As for structure, you’ll know if it isn’t working because you start to bore yourself! Improvements are often to do with shifting the order of events or making changes of pace. Again, if you really need nuts and bolts advice, the screen-writing books are helpful. With your reader, act like a shepherd gently herding your sheep – they don’t know which way you’re sending them, but you can get them to move along in that way.

Read your work aloud – not just dialogue, but everything. Rhythm really matters, and should flow. Reading aloud will detect ‘false notes, weaknesses, redundancies’.

First chapters often get changed later on: ‘You can be proud of it! No one is looking over your shoulder. You have freedom. Write the book you would like to read.’

As for getting advice from others: ‘A book is not a democracy.’ You do not have to account to the world for what you’re doing. If you’re going to take advice though, take it from the best.’

If you have the option, set your work aside for a while – put it in the drawer: ‘The secret is, in the dark it changes!’

Hilary’s own ‘go-to’ book for editing is The Artful Edit by Susan Bell.

Once you have an editor, with a publisher, the situation changes. Editors are good at finding the problems in your work but not usually so good at providing the right solutions. So if they point out the problems, provide your own solutions. Remember that the editor is trying to ease the path to the reader, so don’t be too defensive in response to their comments. And later, at copy-editing,, line-editing stage, the editor is your best friend, helping to bring consistency to the book.

In general, though, be protective of your work. You need to intuit who it might be worth showng it to. Ask yourself what it is that you want to get back from them. Encouragement, yes – we all need it. But asking for technical advice is different.

And finally
‘The time to write is now. Write it the best you can. Don’t worry about the market – write what you want to write. In time, if you keep faith, you’ll create the market for your product. Identify the story, get it on the page. That’s it.’

Tweet from Lucy Worsley: ‘In 2009, a lady came to a conference we had at Hampton Court, about the life of Henry VIII. She sat quietly at the back making notes. She was reputed to be a novelist. I did not know then that a goddess was walking among us.’

Please note: Although I have no copyright over Hilary Mantel’s words as such, this post as an edited version of her class is copyright to Cherry’s Cache website. If you wish to share it, quote it, or use it in any way, please get in touch via the contact form or via my author’s website at I will most likely be happy to assist!

On the occasion of the masterclass, I presented Hilary with a copy of my book ‘The Circle of Nine‘, which she appeared pleased to receive!

Crazy Times in Cambridge

Part One: The Animation Festival

This is the first of three blogs, looking back at the time I spent as a student in Cambridge from 1967-70. Yes, I know, it’s a long time ago, and perhaps I wouldn’t admit to it were it not for the fact that it was a fascinating period, as we entered the era of street theatre, protests, hippie gear, and other stuff (I shan’t talk about the illegal bits!) And also, having fun, sometimes in very peculiar ways. This story is about a stage appearance of an unusual kind.

In 1968, I received an unexpected request. Could I take part – at short notice – in the Animation Film Festival? It was apparently a festival in its second year, as a film article tells us: – ‘It was non-competitive, and the current Cardiff Festival is its descendent.’

The same year in Cambridge, 1968, in the Botanical Gardens. I was proud of my white fur muff, which was rather surprisingly in fashion, along with the compulsory maxi-coat. Mine was purple corduroy.

But I was a person, not a cartoon… surely the point of animation films is that they’re already on screen, good to go? This one, however, apparently required a live body, specifically a girl with long dark hair who could do a bit of dancing on stage. Just gyrating and waving arms…like on a tropical island…nothing too choreographic. I was doubtful. But, I was told firmly, the Dutch director (of international repute, name lost in the mists of time) needed one! It was urgent – the event was already publicised. Surely I could give it a go? Perhaps I could…. after all, how hard could it be? Although I was somewhat lacking in precision and delicacy, as a dancer. I did not get beyond the first year ballet class as a child. And what if it was something sleazy? But, I was reassured, it was all above board.

It was too late now to back out- I could but try.

I felt pretty daft in the grass skirt, and as for bare midriffs, I’ve never gone in for them, having a scar on my stomach following an emergency operation as a new-born baby. No time to worry about that though, as on cue, I wiggled my way sideways onto the stage, while suitable Hawaiian music played. Not that there was much stage to wiggle on, with the cinema screen just behind me. It was both simultaneously terrifying, and hysterically funny.

A lasting memento…here I am, dressed for the first and last time in a grass skirt, in front of a few hundred people

And then what? This was, after all, a festival of animated films. There was nothing on the screen itself except – as you can see – a palm tree and a simple tropical backdrop. This was apparently some kind of clever cinematic joke. ‘Oh God, I get it now – it’s me who is the ‘animation’!’ The penny dropped for the audience too, who roared with laughter; I simpered and continued my waving and teetering until signalled at last to stop.

The director seemed very grateful – maybe too grateful, when he then invited me out to supper? I declined and resolved never to dance in public again.

Perhaps some day, someone will discover this photo and claim it as an important milestone in animation history. Perhaps they will track me down and explain my significance in cinematic development? Perhaps…but no, better let sleeping grass skirts lie…

I’ve not found trace now of this actual film, but a little more about the festival has come to light.
In this analysis of the 1968 festival, we get a description of the festival theme film: ‘All the programmes were given a lively send-off by the festival film, Cambridge Steam Engine, made by Charlie Jenkins and Heinz Edelmann of Yellow Submarine fame. Queen Victoria sits unamused, screwed firmly to the screen, while coloured railway-engines cavort behind her, growing stranger and more tube-like until the last one, an op-art octopus, sinks slowly beneath the surface, the captain at the salute on the bridge.’

The lead-in film to every screening at the Cambridge Animation Festival

And joy of joys, we can see it for ourselves! Here’s the film, titled ‘The Transformer’, on the BFI site.
It’s delightful, and I have vague memories of it, watching it now. But I’m struck by the fact that my film was the opposite – in Cambridge Steam Train, Queen Victoria stays regally still and fixed on screen, while the train chuffs back and forth behind her – in my appearance, the palm tree stayed rock steady while I dance languorously in front.

The article’s author describes the set-up, and then singles out a raft of short animations for praise. Mine was not among them. Is this good or bad? Well, there’s still time to be ‘re-discovered’ – perhaps!

Two ‘forgotten books’ – written with enthusiasm, now rarely making an appearance. Curiously enough, the short story on the left, written for students of English, looks rather like me in my late teens – even though I never met the illustrator!

The Antics of Mercury

An Alchemical Dialogue by Michael Sendivogius (1566-1636)

‘Philosophers are men whom too much learning and thought have made mad.’

An alchemist and would-be philosopher, who grapples with the elusive Mercury

Mercury was playing tricks ahead of time – there was a glitch and hold-up between publishing my last post (‘The Ship of Night’) and the automatic notifications being sent out by email. Automatic, did I say? Mercury can surely play games there too! ) Anyway, here is a tale of the merry prankster – and if he’s showcased somewhat later than first intended, it’s his own fault.

In 1997, I was asked to lecture at a conference in Prague, to be held on the theme of ‘Alchemy and the Hermetic Tradition’. There was a fascinating mix of delegates from the USA , the UK, and from Prague itself. The city had only been open to the West for a few years since the fall of the Soviet Union, so it was a wonderful new chance to meet those with similar interests. Prague itself has deep connections with the alchemical tradition, and so in between sessions we wandered the streets, marvelling at the alchemical symbols and signs adorning many of the old buildings in the streets. A medieval tower, moreover, had been turned into a temporary exhibition of alchemy, with each storey of the tower representing a stage in the alchemical process. And a replica of an alchemist’s laboratory had been set up in the museum at the castle, where alchemical experiment was once practised. The trip is curiously linked too in my mind with twists of fate, and the making of history. One morning, as a bunch of us was entering the gates of Prague Castle, a fellow delegate rushed over to tell us all about Princess Diana’s death in a car crash. She and her partner watched the news late at night, and suddenly the reports started coming through. (And, as I prepare this blog for posting, we have just had news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II…the sense of both shock and finality are strangely the same in both cases. Even though now separated by 25 years.)

To view some of Prague’s alchemical sites, take a tour here . And for an old alchemical laboratory, discovered in Prague in 2002 after my stay there, see Speculum Alchimiae, also reviewed here.

