Alchemy: Mystery and History

From ‘Splendor Solis’, attributed to Salomon Trismosin, c.1582

Before we head into Christmas, I’d like to offer a further post on alchemy which gives some background to this very mysterious and enigmatic practice. It’s spiced up with some glorious alchemical illustrations which I hope will light your path through it.

Alchemy and ‘New Dawn’

In 2015, author and editor Richard Smoley and I conducted a conversation about the whys and wherefores of alchemy. It was published in the Australian journal ‘New Dawn’, and I’ve adapted it here for Cherry’s Cache. This discussion helped me to piece together my own thoughts about alchemy.

My personal story with alchemy is an odd one, in that I never set out to study it or write about it. I had followed a path since my student days which primarily taught me about Kabbalah and the Tree of Life, and included Buddhist and Western meditation practices. Tarot was another tradition which I engaged with, and I began to learn and practice astrology. Of course, I came across alchemy when I began to devour material about these traditions, and I could see that there was a broad field of interrelated practices of a so-called ‘esoteric’ nature. Frances Yates was just emerging as a scholar who could piece some of this together. So how hard could it be, I asked myself, when I was invited to write a short history of alchemy?

Very, as it turned out! Commissioning editor R. A. (Bob) Gilbert was lacking a script for a series currently being produced by the Aquarian Press, grandly entitled ‘Esoteric Themes and Perspectives’. Alchemy was on the list, but an author had let him down, and now he needed someone who could write it in six months. Armed only with blind confidence, I sallied forth to our local University Library in Exeter, to assemble my source material. Luckily, they had a good collection of texts, to be supplemented by other books that I could lay my hands on. But my dreams of swiftly assembling a dazzlingly coherent study of alchemy were dashed when I saw just how complex and contradictory its history was. However, I gritted my teeth, and learnt a valuable lesson – to use my own judgement. I had to go for the jugular, as it were; I couldn’t afford to waste time on peripheral material. I used my own experience of working within genuine traditions to discern where integrity and value lay. And I got it done – somehow.

Alchemy: The Great Work came out in 1984, and, rather mysteriously, it has never been out of print since, weaving its way through different publishers, titles and editions. (You will find it also as The Elements of Alchemy and Explore Alchemy, which I thought would be its last incarnation in 2007, but then suddenly Harper Collins decided they wished to re-publish the original 1984 version.) Surely the tricksy but ultimately helpful hand of Hermes has played a part in this somehow? Yes, I’m sure he did, since the publishers ‘forgot’ to tell me they were doing this, until just before it hit the shelves! And I am still proud to have produced an accessible, clear and reliable history of alchemy, while imbuing it with some meaning, rather than a dry recitation of the facts.

I do not consider myself an alchemist, in the usual sense, and yet undeniably, we have a close relationship. Perhaps this was a task given to me to undertake, rather than one I directly chose myself.

Here follows the discussion which I had with Richard Smoley, slightly shortened:

The Red Dragon: the release of the three forces in the alchemical fire, from the Ripley Scroll 1490

Alchemy and Transformation

R.S. Maybe we could start by a brief definition of what you think alchemy is.
C.G. Alchemy is about transformation. In its most basic definition, it’s the transformation of base material or metal into gold. However, that is too simplistic, according to the ways in which the tradition of alchemy has been practised and understood over hundreds, even thousands, of years. In a way, alchemy is about the process of creation itself: how does one thing become another? How do things change state? How can we change our state of being? And can we, as so-called conscious human beings, learn how to make those changes? So, another way to put it is that alchemy is a way of using the life force to effect transformation, whether that’s on the physical, external level, or in a spiritual way. I hesitate to say that the alchemical process can work either on the material or on the spiritual level, because in one sense, in alchemy, they are completely integrated!

R.S. Most people would say that alchemy is just an old and outmoded form of chemistry. Why should we interest ourselves in it today?
I think this old chestnut comes up because of the way historians have dealt with alchemy in the last hundred years or so. That has formed the belief we’re fed. I use the word ‘belief’ because I really do think our perception of what is true and false, what is reliably scientific and what is non-scientific and therefore superstitious – in some people’s eyes – is molded by the way history has been interpreted. Anyone who reads my book will, I hope, have that view changed. The evidence from the history of alchemy alone, when explored more fully, shows just how seriously it was taken, and how it can’t be just cast on the scrapheap as a well-meaning but deluded forerunner to enlightened science. Isaac Newton himself was an alchemist, and funnily enough, scholars have recently begun to pay a lot more attention to that fact.

I myself make no claims that alchemy is effective when judged by the standards of modern chemistry. I am not a scientist and clearly, we’re not going to go backwards in time and revert to what now seem very primitive methods for working with chemical elements. I think the point is more that alchemy has had many applications over its history, and that the way it led into chemistry as we know it was just one feature of the whole spectrum of alchemy. Maybe it still has more to teach us about how to work with physical materials though – and with the whole area of interaction of mind and materials opening up in science, it could offer views and approaches which breathe new life into scientific development. But whatever the case there, alchemy still has much to impart in terms of psychology, spiritual development, and our relationship with the natural world. In one form or another, it’s still a path to knowledge.