The tower where the Opus Magnum alchemical exhibition was held

As well as a lecture, I also gave seminar on the theme of ‘Hermes and the Caduceus’. It was in full swing when a young man, bearing a large white flip chart and pens, suddenly strode in through the door. ‘You asked for these’ he said. It seemed that a representation of Mercury/Hermes himself had entered the room in his role as scribe. We fell about laughing.

To add a little more live alchemy to the experience of the conference, I decided to stage informally an adaptation of a dialogue by Michael Sendivogius, an early 17th century alchemist who had lived in Prague towards the end of his life. The city at that time was a hotbed of alchemists and magicians, searching, experimenting, writing, and conferring under the benign patronage of Rudolf II. As we performed it, I realised that this was probably the first time the dialogue had ever been spoken aloud since Sendivogius wrote it in 1607.

So here’s to the revival of the dialogue, which is adapted from the original text, to be found in this extract from the writings of Sendivogius. You are welcome to perform it too, if you choose! In it, Mercury gets to have the last laugh – his apparent folly is his wisdom, and the would-be alchemist and spiritual sage is a victim of his own vanity! You can read more about Hermes aka Mercury in my previous post.

Oh – and in the process of adapting it, I couldn’t resist adding in a few responses of my own – hence the Commentator.

Below: old houses in Prague, adorned with mythical and alchemical symbols

A Dialogue between Mercury, the Alchemist and Nature

Michael Sendivogius, 1607

On a certain bright morning a number of Alchemists met together in a meadow, and consulted as to the best way of preparing the Philosopher’s Stone. It was arranged that they should speak in order, and each after the manner that seemed best to him. Most of them agreed that Mercury was the first substance. Others said, no, it was sulphur, or something else. These Alchemists had read the books of the Sages, and hence there was a decided majority in favour of Mercury, not only as the true first matter, but in particular as the first matter of metals, since all the philosophers seemed to cry with one voice: “O our Mercury, our Mercury,” &c., whatever that word might mean.

But a consensus, a fraternity of alchemists was not to be:
Just as the dispute began to run high, there arose a violent wind which dispersed the Alchemists into all the different countries of the world — and as they had arrived at no conclusion, each one went on seeking the Philosopher’s Stone in his own old way, this one expecting to find it in one substance, and that in another, so that the search has continued without intermission even unto this day.’

One of them, however, determined to grapple with this tricksy spirit. He is sure of his superior abilities, but somehow success eludes him…Let us enter the scene at this point:

NARRATOR: We first meet with our alchemist as he is struggling to get to grips with mercury in his glass vessel. He’s read all the books, but somehow he can’t seem to get the right results. He tried heating the mercury over the fire, but it evaporated and disappeared. Like many an angry man, he blames his wife.

ALCHEMIST: No one but you has entered my laboratory; you must have taken my mercury out of the vessel.
WIFE [sobbing]: No, no, not I!
NARRATOR: Well, the Alchemist tries again, mixing the mercury into various disgusting concoctions with all sorts of substances such as blood, hair and urine. He tries metals and minerals, salts and sulphur, but nothing very alchemical happens. Then he suddenly remembers that dung is a good thing to work with, so he gets his hands deep into the shit! It’s no good. He falls asleep, exhausted. But lo! In his dream an old man comes to him, and advises him to charm the mercury in the way that you would charm a serpent. The Alchemist wakes up shouting joyfully:
ALCHEMIST: Serpents are charmed! Now what is it that I have to say – yes, “Ux, ux, Ostas!’
NARRATOR: And with that, Mercury appears, laughing his head off.

The ‘Second Key’ from Basil Valentine’s alchemical engravings, published 1618. Mercury as he might apear to the alchemists.

MERCURY: Why dost thou trouble me my Lord alchemist?
ALCHEMIST: Oh ho, do you call me your Lord? I have found a bit to bridle you with; wait a little, and you shall soon sing the tune that I bid you. (angrily and imperiously) – I conjure you by the living God – are you not that Mercury of the Sages?
MERCURY: (pretending to be frightened) – Master, I am Mercury.
ALCHEMIST: Why would you not obey me then? Why could I not fix you?
MERCURY: Oh, most high and mighty Master, I implore you to spare your miserable slave! I did not know that you were such a potent philosopher. I see now, to my own great cost, that your Worship is a high and mighty and most potent philosopher.
ALCHEMIST: (with a smile of satisfaction) – Now at last I have found what I sought. (in tones of thunder) Now mind that you obey me, else it will be the worse for you.
MERCURY: Gladly, Master, if I can: for I am very weak.
ALCHEMIST: What is the matter with you?
MERCURY: An Alchemist is the matter with me.

An alchemist’s laboratory

ALCHEMIST: Are you laughing at me, you false rogue?
MERCURY: Oh no, no, Master – as God shall spare me, I spoke of an Alchemist – you are a philosopher.
ALCHEMIST: Of course, of course, that is quite true. But what did the Alchemist do?
MERCURY: Oh Master, he has done me a thousand wrongs; he belaboured and mixed me up with all manner of disagreeable and contradictory things, which have stripped me of all my powers, and so I am sick, even to death.
ALCHEMIST: You deserved such treatment, because you would not obey.
MERCURY: I never yet disobeyed a philosopher, but I cannot help laughing at fools.
ALCHEMIST: And what is your opinion of me?
MERCURY: Oh Master, your Worship is a great man, and mighty philosopher, greater by far than Hermes, both in doctrine and in wisdom.
ALCHEMIST: Well, I won’t praise myself, but I certainly am a learned man. My wife says so too. She always calls me a profoundly learned philosopher.
MERCURY: I quite believe you. For philosophers are men whom too much learning and thought have made mad. (sniggers quietly)
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, what am I to do with you? How am I to make you into the Philosopher’s Stone?
MERCURY: Oh, my master philosopher, that I cannot tell. You are a philosopher, I am the philosopher’s humble slave. Whatever he wishes to make me, I become, as far as my nature will allow.
ALCHEMIST: This is all very fine, but I repeat that you must tell me how to treat you, and whether you can become the Philosopher’s Stone.
MERCURY: Mr Philosopher, if you know, you can make it, and if you don’t you can’t.

COMMENTATOR: I cannot help interrupting here, as the voice behind the Narrator – this is a splendid saying, isn’t it? I’m going to store it up for future use. ‘If you know, you can, and if you don’t you can’t.’

Alchemist at work – 17c, Teniers

ALCHEMIST: You talk to me as a simple person. Perhaps you do not know that I have lived at the courts of great princes, and have always been regarded as a very profound philosopher.
MERCURY: I readily believe you, my Master, for the filth of your brilliant experiments still cleaves to me.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, then, are you the Mercury of the Sages?
MERCURY: I am Mercury, but you should know best, whether I am the Mercury of you philosophers.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me only whether you are the true Mercury, or whether there is another?
MERCURY: I am Mercury, but there is also another.

NARRATOR: With these words, the Mercury vanishes. The Alchemist shouts and calls aloud, but there is no answer. He carries on with his experiments – he fails – he curses Mercury and Nature too. Nature herself wants to know what’s going on.

NATURE: Mercury, what have you done to the Alchemist, and why will you not obey him?
MERCURY: It’s not me – he’s the problem!
NATURE: Well, you should obey the Sons of Knowledge who seek to know me!
MERCURY: All right, Mother Nature, I will – but who can satisfy fools?

NARRATOR: Nature smiles, and departs. The Alchemist, meanwhile, has prepared some ‘excrements of swine’ – that’s pig shit to you – and is smearing Mercury with it.

MERCURY: What do you want of me, you fool?
ALCHEMIST: Are you he whom I desire so much to see?
MERCURY: I am, but blind people cannot behold me.
ALCHEMIST: I am not blind.
MERCURY: You are as blind as a new-born puppy. You cannot see yourself: how then should you be able to see me?

COMMENTATOR: Ha! That’s another good one.