The Alchemist and his Apprentices, from the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, early 14th century

Puzzles of Science, Mind and Matter

R.S. Could you say a little bit about the origins of alchemy?
C.G. Well, again here we are somewhat constrained by the degree of research and scholarship available to us. This suggests, to put it briefly, that the metal-workers of Ancient Egypt may have kicked off the interest in the transformation of one material or metal into another. And that this came to early fruition in the Hellenistic, Alexandrian period, which began about three hundred years before the Christian Era. But I suspect that if a few scholars really dig into the roots of alchemy, they will find a much wider realm of alchemical endeavor, particularly if they broaden the definition of alchemy. In the Far East, alchemy also had ancient origins, but the focus there was more on how the human body worked. Just as shamanism has extended its definition in recent years – it was once considered to be exclusively Siberian, and now is traced almost world-wide – so alchemy may have a broader historical lineage than we suspect at present. Perhaps this is beginning to happen. It has been suggested for instance that the discovery of charcoal burning is linked to a historical peasant tradition of alchemy as practiced by the Basques, one of the most ancient peoples of Europe.

R.S. Some writers describe alchemy as a physical process—actual working with minerals and plants and so on. Others see it as a psychological process. How do you see these different roles? Are they both valid?
C.G. I used to hold firmly to the view that true alchemy must be applied across the levels, having both a physical and a mental component. Its magic, if I can call it that, is that it is neither purely material or purely spiritual. However, I’ve come to see this in a different light, and I think now that alchemy has an incredible spectrum of application, and can be targeted at different levels of creation. The most extreme examples of selective application are perhaps the old-fangled ‘puffers’ who spent all their time trying to work out how to concoct gold and get rich. And also the purely spiritual alchemists, among whom we can count Jacob Boehme. I consider now that both of these are valid in their way; they are both participating in an alchemical process. However, if the get-rich-quick alchemists ignored the bigger scale of the creative process, and limited their goals to financial reward, they were likely to end up dirty, disappointed and broke! Alchemical laboratories weren’t pretty, fragrant places to work in.

The hot and often cluttered laboratory of the alchemists, 16-17th c. (untitled MS, Bodleian Library)

Looking at the other extreme – as exemplified by Boehme – can certainly have more significant results, using alchemy as a metaphor for spiritual development. But perhaps it peters out as a way forward, or be very particular to one alchemist, because it is treated then purely as a set of symbols, which could be replaced by another set at will. If you sever the connection between material process and our sense of creation as a whole, or between spiritual and material understanding, then that approach to alchemy can’t flourish for long. There’s much to ponder on here, and I doubt that my own views will ever reach a complete and final conclusion!

Hermes Trismegistus, sage of alchemy and the Hermetic wisdom literature. Pavement, Siena Cathedral, Italy

The Wisdom and Folly of Hermes

R.S. The book title links alchemy with the ‘hermetic tradition’. How does that work? does Hermes come into this too?
C.G. Hermes is very important in alchemy, as a kind of patron saint – except that he isn’t very saintly! He’s more of a shape-shifter or trickster figure. Hermes and Mercury meld to a certain extent, so that we have the guiding spirit of Hermes who might or might not lead you to enlightenment through your alchemical practice, and we also have Mercury the metal, with its indwelling Mercurial spirit. Hermes is more than a figurehead too – his name is associated with a body of literature which has influenced both alchemists and the Western esoteric tradition. Hence the broad term ‘hermetic tradition’. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, in his excellent study The Western Esoteric Traditions, points out that the cult of Hermes was founded on the Egyptian traditions associated with Thoth, and that Hermes evolved into a kind of ‘syncretic god’ who had a profound influence on the whole development of esoteric work up until the Renaissance period. I would say further it goes further than that, actually. Sir Walter Scott and G. S. Mead, for instance, were keen to plumb the wisdom of the so-called Hermetic texts, and to translate them for others to read in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They have left us a legacy that we value today.

So we can see Hermes/Mercury as a kind of guide in individual practice of alchemy. But also as a mischievous creature, apt to lead us astray. Michael Sendivogius, in his alchemical treatise The New Chemical Light, which was published around 1608, addresses his readers as ‘the Sons of Hermes’ and includes a wonderful dialogue between the alchemist and Mercury. Here Mercury is the trickster spirit who plagues the alchemist with his cunning ways – the alchemist decides to invoke Mercury himself to shed light on what’s going wrong with his experiments. Mercury appears to him, but is laughing his head off! Then they engage in a clever battle of words, at the end of which the alchemist is none the wiser, and demands that Mercury tells him how to make the Philosopher’s Stone, which is another term for Alchemical Gold or The Elixir. Mercury neatly wraps up the repartee with, ‘Mr Philosopher, if you know, you can make it, and if you don’t you can’t.’ That one gets me laughing too! Suddenly, it’s like the tales of Hodja Nasreddin, or a lesson from Gurdjieff. (I plan to post a blog which touches on these elements of ‘wise folly’ very soon. In the meantime, try the home-grown Black Country ‘fools’ Enoch and Eli for ‘a bit of a laff’ at my previous post: Enoch and Eli: The Heroes of Black Country Wit. )

I prepared a version of this dialogue, and we performed it – perhaps for the first time in nearly 400 years? – at an alchemical conference in Prague. Not many people think of alchemy as being a source of humour, but it’s there, if you dig for it. And we can probably attribute it to the Hermetic influence.

Anyway, the role of Hermes and his sidekick Mercury make for a fascinating study, one that I want to continue with. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s more than something on the page. On three occasions, Mercury aka Hermes has actually turned up in my life. Laugh if you will!
(You can read an account of the first and chief occasion when this happened in my postAlchemy and the Trickster)

Dragons, Lions and Lovers

R.S. Why did the old alchemical texts rely so heavily on symbols and emblems rather than verbal descriptions?
C.G. I think it’s clear that you couldn’t really explain alchemy in normal, so-called rational terms. Alchemy doesn’t work as a collection of recipes, as many practitioners have found to their cost. It was considered important too that each alchemist should work it out in their own way. Alchemy has to speak to the spirit; it isn’t just an assemblage and processing of materials. So the symbols can do that. They really stirred the spirit of the historical alchemists, and still resonate for many of us today. Some are very complex, and also very beautiful. Dragons, kings and queens, water and fire, serpents, lovers, lions – a rich panoply of imagery. Colours were very important too – the stages of transformation were marked by colour changes in the vessel. Also the imagery poses problems and questions, which the alchemist must wrestle with. Why is the king sick in bed? What are the dragons fighting about? What do the steps on the mountain represent? This generates insight and stimulates the imagination.

From ‘Splendor Solis’, attributed to Salomon Trismosin, c.1582

Alchemy and Dreaming

C.G. It’s also recorded that the secrets of alchemy came to certain practitioners through dreams and visions too – and dreams, as we know, deal in paradoxical, powerful images. The place of dreams in alchemy is a whole topic in itself. There’s evidence that alchemists deliberately cultivated visionary states, and practiced what today we might call ‘visualisation’.

R.S. Jung found much of value in alchemy. Do you find the hooking up of alchemy with psychology and archetypes of interest? Or is it just one particular slant that doesn’t reflect the real body of alchemical work?
C.G. Jung found himself mesmerized by alchemical imagery, and used it to illuminate his psychological theories and indeed to help him towards new insights into the human psyche. I think he has done us a huge favour by re-investigating the writings and symbols of alchemy, in one sense. It means you can have a conversation with a psychologist about alchemy, and that it’s crept back into our vocabulary again. There’s much in Jung’s writings on alchemy that those with a modern education, and little time for pre-scientific theory, can relate to. On the other hand, I also believe that Jung has done us a disfavour by cutting off the main body of practical alchemy, where laboratories, equipment and materials were involved. He actually said that the alchemical operations of old were ‘senseless’ and never led to the desired goal. As I said earlier, if you slice off just one layer of alchemy, you may produce something with a kind of one-off value, but you also divorce yourself from the evolving path of alchemy. I do think it’s time that we moved on from Jung’s interpretations.

‘Fermentation’, a stage of the alchemical process from the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, early 14th century. Note the complex cosmology.

Alchemy, Spirituality and Personal Development

R.S. How does alchemy work as a spiritual path?
C.G. This is something that has to be done within a context. If you are a Christian believer, it’s perfectly possible to use the symbols of alchemy to represent stages of mystical attainment, and understanding of Christ’s teachings. Boehme did it, and so did the poet Henry Vaughan. I think that if you meditate on the symbols, and you embed the imagery in your consciousness, it will work there, to release your own limitations and expand your awareness in an intuitive, even cosmic way. That’s the power of symbols, and alchemical ones aren’t random – they form a kind of graded teaching system.