ALCHEMIST: Perhaps you do not know that I have lived at the courts of princes, and have always been called a philosopher. My wife says so too.
MERCURY: The gates of princes stand wide for fools. I quite believe that you have been at court.
ALCHEMIST: You are, undoubtedly, the Devil, and not a good Mercury, if you speak like that to philosophers.
MERCURY: Well, my philosopher, what do you seek, and what would you have?
ALCHEMIST: The Philosopher’s Stone.
MERCURY: Of what substance would you make it?
ALCHEMIST: Of our Mercury.
MERCURY: Oh, my philosopher, then I had better go: for I am not yours!
ALCHEMIST: You are none but the Devil, and wish to lead me astray.
MERCURY: Well, I think I may return the compliment; you have played the very devil with me. You sow me in dung; and you reap dung. Verily, you are a good husbandman!
ALCHEMIST: Yet the Sages say that their substance is found on the dunghill.
MERCURY: What they say is true, but you understand only the letter, and not the spirit of their injunctions.
ALCHEMIST: Now I see that you are perhaps Mercury. But as you will not obey me, I must once more repeat the words of conjuration: ‘Ux, ux, ostas!’
MERCURY: And what more do you want of me? Am I not obedient? Do I not mingle with all things that you ask me to amalgamate with? Do I not suffer myself to be sublimated, precipitated, amalgamated, calcined? What more can I do? I have submitted to be scourged and spat upon till my miserable plight might move a heart of stone. I have done all that any metal or mineral can do. I do whatsoever you make me do. If you make me a body, I am a body. If you make me powder, I am powder. How can I be more obedient than I am?
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, then, what you are in your centre, and I will not torment you any more.
MERCURY: I see there is no escape. If you will, you may now understand me. It has nothing to do with my form that you now see. My centre is the fixed heart of all things, immortal and all-pervading. I am an immortal body. I die when I am slain, but rise to stand before the judgment seat of a discriminating judge.
ALCHEMIST: How in all the world am I to understand you, if you answer my questions in dark parables?
MERCURY: Whatever is with me, I love; and to that which is born with me, I impart nourishment. That which is naked I cover with my wings.

Alchemical exhibition, Prague

ALCHEMIST: I see plainly that it is impossible to talk to you. If you do not answer my questions better, I will torment you again.
MERCURY: Have pity on me, Master, I will gladly tell you all I know.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, are you afraid of the fire?
MERCURY: I myself am fire.
ALCHEMIST: Why then do you seek to escape from the fire?
MERCURY: Because my spirit loves the spirit of fire, and accompanies it wherever it goes.
ALCHEMIST: Where do you go when you ascend with the fire?
MERCURY: Every pilgrim looks anxiously towards his country and his home. When he has returned unto these, he reposes, and he always comes back wiser than he left.

COMMENTATOR: And that, I have to admit, is a beautiful sentiment. I shall ponder it.
ALCHEMIST: Do you return, then?
MERCURY: Yes, but in another form. I am fire within; fire is my food and my life; but the life of fire is air, for without air fire is extinguished…Add air to air, so that both become one in even balance; combine them with fire, and leave the whole to time.

The two Mercuries, portrayed in Atlanta Fugiens, by Michael Maier (1617)

ALCHEMIST: What will happen then?
MERCURY: Everything superfluous will be removed. The residue you burn in fire, place in water, ‘cook’, and when it is cooked, you give as a medicine, and have no fear.

NARRATOR: Nature re-appears, to scold the Alchemist once more for his mistreatment of Mercury.
NATURE: You do nothing but cross me, and deal with my children against my will…my obedient son Mercury you torment in the most fearful manner.
ALCHEMIST: Then I will in future deal with him gently, and subject him only to gradual coction.

NATURE: That is well, if you possess understanding; otherwise, you will ruin only yourself and your possessions. If you act in opposition to my commands, you hurt yourself more than him.…

ALCHEMIST: But who is that Mercury?
NATURE: Know that I have only one such son, he is one of seven, and the first among them; and though he is now all things, he was at first only one. In him are the four elements, yet he is not an element. He is a spirit, yet he has a body; a man, yet he performs a woman’s part: a boy, yet he bears a man’s weapons; a beast, and yet he has the wings of a bird. He is poison, yet he cures leprosy; life, yet he kills all things, a King, but another occupies his throne; he flees from the fire, yet fire is taken from him; he is water, but does not wet the hands; he is earth, and yet he is sown; he is air, and lives by water.

NARRATOR: But alas, it seems that the Alchemist just isn’t ready to give up his pride and greed.

ALCHEMIST: Now I see that I know nothing; only I must not say so. For I should lose the good opinion of my neighbours, and they would no longer entrust me with money for my experiments. I must therefore go on saying that I know everything; for there are many that expect me to do great things for them.

NATURE: But if you go on in that way, your neighbours will at last find you out, and demand their money back.

ALCHEMIST: I must amuse them with promises, as long as I can.

NATURE: And what then?

ALCHEMIST: I will try different experiments; and if they fail, I will go to some other country, and live the same life there. There are many countries, and many greedy persons who will suffer themselves to be gulled by my promises of mountains of gold.

NATURE: Such philosophers are only fit for the gallows. Be off, and take with you my most grievous curse. The best thing that you can do, is to give yourself up to the King’s officers, who will quickly put an end to you and your philosophy!

Alchemy may be a path to madness for some, but if you’d like to read more about its history, and see how it can relate to everyday life in the modern world, you might enjoy these books.

The Ship of Night – Part Two

This is the second part of my story, written on request for the anthology ‘Tarot Tales’, and based on the drawing of five cards from the Marseilles Tarot pack. The first part (read here) brought me from a city garden invaded by foxes down to the old quayside, and onto a boat setting out on a mysterious ‘Moonlight Cruise’:

I took my place at the prow of the boat, where I found myself sitting next to a stout middle-aged lady in a buttoned-up navy mackintosh. She was a warden, she explained, in an old people’s home, and had to work some very awkward shifts. She’d taken the cruise before, and it covered those difficult in-between hours very nicely, particularly when she was transferring from day to late-night shift, and needed something to keep her going until she started work.

‘There’s one or two other regulars here,’ she said, nodding over at the other side, to a hunched-up man in black, who sat fingering a straggly grey beard. Next to him a young couple sank blissfully into each other’s arms. To my unspoken question she replied, ‘Once you’ve seen it by night, you want to do it again. What you see by day seems rather tame by comparison.’

The boat was filling up now, with some twenty to thirty passengers. The captain decided that this was enough, and turned on the engines; with that quiet chug chug chug noise we left our moorings and set off through the docks. Little flickers of light caught on the rippling, slapping water, and indeed the water was brighter than the surroundings, for we quickly left the populated quayside and turned off through waterways flanked with heavily built warehouses and derelict yards. Where there were windows, they were barred, and where there were boundary walls, they were topped with barbed wire. On the paths which ran by the water, once unloading bays, I could make out grass and weeds, and it looked as though this part of the city had been deserted for a hundred years.

In fact, said our captain, a cynical and amusing commentator, it still had life in the day, and might in time have more. The usual planning disputes were raging between industrialists, conservationists, and city council officials.

‘I’ve not time for age for its own sake,’ said Rita (my companion) darkly, which I thought was strange, given her profession.

‘If you look over to your right,’ said our gallant captain, ‘you will see that Webber’s Bank has won its appeal to rebuild, and that demolition is already in progress.’ All eyes turned to gaze upon a half torn-down building which looked, in this dim light, like something out of a craggy Romantic landscape painting.

But as we turned the corner by the side of it, this image was rudely shattered by the rubbish we encountered. In the water itself, bits and pieces bobbed up and down – plastic sacks, old bottles, screwed-up paper bags. On the edge, where we could now see behind the ruined façade, were dusty piles of bricks and rubble, and perhaps twisted pieces of iron and broken planks, though it was hard to make anything out clearly. The female lover gave a little scream: ‘Aah! Rats! I saw them move!’ But, before anyone in the boat could react, came the sound of a sniggering, husky laugh from the darkness of the shore. We all turned sharply, and as the boat slid gently past, I could make out the stooped figure of a man, raggedly dressed, looking towards us with a mocking grin before bending back to his task. A sack lay near him amidst the rubbish, and with a long pole he turned over the piles around him, picking over the debris and putting choice finds into his sack. The captain waved to him as we passed; he was obviously a familiar character in these parts.