However, we can also use the symbolism in the context of everyday life, if we’re prepared to be attentive, observant, and aim to increase our conscious awareness. This has much in common with Kabbalistic or Gurdjieffian practice. I have written about it in Everyday Alchemy. You can actually start with very simple things – it needn’t be too high-flown or complicated. There’s a talk that I give which begins with the statement, ‘I’m an alchemist. I cook supper every night.’ There’s a moment’s puzzled pause, then laughter, as the audience gets it! I explain that cooking is a process of transformation very much akin to alchemy, and that in our own kitchens we have the materials and the method to start to understand transformation.
(See my Cherry’s Cache post about Alchemy and Cooking )

The Sealed Vessel of Alchemy and Creativity

R.S. Can you say more about alchemy and the creative process? Is it a model which could be used in any sense nowadays for creative work?
C.G. Writers and artists have used alchemy as inspiration for their work for a very long time. Studies of Shakespeare, for instance, reveal that he was almost certainly using alchemical templates to plot some of his plays. This is not wild conjecture, but has scholarly back-up. Therefore, I think those working creatively can dig into the symbolism, read about traditional forms of alchemy, and find inspiration for their work. I have talked to several artists about this, including one or two highly successful ones, who find that the framework of alchemy is a wonderful source for their creative work. One of the key points that strikes me again and again – with my writing too – is that alchemy is ‘hermetic’. It’s sealed, it’s private up to a certain point. The creative process must ‘cook’ in the vessel, and you must shield it from prying eyes. Too often nowadays, we’re expected to talk about artistic or literary work in progress. No, says alchemy! Wait until the time is right, or you risk prematurely wrecking your material. It could all just evaporate. So you have to have courage, and patience, and be your own guide for a lot of the time as well. All lessons which I think we could profit from today.

From ‘Splendor Solis’, attributed to Salomon Trismosin, c.1582. There is a stage of darkness in the alchemical process, when it seems that everything may be lost, before the sun reappears in transformed splendour

The Mystery of Consciousness

R.S. Alchemy seems to imply that there is some kind of consciousness latent even in inanimate matter. Would you agree with that view? If so, what do you think its implications are?
C.G. I do agree, and have struggled for many years to try and understand and perceive that. I think that alchemy was way ahead of its time in this respect. Once you start to break out of the dead hand of the world view of material/mind split, you realise just what a grip it has on you. Whether or not the alchemical view of consciousness is really ‘true’ in a scientific sense, I think it’s incredibly important to see just how our values and outlook are shaped by religious, cultural and scientific thinking. We tend to assume them as the norm, whether we like them or not. And we desperately need new models to go forward. And as far as I can tell, there is progress on the scientific or biological front too in accepting a broader definition of consciousness. According to the biologist Rupert Sheldrake, we do have ‘species mind’, for instance. I think it will also improve our care of the environment if we even concede the possibility that consciousness of some kind is within everything. And restrict the waste for instance of food and resources. (I’m not one to believe that all yoghurt in the world cries when you eat a pot of yoghurt! Seriously, I have heard that said!) But I can’t bear the waste of life forms, both of plants and animals and probably mineral too, which taints human culture now.

And, after all, what is consciousness? I don’t mean that as a clever-clever question. But it strikes me that there is much further to go in unravelling its mysteries. For instance, how come we are apparently ‘unconscious’ at night, and yet we can create the most amazing dreams? We may generate insights, and even when not dreaming, our identity remains during sleep. How do we often know exactly what time it is when we wake up, if some form of consciousness has not been operating? If we take a broader view of consciousness, re-brand it if you like, we can go much further in our discoveries.

Further Reading

The current edition of my book Alchemy: The Great Work offers a clearly-written history of alchemy and insights into its meaning, including its relationship to spiritual development.

Everyday Alchemy, published in 2002, is a guide to using alchemical symbols to transform and enrich everyay life. No laboratory required, apart from yourself! (Out of print, so search on the internet. I hope to bring this back into publication before too long.)

Next time…

The next post on December 19th will be an entertaining word game which I hope you’ll enjoy over Christmas! See you then!

Eating Apples – and the Distillation of Memories

Epigram Nine, Atalanta Fugiens, by Michael Maier 1617

Lock the tree with the old man in a bedewed house, and by eating of its fruits he will become young.’

As we get older, in less cheerful moments we may feel that nothing new will happen to us again in this lifetime. But actually, I don’t hold with that idea, as I think there’s always scope for a surprise, or a new activity or friendship which blossoms even at a late stage. It’s true however that there is more behind us than ahead of us, and that our ability and energy become more limited. There’s a painting by Russian artist Vasily Maximov, from 1889, called ‘All in the Past’. In it, an elderly aristocrat and her aged female servant sit together outside their summer cottage – brooding, snoozing, knitting and remembering. But although distinction of rank scarcely matters any more, with a touching sense of kinship as their lives even out, there is also a depressing sense that there is nothing more to expect from the future.

However, that’s not the only aspect of growing old – or it needn’t be. Even for those who experience severe physical limitations, inner change can still occur as the threads spun over the years are gathered together. Maybe there’s a symbolic touch to the servant’s knitting?

I describe one instance of this in my book Everyday Alchemy, about something which happened with my mother. Before I include this extract, though, I’ll add a hasty rejoinder that this kind of change may not be possible for everyone, and a person’s state of being may hinder these gentle transformatory experiences. However, I write about them here in a spirit of optimism. Certainly Michael Maier’s emblem in Atlanta Fugiens holds the promise of this, embedded in a symbolic image of alchemical change.

After the extract from my book Everyday Alchemy below, I’ll follow with a further reflection on my mother’s love story.

Distillation and eating apples

First a preamble, also drawn from the text of Everyday Alchemy: an idea of what ‘distillation’ means in alchemy, during the process of changing base matter to gold.

In alchemical terms, this process of receiving sustenance from the higher world is called distillation. The vapours rise from the ‘cooking’ of the ‘earthly’ substance in the vessel; they ascend and then condense into purified drops, running down again to feed the matter that remains below.

And you may like to listen to the vocal ‘fugue’ which Michael Maier wrote to accompany this emblem; like certain other alchemists, he believed in a fusion of visual imagery, music and poetry to accompany his interpretation of each stage of alchemy.

Epigram Nine
In Wisdom’s garden grows an apple tree
With fruits of gold. Take it and our old man,
Enclose them in a glass house, wet with dew,
And let them stay there many days conjoin’d.
When he has eat his fill of fruit, behold!
The former old man is a youth agai
n.



Contemplating Change
Here we have a somewhat bizarre image of an old man sitting in a glass house, eating apples in order to grow young again. Interpreting this in terms of everyday life, let’s not think of it as a literal turning back of the clock, but instead as the renewal of optimism, hope, and energy. We are at liberty with alchemy to wander between the worlds when we interpret its imagery, and to find a way of relating it to our own lives.

To take part in this process of renewal, one thing is essential, and that is the willingness to change. Sure, life is full of changes, and ageing brings change, but that’s the kind of change that seems to advance without our consent! In fact, the more we age, the more we tend to resist changes, building up habits of comfort and thought and lifestyle. And this is not exclusive to the elderly; if you are over the age of twenty or so, you can be sure that those habits are already setting in. They just become more pronounced with the passing of the years.

When we give up accepting change, we give up on life. And maybe this is inevitable in our closing years. My mother, in her last years, wanted to slow the world down, and make it a place of as little change as possible. She kept more and more to her room, and lost interest in what was happening outside. But at the same time, something else was happening. Her memories began to play a very important part in her life. Ironically, as is often the case with old people, her sense of time began to fail, and her short-term memory was poor. But old memories that had meaning for her resurfaced vividly. Verses of poetry she had learnt as a child came floating into her mind again. She relived her courtship and marriage, and told me the story of her first love affair, which she had never revealed before.

It was soul-work. She was contemplating her life, ordering it, and distilling it. Even at that stage of her life, transformation was still in progress, and she ate of the apples in Wisdom’s garden. It was also work that lasted for a particular time span of about eighteen months, and when that was done, it really did seem as though there was nothing else that she had to do except to cope with the increasingly difficult routines of simply staying alive, until the body itself gave out. On the last day of her life, I arrived too late to see her still alive. But instead of the gloom and despair I expected when I entered the house, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy and release. It was a beautiful spring day, with flowers bursting into bloom. In some curious way, I felt that she was at last free to be a part of that. The same day, I went to see the priest about the funeral service, and told him that I couldn’t only feel grief, because there was such a powerful, joyful energy which accompanied her passing. We composed a service which included poems about nature, which she loved.

Alchemy draws its secrets from nature, and from our natural range of experience in life, it but works with them at a higher level. So the natural process which my mother went through is one that we can actively choose to use in our own lives now, without waiting for old age to bring it. The whole principle of taking a process that happens naturally, but using it in a distilled form, means that its potency will be greater, just as in homeopathy the highest potency remedies are those with the least substance in them. (Incidentally, alchemy was responsible for perfecting the art of distillation and inventing brandy!)

Pps 118-119, Everyday Alchemy

The Love Affair

What my mother revealed during that visit, when she showed me the picture of her first lover, stayed with me. It was a kind of strange mother-to-daughter gift, and I do believe that a mother’s gift can be a mixed blessing, even a curse sometimes, as fairy tales and personal experiences readily show. But perhaps that’s a theme for another time! At any rate, it has percolated through my mind since, shedding a little light on my parents’ own relationship, and the hidden emotions that must have remained in my mother’s mind during my own early childhood. Such a close-up insight into our parents’ emotions can come as a shock.

So here’s how this went, in more detail.

On one of my visits to my mother during the last years of her life, she drew a portrait out of her photo box. It wasn’t actually a photograph, but a sketch of a handsome young man.

This was the man, she told me, who had broken her heart.

‘He was my first serious boyfriend.’

Kathleen Owen was a first year student at Homerton Teacher Training College in Cambridge, where he was an undergraduate in another college, and they fell passionately in love. Although my mother – a pretty, slim redhead – was used to going out with boys in her village, this was an affair of the heart of a different order. She pinned all her hopes on him. They exchanged love letters, he gave her his picture, and maybe they were even planning a life together.