Now we passed into a kind of leafy tunnel. I had lost track of direction, and could only guess vaguely what part of the city we were in, but I reckoned that we were still fairly central, and that somewhere above us busy roads stretched away, and that the people who frequented them probably had little knowledge of what went on in these watery depths below. I think the trees were willows; it was hard to see, but I detected a gentle brushing of the water with their drooping branches. The two path was grassy now, and the captain told us stories of how the barges came into the city from the furthest parts of the country, patient horses plodding, dreaming of a full nose-bag at the end of the day, brown, monkey-faced bargemen with robust wives, washing strung out along the bow, and a couple of kids playing with broken pottery shards picked up as treasures along the way. It was as if the waterways themselves had not forgotten, and here, submerged below street level, there was nothing to interrupt the old dream that resounded day after day.

The old dream of the river, near Bristol

There was a child on board now; probably about six or seven, leaning against his mother and curled up into sleep, thumb in mouth She smiled when she saw me looking. ‘It’s his birthday,’ she said. ‘He was determined to stay up and see it in at midnight; he loves to try and stay awake. I promised him he could come, even though I knew he wouldn’t manage it. I’ll tell him in the morning that he did the whole trip. It’ll make him happy.’

Most of the company were lost in their own thoughts, or, in the case of the lovers, in each other. The bearded man that I had noticed at the start of the voyage seemed restless though, muttering to himself and looking anxiously at a tattered paperback book that he held. Perhaps it was just a collection of pages, because I couldn’t see any cover, only torn pages which he thumbed feverishly, as if he were trying to find and then memorize his favourite poems. But there was no hint of enjoyment in his face, only a driven, haunted look.

‘You say he comes here often?’ I asked Rita, as discreetly as I could.
She nodded. ‘Yes, a few times.’
‘For pleasure, do you think?’
She shrugged, in a dismissive kind of way. ‘Perhaps.’
‘I wonder if he has a home to go to? But then I suppose if he was a down-and-out, he wouldn’t have the money to come.’

She clearly did not want to follow this up, and I stayed silent, ashamed of passing comments on my fellow passengers of which she plainly disapproved. ‘Do you enjoy your work?’ I asked her, in a feeble attempt to remedy the situation.

She smiled at me unexpectedly, a warm, beaming smile. ‘Oh yes. Oh very much. Old people are so rewarding. Very special. They are the perfection of a whole life-time. Unless you can understand that, you don’t know them at all.

By now, we were floating down a broad stretch of water at ground level.

‘This is the main waterway out of the city,’ the captain announced. ‘The motorway of dockland. We shall be going a little further. And here we’re taking a swing to the left, to avoid the weir. All marked out and perfectly safe, even at night.’

I could hear the rushing of the river weir. I suppose we must have emerged from the completely artificial canal and dock network into a natural but structured watercourse. I wire rope and a string of fluorescent flags showed up on the right, and the boat veered away from them. But just as we turned, there was a movement from the other side of the boat. The hunched man’s mutterings had grown fiercer. He stood up, and in the space of what cannot have been more than a few seconds, hurled his book, then his overcoat, and then himself into the water. I gasped, and stood up to cry out, then found myself yanked firmly back to my seat, with a warm hand pressed heavily over my mouth. I struggled, but Rita held me firm.

‘Be quiet!’ she hissed.

I looked around, and up at the captain, but he and Rita were already exchanging glances. He raised an eyebrow to her, and she nodded with assurance. Satisfied, he straightened the boat into her new course, and delivered a few more comments into the microphone about features of the landscape. I couldn’t believe it. And none of the other passengers seemed to have noticed. The lovers, who had sat next to the man, were by now at the whispering, tickling and giggling stage of their embraces. Everyone else looked vacant, as if the slow flow of the water had glazed over their minds and eyes.

I turned sharply to Rita. ‘Why don’t we stop? Why don’t we rescue him?’ Not that I could see him any more – he was gone with barely a splash, swallowed up by the racing waters that swept down in torrents to the river below.

She pulled out a package from her brown plastic shopping bag and calmly unwrapped a selection of sandwiches. ‘Eat one, my dear. The egg ones are the nicest – the ham wasn’t up to much today.’ Almost hypnotised by her assurance, I took one.

When she saw that I had bitten into it, she said, ‘It was his time, dear. The way he wanted to go.’
‘What do you mean?’
She sighed. ‘For a writer,’ (had I told her that?) ‘you don’t look very far, do you? When one of my gentlemen, or ladies, is ready to go, and I am as sure as I can be that the time has come, then I will be there to see them off.’
‘You mean – suicide?’

‘Not exactly. Oh, no, I wouldn’t hold with that. That’s a war against yourself, isn’t it? No, those who know that their life is drawing to a close. And that’s the greatest perfection, you know. And quite natural, too. You look at animals – they know when it’s time. Well then. Some of my clients don’t want to catch lingering illnesses and have doctors prodding them and all their relatives weeping over them. How would you like to die like that, in a home or a hospital? Not much, I expect. Not a pleasant last memory to take with you, is it? So I make sure they can get out and about, and find it as they want it. By water this time. He loved the sea, that one…Used to be a writer, once, like you…Took him several trips before he felt familiar with this place and knew just where he wanted to go.’

I made as if to get up and look over the side of the boat, but she pulled me back. ‘don’t be foolish, dear. That’s one thing you must never try to do, try and follow them – they’ll go clean and quiet if you let them.’

I was shaking. ‘I’ve witnessed a death, then. Something I haven’t seen before. I might have seen more – I might have learnt more.’

Charon: the ferryman of the dead

Rita shook her head kindly. ‘That’s not the way to know more, half going with them. That’s the way to do yourself a mischief and maybe them, too. There’s plenty more to learn and to see if you’ll be patient.’
I was thoroughly jolted now. Was this a sleeping world, or a waking one? Was it night or day? What did she and the captain know that I didn’t…? We were approaching a barrier. Heavy, steel doors loomed up before us in the water, dark water slapping against them as the boat dropped speed and came to a pause at the place where they blocked our way, tightly closed. On a short quayside to our left, a little cottage snuggled into the high guarding walls around, and one light still burned in an upstairs window.

The captain whistled, then called, ‘Diz! Diz! Open up! – Short for Disraeli’ he told the now stirring passengers, provoking a few titters of disbelief.

We could hear the sound of footsteps in the cottage, then a few grumbling noises as the front door was unbolted and opened. A dark, squat little man moved out towards us. Though his movements were slow, I sensed tremendous physical power in his presence, something of the wrestler’s strength in his body.

‘Come on, Diz. You’re supposed to have had these open for us.’
‘You’ll have to pay.’
‘You must be joking! We’re regulars.’
‘Everyone has to pay. Double rates at night.’
‘They’re always like this, Rita told me. ‘He’ll have to pay, he always does in the end.’
‘Extra levy, I’m afraid,’ said the captain. ‘Fifty pence each.’

There was some complaining, but he was firm. No, it wasn’t on a per boat basis, but was per head. And yes, the child too, even if he was under sixteen and asleep. He was sorry, but there it was. As I turned towards the moonlight to see the contents of my purse better, the coins that I was taking hold of slipped from my fingers and fell into the water. By this time, the great steel doors were opening, making surprisingly little noise, and the boat was sliding gently through into a dark stretch of water beyond. The captain’s mate came towards me with his leather bag to collect my fare.

‘I’m sorry, I’ve just lost my money overboard. I haven’t any more.’
He shrugged, and grinned unpleasantly. His teeth were yellow and pointed, and he reminded me, for the first time since I had stepped into the boat, of the foxes at home.

‘Well, you’ll have to get out, won’t you?’
I looked at him in disbelief. ‘That’s ridiculous!’
‘Oh no, far from it. Them as doesn’t pay gets off. We don’t wait, and we don’t accept any debts. Out.’ He jerked a thumb towards the bank and nodded at the captain, who steered in closer to the shore.

I glanced around, but no one seemed interested in my plight, any more than they were in the man who had jumped overboard. Rita had disappeared too. I would have shouted, I think, but before I had a chance to do so I found that I was being heaved ashore by the captain and his evil-mouthed assistant. It could have been funny, or at any rate, ridiculous, but it wasn’t.