‘Then we went home for the summer holidays, and that was it. I never heard from him again.’

Mum may have been a minister’s daughter from a country background, but she was not unworldly. She also had plenty of common sense. So I think her perception that this man was genuinely in love with her was true, not a naive illusion.

‘What happened? Did you ever find out?’

I was caught up in this story, which had been kept hidden for sixty years.

She shook her head. ‘No. I don’t know why he did it.’

Was he too cowardly to pursue a real commitment? Did his parents object? I imagine my mother waiting after she’d returned to the family home in Soham, where her father was a Baptist Minister. Did her glow of joy gradually drain away day by day, as she waited for a letter in vain? Did she have to hide her anguish from the family? I wanted to ask her more, but I sensed that it was a fragile moment, and more than she’d ever revealed to me before.

My mother Kathleen, 2nd from left, with some of her college friends

After she came back to college, the news percolated through that her boyfriend had died, of a burst appendix. But this had happened months after they parted from each other, and wasn’t the reason for his withdrawal. So plainly now there could be no way back – no explanation, and no possible reconciliation. She was heartbroken.

‘And the strange thing was,’ she said, ‘that his surname was Phillips.’

My father’s name, the man she was later to meet and marry, was also Phillips. And thus it was my maiden name too. ‘Joscelyn Phillips, he was.’

She gave me the portrait to keep, plus a photo of him. It seemed to put something to rest after all these years. But there was something more: ‘I kept his love letters until we were living in Sandwich,’ she admitted. This was some twenty years later, in the town where I spent the first part of my childhood. ‘Then, one day, I decided there was no point in keeping them, and threw them into the stove.’

A photo of Joscelyn Phillips – not quite so handsome as the portrait!

I remember that cantankerous old coke boiler in the passage by the back door. My father would carry up the coke from the cellar, grumbling, and prise open the dangerously hot metal lid in order to shoot it into the flames below. A dangerous monster, to which I gave a wide berth. Now I also see it as one which devoured my mother’s young hopes and dreams.

My brother Richard, myself and the dog Russ sitting outside the backdoor of no.12 Upper Strand Street, Sandwich

It was over twenty years ago that my mother told me all this, and although I remembered the story, I didn’t take it any further until recently. And I had forgotten the name of her boyfriend, even the Phillips bit. But luckily, I discovered that I had written it down at the time, and surely I could trace this guy on the internet, with the new powerful search tools not available when I first heard the tale? Family history research is my thing; I know the ropes. Birth, death? College records? Newspaper reports? Should be no problem.

But I got nowhere. Phillips is commonplace, of course, as a surname. And although his first name was more unusual, I discovered that there are many ways to spell Josselin or Joscelyn. I found nothing that matched. His identity thus remains a mystery.

My parents also met at Cambridge, in the early 1930s, where my father-to-be, Ormonde Phillips – from various accounts – was a tall, shy and handsome young man. He was also badly in need of some pleasant female company after an upbringing by a shrewish mother and an elderly, gentle but weak-willed father. He fell for Kathleen, and cemented the relationship. My mother told me that when she heard how badly his somewhat crazy mother had treated him, she determined to make it up to him through her love. I think this became a lifelong promise which helped them to stick together through the rough patches. Dad, unsurprisingly, was not an easy man.

My parents at Cambridge and my father’s graduation day

Their marriage plans, however, were disrupted by the outbreak of war. The preparations for a white wedding with all the trimmings, and a honeymoon in the Peak District, had to be cancelled. Like many couples in a similar situation, a hasty registry office ceremony was arranged before my father was sent off to Salisbury with his call-up papers. I found a newspaper report of the event, held on Thursday September 7th, 1939:

Although Miss Kathleen Florence Owen should have been married in Mansfield-Road Baptist Church, Nottingham yesterday, the ceremony did not take place there. Instead she was married at Gosport, on the South coast. The reason for the sudden change in her plans was that her bridegroom – 2nd Lieut. Charles Ormonde Reynolds Phillips – was unable to get to Nottingham. For the same reason the honeymoon, which should have been spent in Derbyshire, will now be spent at Gosport. Three bridesmaids should have been in attendance, but owing to the change of plans only one could be present – Miss Maisie Owen, sister of the bride. She carried a bouquet of bronze chrysanthemums.

My father’s stay in the army was short-lived, as he was invalided out with pleurisy, and so their regular married life together began not too long afterwards.

My mother as a young married woman, with her favourite dog Judy

And despite some tensions in the marriage, they were loyal, and supported each other in old age. After Mum’s death, I found a card in which Dad had written a poem to her on their 55th anniversary.

This card to all your loving cares
Of me for five and fifty years
Attests, and speaks my love to you.

As time approaches our three score,
Our love must surely grow yet more
And burn as brightly as when new.