And then the boat was gone, and I was standing on a narrow path, with nothing but darkness ahead and steel doors, firmly closed again, behind me. Then I really did shout. I bawled, and hollered. Surely the gate-keeper would hear me and come out. But he didn’t. I began to grow hysterical, I am ashamed to admit, and was beating my fists against the metal, making a noise fit to wake the dead, when I felt a quiet tap on my shoulder. I spun round. It was Rita.

‘Well, dear, you’re one of the lucky ones, aren’t you?’ She seemed amused.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m sure you didn’t really want to go any further, did you? Wouldn’t you rather be getting home now?’

And indeed, I suddenly realised that I was dead tired and would like nothing better than to be back in bed. ‘I always get out around here myself. It’s not much fun further on.’ Her tone somehow gave me the impression that this was a great understatement.
‘How do we get out?’
She gestured. ‘Put your hand over there, to the right. You’ll find a little metal ring that hangs loose. It’s set into a lion’s head, actually – very pretty, if you could see it by daylight. Reminds me a little of Venice. Lions everywhere there. Just feel for it, and turn it very gently.’

I could feel the lion’s head all right, and the metal teeth and jaws that I had to reach into to grasp the ring. I did as she said; the ring turned, and a small inner door set into the great doors swung open. We stepped through it, back onto the little terrace in front of the cottage. There were no lights at the windows now.

‘What do we do now? It must be miles back. And I’m not sure I could find the way.’
‘Oh, nothing to worry about. Just take that path up there – ‘ she pointed to a narrow track that I hadn’t noticed before, leading up steeply behind the cottage. ‘It’s a bit of a scramble, but you’ll come onto the road, and there’ll be a bus coming along shortly.’
‘I’ve no money.’
‘There are free late-night buses.’ She chuckled. ‘Part of the council’s attempts to make life safer at night. They never think who they might attract onto the buses this way. But you’ll be all right.’
‘Are you coming too?’ I asked.
‘No, I’ve my own way back. I’m due to start work soon, not too far from here. Well it’s been pleasant meeting you.’
‘Perhaps we’ll meet again sometime.’
She smiled, ‘I wouldn’t count on it. Night encounters, you know, quickly forgotten. I expect you’ll sleep well enough tonight, though. Pleasant dreams!’

I took the path she indicated, and scrambled up to the top. Although bushes scratched at my clothes, and the earth was dusty and slippery, I made it without mishap. On the level high above the water, which was now well out of sight, I came out suddenly into urban life again. The track emerged between two houses, and in front of me was a main road, still lit, with a few late-night dog-walkers about and a bus stop close to hand. The shop windows, garishly illuminated and full of electrical goods, cheap clothes and furnishings, looked unreal. Was this the everyday city I was so familiar with?

I did not have to wait long, although it was no ordinary bus that turned up. ‘Party Special’, its indicator proclaimed. Not, it appeared, a party as in an outing, but as in party – good time and knees up. The driver stopped for me. He was merry, but sober, which was more than could be said for some of his passengers.
‘Welcome aboard, madam! Seats for singles on your left, couples on the right, dancing in the middle, bar at the rear. No charge, you’re welcome.’

The inside was decorated with balloons, and twirled silver festoons, and all around a couple of dozen partymakers were obviously having a wonderful time. Music blared out, and the standard of dress was more like a trendy disco than a city transport bus. A young man, a little drunk, but good-humoured, tried to pull me into a dance. I resisted, feeling boringly sober and out of place in my trousers and warm sweater. Then – oh, what the hell – I thought, and let him lead me into some kind of exuberant dance. I let the rhythm of the music sweep through me. It had been a crazy enough night – let it become a little crazier. At the end of the number, he put his arm round me and grinned.

‘City centre,’ called the driver. ‘Your stop, madam. It’s been a pleasure having you aboard. Mind how you go.’

Five more minutes, and I was home. The city looked quiet, unperturbed, nothing different from usual. What had I expected? There was no noise from the garden either. Rita was right; bed was very welcome.

Just before I drifted off, just before the images started to flow, I seemed to see her face bending over me, and heard her voice saying:
‘Drops, dear. Little drops. That’s what a really satisfying dream is like, isn’t it – the kind that tells you everything without needing to go through it all.’

Yes, I thought, that’s what I would hope for now. If she bade me sleep well, I certainly did.

17th century painting by Bernhard Keil (Wikimedia Commons)

Writing a Tarot Story

Here is how the cards appeared to me, for the weaving of this tale. And would a different order for these cards might perhaps tell a different story?

You might like to try your own version of this; pick a set of five cards (five is the number of creativity) sight unseen, from a Tarot pack of your choice. My own view is that a traditional set like this, honed and smoothed over the centuries, has more potetntial and fewer distracting details than most modern, individually-designed sets. You could also try with just three cards, for a ‘flash fiction’ story.

Tarot writings

My writings on Tarot have focused on the research and interpretation that I’ve carried out for five decades now, investigating its history, and practising Tarot divination. It has also run alongside the task I inherited of writing and presenting The Tree of Life Oracle. My task with Tarot may be done – or it may not! Recently, I found myself drawn to the inspired art work of Pamela Colman Smith, who designed the Rider Waite Tarot pack. You can read more about this in my blog ‘A Pixie in Bude’. Perhaps there are yet more fascinating pathways that will open up in the mysterious world of Tarot.

The Ship of Night

Some time ago, more years ago in fact than I care to count, I was asked to write a story for an anthology called ‘Tarot Tales’ edited by Rachel Pollack and Caitlin Matthews. We were to draw five cards at random from a Tarot pack of our choice, and construct the story around these. Using the traditional Marseille pack, the cards that I turned up were Death, Temperance, Strength (Force), The Moon and Justice. The story which emerged, weaving itself around these images, was partly based on real events, partly on an imaginative journey which took me from the waterways of Bristol right to the gates of life and death. Here is the first part – the second follows in two weeks’ time.

August will be a narrative month, as the conclusion of this story is followed by an old but spirited dialogue between Mercury and the Alchemist. Perhaps it is not your usual holiday reading, but why not give it a try?

Part One – The Little Foxes

You won’t believe me, but it was in fact Friday the thirteenth when I laid out these cards. Friday 13th May, at 10.30am, to be exact. I rose from my chair purposefully to fetch my pack. The dog looked at me warily; perhaps I was about to do some singing practice, which she loathed. She slunk out of the room to be on the safe side. Five cards, the rules said. I shuffled them, and shuffled again. Five to be drawn: one for me, three for the story, and one, perhaps, for you, the reader. Out they came. Temperance * Justice – Death – The Moon * Strength. Well, how corny can you get? Friday the thirteenth and a central triad like that. Surely there was an element of mockery here. Should I start again?

Wait. A little whisper of realization ruffled the back of my neck. This was a story that had already been told, a situation that had just unfolded. The lion with open jaw, held by the lady, the two dogs baying at the moon – this was the tale of the foxes and me, a little saga that had been under way for several days now. Ah, but then it won’t count, will it, because I’m supposed to be creating something new? But I’ll start to relate it anyway, because the cards seem to be issuing a kind of demand that I gather the threads together, look for its essence. And it’s also true, isn’t it, that every little story is part of a greater one? Perhaps I might get a glimpse of this if I follow what is in front of me.

This foxy tale is no saga of country life. I live, in fact, in the heart of the city, the centre just a few minutes walk away down steep stone steps. But it is quiet here. Our little area is old, eighteenth century, with walled gardens and cobbled streets, laid out where there were once orchards and pleasant pastures for the inhabitants of the smoky city below to stroll on a summer’s evening. There are still mulberry trees, fig trees, and an old sacred spring at the back of someone’s house. Not that the foxes are left over from those balmy days of pre-urban living. No, they’ve crept back along the railway tracks, the river banks, the old gullies and conduits that run forgotten under busy streets. Opportunists to the last, they scavenge for food and live under garden sheds. I didn’t know about them when we first moved here, not too long ago, but I sound found out.