So, as we eat our apples, youth does come back in another guise. Memories resurface; hidden love stories can be revealed. Is this a kind of renewal? I think that indeed it may be. Perhaps the title ‘All in the Past’ can actually be a key to transformation, and development of the soul; it points us to the riches which we already have, if we can just recognise and re-live them.

My parents on their Golden Wedding Day in 1989

Haunted Dartmoor

The strange shapes of some of the granite tors on Dartmoor lend themselves to ghostly legends – we’ll meet this petrified hunter later on

It’s still the Spooky Month, so I’ll continue on this theme by braving the spirits of Dartmoor. In Topsham, our local town, ghosts seem few and select. On Dartmoor, however, you can encounter one at practically every bend in the road or on each granite tor. In fact there are many, many different types of ghosts on Dartmoor, from black dogs to ghostly hunters, from hairy hands to phantom monks and invisible drivers (who run you over). So I will just pick out a few stories to share with you here.

Kitty Jay

I became intrigued by Kitty Jay years ago, when I heard her story on a TV feature about Dartmoor. Kitty, we were told, was a young girl who died tragically after being crossed in love. The grave where her unquiet spirit hovers lies beyond parish boundaries, but it is always tended by unknown hands. Offerings of fresh flowers, and sometimes food or trinkets are placed there regularly. Could this really be so?

Then, when we moved to this area, I finally managed to visit Kitty Jay’s Grave, and to check out the story for myself.

The grave of Kitty Jay, near Houndtor on Dartmoor

Kitty Jay, according to the tale, was a farm girl of humble origins who fell in love with a young man of higher class. He professed to love her in return, seduced her, and then abandoned her. Kitty committed suicide in despair. And because she took her own life- it was considered both a crime and a sin – she could not be interred in a churchyard, and so was buried here, at an old crossroads near Hound Tor.

For thousands of years, crossroads have been considered magical, liminal places, associated with restless spirits. In Greek times they were ruled by the god Hermes, who, as one of the old texts says: ‘I Hermes stand here at the crossroads by the wind beaten orchard, near the hoary grey coast; and I keep a resting place for weary men.’ But as time went on, crossroads seemed to lose the sense of sanctuary and their protective deity, and became places for the outcasts of society, including those who would not find rest after death. In medieval and later times, gallows were often erected at crossroads, considered suitable places for the wicked and the ungodly to end their lives. Here they would be bereft of protection from gods or men, with the four winds blowing over them, condemned to lie forever between this world and the next. Hence crossroads are not only considered to be haunted, but they are also places where spirits can be conjured up.

The grave lies at an old crossroads – the road which runs from left to right (just out of shot) is now metalled, but this one coming up through the woods is still an old bridle path or green lane

However, in all versions of the story, our Kitty was a good and gentle girl, wronged by the cruelty of a man and the harsh code of society. And she continues to be commemorated thus. The strange thing about Jay’s Grave (as it is labelled on the map) is that it is truly almost always covered with offerings. Passing it many times now, I can vouch for the fact that it is nearly always adorned with flowers, trinkets, coins and the like. Some people say these are brought each night by the pixies, but that if you stay up in the dark to see them at work, you will be terrorised by a huge hooded figure, who rises up to drive you away.

Whatever the truth about a sad farm girl who was abandoned by her lover – there seems to be good evidence that a skeleton was indeed found here – it is still a kind of mysterious shrine, as the offerings show. The story still touches our hearts. It also touched that of the writer John Galsworthy, who wrote a novel called The Apple Tree based on the tale of Kitty Jay. Galsworthy loved Dartmoor, and spent much time in the area. More of that later…

And likewise, local bard Seth Lakeman has written a song about her:

Poor Kitty Jay
Such a beauty cast away
This silent prayer
It should paint some peace
On her grave
Something broke her sleep
Poor Kitty Jay
Such a beauty thrown away
So young and fair
Now she's turned to dust
And clay
Terror broke her sleep
Never guessed unto her cold end
Called the Devil her only friend
Never guessed it with his bare hands
Called the Devil the mark of man

You can listen to it here, as recorded in the magical setting of the outdoor Minack Theatre in Cornwall.

Could there be a link between the popularity of this song and the increase in daily offerings? No, surely not – it is the pixies are competing to show their concern, of course!