At first I was enchanted with this secret city wildlife. I loved the thought that, come the night, another form of life was taking over. While we humans lay cosily in bed, wild beasts came out, mated, fed, played, but in the morning were gone, leaving little trace of their presence. So little in fact, that much of the population round here still does not know that they exist. It is a little like those tales you read as a child, where there is a fairy market at night, where shadowy, moonbeam creatures sell their miniature treasures in a world which is like the one you know, but infinitely more magical. If you could only wake up at the right time, you could step into that elusive world and take part in it…

I suppose, with the foxes, it was as if this started to happen. And, like those reckless mortals in legend who venture out to join in with fairy dancing, commerce, revels or anything else, I found out that it was not quite so delightful as I had expected. There was a price to pay for going into the world of night.
Just recently, a family of cubs had been born close by. I didn’t know they were there until the time came for them to be taken out by their mother for night romps and education in the gentle art of pillage and theft. The first crisis came when she abandoned one of them in our garden. I heard this terrible, desperate calling, which shattered my dreams and roused me from my bed. It’s strange, isn’t it, that universal cry of help from the young? Whether it’s a bird out of the nest or a child lost in a supermarket, the tone is the same. There’s an insistency, an urgency that you recognise, which goes straight to the centre of your being and tugs at you.

I got up, and looked out of the window. Dawn was sullenly approaching, and I had to concentrate my vision to see anything in the cold, smoky grey light. Finally I could make out a vixen in next door’s garden, moving low and rapidly with a cub close behind her, while in ours another cub raced up and down, unable to climb the high stone wall that separated him from his mother. She would come back and rescue him, I thought, and left them to it.

But the next night, soon after it grew dark, the cries began again They sounded a little like a dog, or, to be more precise, like a Jack Russell terrier with a sore throat. They had a strange, husky penetration, though, like one of those alarm calls in your sleep, a voice that breaks into the comfortable unfolding of your current dream and rouses you, calling your name, perhaps, or speaking just one word that resonates through your body from top to toe. It was terrible. The cub called, cried and wailed the whole night through. It went through every range of emotion, uncannily human in its piteous calling. At times it became exhausted, and could only give faint, despairing groans. At others it worked itself up to a pitch of hysteria and grief which would have torn at the stoniest heart. I felt there was nothing I could do, not at this point anyway. I had to give the mother a chance to find it and take it back. Even if it was starving, what could I do if I did retrieve it? I couldn’t take over from the mother, I couldn’t rear a cub. I had to leave it to its fate. If it had to die, then so it must be.

Well, the following night, I couldn’t stand it any longer. Maybe I could catch it, and maybe, if I put it over the wall into next door’s garden, it could find its way back to the earth, even at the risk of its mother rejecting it. Out of bed, slippers and dressing gown on, dog safely shut up and torch in hand, I went out to see what I could do. As soon as it heard any movement outside, of course, it became absolutely quiet and still, so I think it was my determination to put a stop to this suffering (for both of us) that allowed me finally to track it down in a corner of the garden, crouching under some old planks. I picked it up by the cruff of the neck, as one would a puppy, although it looked more like a small piglet with its long nose. We had a good look at one another, the cub pissed itself with fright, and then I took it to the wall where I could just reach high enough to put it on the top and give it a gentle push off the other side. Back I went to bed, and sleep – glorious, undisturbed sleep.

So, my mission successfully accomplished, I went about in a sentimental haze for a few days. There was no more noise, and I was convinced I had saved the cub from death, from perishing miserably. But this was not to last. Come twilight one evening, I heard the dreaded ‘Yap, yap, yap’ again. I suppose if you’re a doctor, and you work hard to set a nasty break in a patient’s leg, only to have him come back a couple of months later with the other one broken, you’d be bound to be less sympathetic, ‘Not you again!’ It detracted from my sense of achievement, too – why must the creature be so stupid? Only in the morning was I prepared to make another effort, motivated more by loss of sleep than anything else. I found the cub in a little hole that it had dug for itself in the vegetable garden; just big enough to hide in, for as I peered into the dark space two glowing, cross eyes looked out at me.

I guess it was not sensible to plunge my bare hand in and grab it. In retrospect, it was really very stupid. Its teeth, needle-sharp, went straight to the bone. With my free hand, I prised open its jaws, and it promptly grabbed that one instead. Two hands savaged. When I managed to get a grip on it, I chucked it over the wall with no more ado, and went inside to plaster my wounds with remedies.

At midnight, under a full moon, just below the bedroom window, it started up again. It was then that the penny dropped. This wasn’t an abandoned cub. This was a deliberately dumped cub. After all, it hadn’t starved, had it, despite several nights of miser on its own? So it could dig a bit deeper and make a proper earth. Plainly, its mother had been going round doing the neighbourhood drop: ‘You stay here, Charlie; this garden’s for you, Flossie, I’m leaving you here.’ And so on, and so on. What I had thought were the death cries were in fact those of a creature having to face a new life. And I, like a fool, had tried to return it to its old life. Well, as we all know, that never works, does it?

The final ridiculous scene was about to unfold. I can’t help but go back to the analogy of dreams, where an epic that starts off with deep emotion and cosmic overtones ends up in absurdity. I was very tired – it had been a trying day. All I wanted to do was sleep. The yelps I could cope with, but suddenly there were loud scrabbling noises close to the house, followed by ‘splish, splosh’ sounds. Up, open the window, and all was revealed. The cub had climbed up the water butt and fallen in. I admit I must have stood there for several minutes, wondering if this was the answer to my prayers. But the thought of fishing a drowned cub out of a barrel of dirty water in the morning was far, far worse…

Quickly dressed, cursing loudly, I went out. I would have laughed if I hadn’t been so angry. The cub’s snout was stuck bravely up into the air, and with his two front paws he paddled frantically to try and stay afloat. I put on leather gardening gloves this time; I wasn’t going to be caught twice. Even in its desperate plight, it still tried to bite me. It is true that Nature has no gratitude; why should it? But then I wasn’t going to have much sympathy either. I found a plastic washing-up bowl and heaved out one black, stinking, slimy fox cub onto the grass. It glared at me angrily and scuttled away into the bushes where I left it to recover.

You think I’m making this up, but no, I couldn’t. My inventive powers don’t run to this kind of absurd scenario – I always try to pitch my imaginings on a grander scale. But when I had drawn the cards and found the story of the foxes written plain there, it niggled away at my mind, and I wondered if I could use it as a key to something with a bit more depth. Nothing came; I tried this idea and that, but they all fizzled out. Come night-time again, I was wide awake, restless, unable to let go and relax. Perhaps a walk through the late-night city would help – it would prove some sort of a distraction, at least.

I clattered down the familiar stone steps, holding the old metal handrail since they are pitted and tricky to negotiate in the uneven light of the street lamps, which are picturesque, but ineffective, like something out of Dickens. At the bottom, I struck off into the city, through the commercial quarter where once merchants had traded cargoes of cloth and sugar, down to the docks from whence their riches came. I am always attracted to water, especially to water where there is the coming and going of boats. It’s a long time now since these docks have been used extensively for trade, but they have plenty of life. There are now marinas for private boats, smart waterfront cafes and new housing developments along the old quays, and the docks themselves are an intricate network of waterways, through routes and blind alleys winding away into the lesser-known quarters of the city.

I’m not sure what I had in mind to do, but when I saw the boat pulled up I had no second thoughts. ‘Moonlight cruise’, the board announced. Hadn’t heard of such a thing before, but then it was the tourist season, and all sorts of novelties were on offer. ‘One and a half hours – see the city by night. £10 only.’ A dozen or so people were on board already, and the captain stood by the gangplank ready to welcome any hesitant participant.

‘Coming?’ he asked cheerfully. He was a big man, with a florid face but a curiously sardonic, thin-lipped smile. ‘You won’t regret it. Not long to wait, we’re off in five minutes.’

Part Two follows in two weeks’ time, on August 14th

My Life with Tarot

I first came across Tarot cards in 1968, as a young student on vacation in America. The pack was the Rider Waite set, beautifull painted by Pamela Colman Smith, whose artistry and insights I’ve shared in an earlier post. The Rider Waite pack enchanted me – and sometimes disturbed me! – and I also acquired a more traditional, Marseilles pack some months later. There began a life-long fascination with its images, resonant and honed through centuries of use, the oracle, game and plaything of both nobility and common folk. I was drawn into historical research, into scrutiny of its symbolism, and into the practice of working with Tarot for insights, both for myself and others. After many years, I was finally able to distil this into a book: ‘Tarot Triumphs’, published by Weiser in 2016.

Travellers along the Silk Road

Taking a ride with the Kirghiz nomads near lake Issyk Kul- my journey along the Silk Road, in 1996


Two nights ago, I woke from a dream in which yaks, laden with rolled up hand-woven rugs, were toiling their way up a mountain pass. They were travelling from west to east, traversing the mountainous area of Central Asia where today’s maps show the meeting points of Kirghistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China. I was watching this scene, but inside it too. It was dark and cold, but from this snapshot of dream life, I can still in my imagination smell the animals, hear their heavy breath, touch the rougher backing of the carpets. Was this a flashback to the days of the Silk Road? Carpets from the Middle East were certainly traded eastwards, and I know that the yaks are the beasts for the job in the high mountainous regions of Central Asia. I have travelled in the area in modern times, and seen them there.

The black dots are indeed yaks, seen foraging for food in the high mountain passes of Western China on my Silk Road journey in 1996

I had already written the draft of this post, and perhaps something was stirring in my consciousness in preparation for finding the images to accompany it, and polishing and revising as best I can. Nevertheless, the resonance of the image and the strong sensory awareness is unusual for me, in the dream state. But, as a wise friend once told me, sometimes it’s best not to analyse a dream too closely. Leave it open to interpretation, and the life of it continues; pin it down too closely, and it becomes two-dimensional. So I’ll leave it like this, as an opening into the lost world of the Silk Road.

Khiva – a former restored Silk Road city, in present day Uzbekistan

The Trade Routes

For nearly two thousand years, merchants travelled along the Silk Road routes which ran from China in the East to destinations such as Constantinople and Venice in the West. In my previous Silk Road post I wrote about the bazaars which sprang up around these trade routes; today’s post is about the actual journeying.

The Silk Road was a cultural melting pot. From the early centuries AD up to the 15th century, when better trade routes by sea were established, the Silk Road was the main communications and trade link between East and West. The influence of these traders was therefore enormous, since they carried not only goods with them, but also their stories and culture, which they passed on to those they met on the way. Even forms of art and religion – Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and certain forms of Christianity – flowed in their tracks, spreading from one country to the next.

‘Apsaras’ – winged deities, often angelic musicians, and more or less unique to a Silk Road version of Buddhism (from the Mogao caves)

The merchants’ best-known cargo was of course silk, but many other goods were traded between East and West, including wool, carpets and amber from the West, and mirrors, gunpowder, porcelain, rhubarb (yes!) and paper from the East. Merchants travelled in various groups and guises. Some trudged along as humble foot pedlars, whereas at the other extreme, huge caravan trains of camels, up to one thousand in number, and stretched for miles across the horizon. The camel was well equipped of course for desert terrain, but for cold mountain passes and high terrain, other beasts of burden were better, and these included donkeys, horses and yaks.

‘The Ship of the Desert’ – the camel was ideal for long, hot journeys on desert terrain. Below are camels (Bactrian two-humped variety) of yesteryear and today.

However, the idea that these intrepid merchants took the whole trip from China to Constantinople is something of a myth. During most periods, it was rare for one trader or traveller to travel the whole of the Silk Road. Bandits, border skirmishes and rapacious customs officers made it difficult to keep going all the way, so merchandise was often transferred from one group of traders to another en route. It has been said that only under the reign of Genghis Khan in the early 13th century over the Mongol Empire, the largest empire in history, was it possible to do so. The irony was that only a tyrant could ensure that no one dared step out of line! At other times, though, locals could succeed in journeying where foreigners couldn’t. Goods would be switched from one carrier to another, and were often traded through different hands too, before they reached their destination. Many middlemen make for steep prices, so this is one reason why the final selling price of the goods at their destination was often hugely above their original cost.

Early Chinese figures of pedlars travelling on foot along the Silk Road (British Museum)

The journeys were long and arduous. The terrain was difficult, often treacherous, involving high mountain passes, deserts, and severe climates. It was a miracle, really, that a porcelain dish from China could end up in Italy or France. Trading itself was a kind of art form, with the need for go-betweens, specialist trasnporters, and accountability to the initial seller and ultimate buyer. Certain groups of people were known for their skills, and excelled as Silk Road traders, in particular the long-vanished Sogdians of Sogdiana in Central Asia. And they were keen to pass it down the family; their boys were often sent out on the Silk Road from the age of five, and grew into lads who were trading on their own account by the age of twelve.

This caravanserai, known as Akseray and on the road between Aksaray and Konya in Turkey, is the largest in the country. Built in 1229, it is more like a mosque or temple than a lodging.

Along the way, merchants stayed in lodgings known as caravanserais. These traditionally consisted of a central courtyard, with water for the animals, and store rooms around the sides on the ground floor. Lodging rooms were on the upper floor. The sturdy entrance doors were firmly locked at night so that the merchants, their goods and beasts, could rest safely. Some of these old caravanserais can still be found in Central Asian countries such as Turkey and Syria. They range from smaller, humbler versions to ones which are the size of cathedrals and almost as grand! At the very best caravanserais, there were proper beds, hot and cold water, and even their own shops and banking facilities. Merchants preferred their caravanserais to be outside the city walls, so that they could arrive and leave easily – the authorities preferred them in the town centre for the opposite reason, so that they could collect taxes due from the caravans before they had a chance to leave early next morning!

Further exotic goods could have been picked up en route, and perhaps traded within the caravanserais themselves, such as this rich gold embroidery, a speciality in what is now Uzbekistan

Many stories must have been swapped in the caravanserais, and both folk tales and religious ideas are known to have been ‘traded’ along the Silk Road. As I mentioned in the previous post, if two merchants came from opposite ends of the Silk Road, they could get by in conversation as long as they could each speak a Turkic language. These Turkic languages, spoken over a range of countries, are just about similar enough for people to understand each other.

Other facilities along the way included ‘service stations’ where locals made a living from catering to travellers’ needs. Merchants carrying costly porcelain knew that they could get any breakages mended in Tashkent, the specialist centre for china repairs, and thus arrive with their goods at least seemingly intact. The trade routes themselves stretched from Xian in eastern China to Byzantium (Constantinople), branching off into practically every country in the Middle East. There were also Silk Road routes into India and Russia: some archaeologists even suggest that Britain was the furthest terminus in the West, as Chinese silk has been found in the grave of an Iron Age king.

Ceramics in Tashkent Museum, of the kind which would have been traded and mended in the city en route
A Chinese pilgrim, travelling to India for further enlightenment

Reasons for travel were not always related to trade. There were many pilgrims and missionaries on these routes, especially between Buddhist countries, and in particular between India and China. Chinese Buddhist monks were anxious to re-connect with the source of their religion, which was in India where the Buddha had lived. They hoped too that they might discover ancient manuscripts which would expand their knowledge. Buddhism itself crept westwards along the Silk Road too, while Christianity crept eastwards, and sometimes the two overlapped. The Chinese Goddess Kuan Yin, (see my earlier post), is sometimes found in a form resembling a Christian Madonna and child. And the Gandharan Art form (3rd-5th century AD) is a fusion of Buddhist and Greek styles, specialising in exquisite heads with elaborate hair styles.

A Ghandaran head, in a fusion of Greek and oriental styles (British Museum)

Navigating safely through mountainous terrain and deserts was the job of the caravan masters. In centuries past, they sometimes trained at maritime navigation schools in India, which helped them to find their way by the stars. For that reason, caravans often travelled at night , especially in the desert Another trick they employed in the near-featureless desert, perhaps where the leader was not so expert, was to push a stick into the ground indicating their direction of travel, before they all settled down to sleep. That way, there was no confusion about the way they should go, the following day!

The deity of the Pole Star, a guide for travellers

Transport could be by camels, yaks, horses or donkeys, depending on the terrain. Camels were especially good in the desert, where they could travel 30 – 40 miles a day, and their inner eyelids protected them against sand storms. They would, however, need to drink every 25 miles or so, and sometimes special camel watering holes were created.

The image below shows a construction known as a ‘rabat’ where the dome keeps the water below cool; the camels walk down a sloping path to reach it.

In the deserts, it was essential for the travellers to know where water could be found to slake their own thirst. Mirages of water, described as ‘glitter sand’ or ‘dry water’ could deceive the inexperienced. And not all water was drinkable. Travelling in a caravan across the Gobi Desert in the early 20th century, a Christian missionary wrote, ‘The sparkle of the limpid spring is irresistible but when I ran towards it…[the caravan leader] cautioned me: “Drink as little of that water as you can.”…I cared for none of his warnings…I would enjoy it to the full. I soon learnt that…the more I took of this water, the more parched I became. It was brackish…leaving thirst for ever unquenched.’  For this reason, the lore of the desert gave springs descriptive names so that their usefulness or otherwise would be recognised: One Cup Spring, Bitter Well Halt, and Mud Pit Hollow for instance. Sucking a pebble was a desperate remedy for the thirsty traveller! But, if you were lucky, you could arrive at Inexhaustible Spring Halt: ‘When the wayfarer tastes this sweet draught he will drink until all the pain of his parched throat and cracked lips is softened and fades away.’ (all quotes from (The Gobi Desert – Cable, Mildred & French, Francesca, 1942)

A more fearsome deity – the Sand God who could blow up a sandstorm instantly (Illustration by Nilesh Mistry for Stories from the Silk Road, Cherry Gilchrist)

Another hazard was the risk of encountering the demons of the desert. Wandering lights, disembodied voices, howls of demons…Traveller Marco Polo wrote about these in the 13th century, warning that those who stray from the caravan will hear their names called and be led off track, or perhaps hear armies or caravans marching close by: ‘Marvellous indeed and almost passing belief are the stories related of these spirits of the desert, which are said at times to fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the clash of arms.’

This image from Mogao shows a lady traveller under the protection of the Bhodisattva (a ‘Buddha-to-be’) as she sets out on her perilous journey across the Gobi desert. She probably commissioned this painting to be made as an offering to the deities

Sound can certainly play strange tricks in the desert, and was terrifying, even fatal, to get lost in it. At the Buddhist cave temples of Dunhuang (now in Western China) on the edge of the Gobi Desert, it was commonplace for travellers to make offerings before they set off . To try and ensure their safety, those of wealthy means might also donate money for more religious paintings and statues to be created in this extraordinary series of caves, also known as the Mogao Caves. I have to add that though that when I was in Dunhuang, where my travel group stayed for three days, we weren’t able to enter the caves at all because it was raining…in August…in the desert… Today these caves are a museum under Unesco protection, so naturally their preservation comes first. And humidity was an issue for the art work, so we had to amuse ourselves at the site’s museum, with camel-riding on the dunes, and on Day Three (in desperation!) visiting a Japanese film set of a village created in Genghis Khan style. We never did see the Mogao Caves, but let’s just say that I learnt something about the noble path of detachment in Buddhism, rising above disappointment when one’s desires are not satisfied.

A protective emblem, found in a nomad’s yurt; this triangular form relates to the ancient Mother Goddess and is widely found in different variations across Central Asia and into the Far East

Not all hardships faced by travellers were related to the desert. The high mountains en route, such as the Pamirs or Tien Shan (‘Heavenly Mountains’) could bring on altitude sickness, and there could also be snow and frozen passes to negotiate. So every area needed guides with local expertise, and it’s not surprising that very few people travelled from end to end of the Silk Route, even when political conditions didn’t impede them along the way. The Chinese were actually fearful of leaving China, which they regarded as the entirety of the civilised world, and believed everything beyond its boundaries to be a barbarian wilderness. Those exiting China through the Great Gate of Jiaguan, known as the Gate of Sighs, would toss a handful of pebbles at the fortress wall to know their fortune. ‘If the stone rebounds he will come back safe and sound, but if not…’ said a local, leaving ‘the doom unuttered’. (Cable & French)

The romance of the Silk Road still grips us even today, and perhaps we long for those days of epic journeys, when unknown marvels might appear before our eyes. The boundary between myth and reality was thin; the Chinese longed, for instance, for the wondrous horses they’d seen in Central Asia, a far cry from the stubby little ponies they themselves had at the time. They endowed these horses in their imagination with magical qualities, believing that they sweated blood, were born out of the water, and that some had wings and could fly like dragons. Emperor Wu c 101BC even wrote a hymn to them:
The Heavenly Horses are coming
They issued from the waters of a pool…
They can transform themselves like spirits…
Jupiter is their Dragon.
Should they choose to soar aloft,
Who could keep pace with them…
They will draw me up and carry me…
I shall reach the Gates of Heaven
I shall see the Palace of God.

The magical ‘heavenly horse’, as dreamed of by the Chinese

I was lucky to make my two longer trips along the Silk Road when it was still possible, in the 1990s. It would not be possible to make them today, as a foreign traveller. And I am glad that I saw Damascus, a queenly city of the Silk Road, before it was blighted by war. But the Silk Road has evern been in a state of change and unpredictability, and perhaps this enhances its magic. My journeys in Silk Road countries, and along some of its ancient roads are among the most vivid travel experiences I’ve ever had.

A note on the photographs: all contemporary images were taken on my Silk Road travels and are copyright Cherry Gilchrist. Images from the British Museum were supplied under licence.

See also:

Suzani from the Silk Road
The Bazaars of the Silk Road

Exeter Dreaming

Bygone views in the city: this one is already lost to us – the historic Royal Clarence Hotel burnt down in 2016, taking nearly 250 years of history with it. I took my tripod up for a night shot in December 2015, little thinking that it would be my final chance to capture this view.

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’.

Receiving my blazer (actually a borrowed, oversized one while waiting for the bespoke number!) from the Lady Mayor of Exeter in April 2022, at the Red Coat Guides award ceremony

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.

Exeter quayside as it is today, redeveloped for leisure and outdoor sports

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.

A postcard from 1933, sent by a college student to his father, with an excellent close-up of how Worth’s gallery used to look

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.

Quinton on his sketching tours, equipment strapped to his bicycle

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… The church 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.

Students in the gardens of Colleton Crescent, dreaming away the afternoon above the river

You may also be interested in:

Posts on nearby Topsham, my home town:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham (1)

Hidden Topsham (2)

Hidden Topsham (3)

Hidden Topsham (4)

Topsham at Halloween

Lockdown Topsham

Topsham celebrates

William Blake and the Moravians

Glad Day‘ by William Blake

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.

The Sea of Time and Space‘ as this symbolic image of the cycle of life is usually now titled.
Blake wrote in one of his letters:
Temptations are on the right hand and left; behind, the sea of time and space roars and follows swiftly.’

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.

Thought to be the only self-portrait of Blake, made when he was around 45

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.

The River of Life c.1805 by William Blake

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)

The Moravian ‘Lamb’, their prime mystic symbol

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.

One of Blake’s illustrated poems from Songs of Innocence and Experience. The Moravians cherished their children and included them in the Church’s acts of worship

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 Ancient of Days’ by William Blake

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 main centre of Moravian worship in London remained at the church in Fetter Lane, until it was bombed in World War Two. The Moravian Church Library and Archive, where much new Blake material has been discovered, is now in Muswell Hill (north London). The Moravian Cemetery is in Chelsea/Fulham and it looks as though worship is still carried on in the chapel there. Details here, and also here. There are also still a number of Moravian churches in the UK, and by chance, a few years ago I happened to drive past the biggest Moravian centre of all at Fulneck near Leeds in Yorkshire, with its magnificent buildings.

The Moravian Philosophy

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.

Love Feasts

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 .) 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’!

Mystical Calligraphy

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.

The Ephrata Centre, where ‘Fraktur Calligraphy’ is still practised today.

Count Zinzendorf

The flamboyant and innovative Count Zinzendorf

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.

Blake’s ‘Cradle Song’ from his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Did his mother Catherine sing such lullabies or simple hymns to him as a child?

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.

A rendering of ‘Morning Star’ sung by a contemporary Moravian choir

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.

Blake’s ‘Tiger, TIger’ – possibly his most popular poem, one that has been chosen as the nation’s favourite (UK).

Papers consulted

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.

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

‘Let us Rejoice’ – 16c. Moravian hymn

‘The Great Moravian Hymn’
Moravian Christmas hymns (played here on trombones)

You may also be interested in some of my earlier posts:

Alchemy: Mystery and History

Meeting Walter Lassally: Cinematographer and Kabbalist

Alchemy and the Trickster