Offerings placed by unknown hands on Kitty Jay’s grave when I first visited

The Curious Custom of ‘Singing the Body’, and the tradition of The Old Lych Way

Meldon Pool is a flooded limestone quarry on Dartmoor near Okehampton. Here a tragic death occurred in 1936, when someone fell into its murky waters and drowned. (Swimming is prohibited here today.) But when his body could not be found, the mourners became desperate to recover their loved one and give him a Christian burial. Tim Sandles, of Legendary Dartmoor, tells us that the eerie custom of ‘singing the body’ was therefore employed:
This was where prayers and hymns were sung at the edge of any water where a body had gone missing. The old custom of singing the dead involved assembling at the place of a drowning, and singing hymns and psalms near the water in the hope that the body would emerge for burial.’ Thus, it was hoped that ‘the sacred words would be attracted by the lost soul who was thus released from limbo. ‘Accordingly, a choir from nearby Okehampton assembled at the pool and duly chanted hymns and offered prayers. Although there was no immediate result, within the week the body was found floating in the pool. This occasion is the last officially recorded instance of this tradition on Dartmoor.’

Another old custom associated with death on Dartmoor was the carrying of the coffin many miles along ‘the old Lych Way’ to Lydford in order to comply with parish regulations.Those who had died in remote parts of Dartmoor had There is a sinister pathway that winds its sombre way across the northern wastes of Dartmoor, it is known as the ‘Way of the Dead’, the ‘Corpse Way‘, or the Lych Way. Its roots are firmly set deep in the days when every person on the moor was expected to attend their church for services and burials. That may not seem any different to the rest of the country in medieval times, except for some of them it involved a trudge of about 12 miles and in bad weather this would increase to roughly 17 miles. Legendary Dartmoor has the full explanation.

This song about The Old Lych Way, performed by our local folk heroes ‘Show of Hands’, was written by our talented Topsham neighbour Chris Hoban.

The Restless Ghost of Manaton

And now to a more personal account. I was asked by an old friend, who does not wish to be identified, whether I could find out anything about Wingstone Manor Farm in Manaton on Dartmoor, to discover if it might be haunted? She had lived there as a child, and was regularly spooked by a shadow of a man which would pass through her bedroom at night.

The attractive village of Manaton, on the eastern side of Dartmoor

I searched what records I could find, chiefly from the newspapers of the day, and accounts of Dartmoor legends. And I found this one:


FATAL ACCIDENT TO A MANATON FARMER.

On Wednesday evening, fatal accident, the details of which have yet to explained, occurred to Mr Endacott, of Wingstone Farm, Manaton. It appears that on Wednesday he drove into Newton Market as usual, and late in the afternoon started to return home… A short distance out of Newton on the Bovey Road, Mr Endacott by some means collided with a trap driven by Miss Kerslake, of Teigngrace. Both were thrown out, though, apparently, without being injured. After some delay Miss Kerslake re-started, little the worse for the adventure. The shafts of his trap having snapped off, Mr Endacott borrowed a saddle and bridle, and started to ride home, leaving his trap in a field adjoining the scene of the accident. On reaching Bovey he made a short stay at one of the hotels. When he left Bovey it was dark, and not long after he was discovered lying in the road between Bovey and Manaton, having either been thrown or fallen off his horse. He was conveyed home at once. Medical was called in, but he died from his injuries early on Thursday. PC. Ashby took Mr Endacott’s name and address after the accident, with the intention of summoning him for furious riding …An inquest will held. (East & South Devon Advertiser – 5th December 1896)

A path leading into Manaton, of the kind which Farmer Endacott would have ridden.

So could the troubling shadow be that of Farmer Endacott, never quite able to leave his former home after coming to an abrupt and inebriated end? But then, on delving a little further, I wondered about another former and more famous occupant of the farmhouse…

Above – Galsworthy and his favoured retreat of Wingstone Manor

From the Western Morning News, 25th October 1929, when as it seems, the Endacott family itself was still in residence:
As Devonians are well aware, Mr. John Galsworthy lived at Manaton, on the edge of Dartmoor, for a considerable number of years, occupying two rooms in a pleasant farmhouse, and playing cricket in his hours of leisure with the village team. Last Saturday, when a small party of us visited Wingstone Farm, his landlady, Mrs. Endacott, very proudly showed us his sitting-room, pointing out with particular reverence his favourite chair which he always sat when writing. “That’s the one on the left of the fireside,” she almost whispered, indicating a roomy, black basket work armchair with a low seat, high back, and plentiful cushions. Seventeen years he lived here, and still comes back for visits. He used to say that he liked the view.”

Perhaps Mr Galsworthy continued his visits, even after his death in 1933?

The Witches and the Hunter – the story of Bowerman’s Nose

Anyone who visits the strange granite outcrop known as Bowerman’s Nose cannot fail to be impressed by the huge ‘head’ which seems to loom up above the hillside. (That’s the one at the top of this blog.) Locals know that this is Bowerman the Hunter, who was turned into stone along with his pack of dogs – the loose stones around him – when he tried to defy a local pack of witches. The story goes that there were many witches on Dartmoor, and that covens were rife. Bowerman chose to defy their power, but in the end, one witch was able to turn herself into a hare to lure him to his doom. Bowerman hunted the hare until it ran straight into the assembled coven, a trap set by the witches to ensnare him and put him under their spell forever. You can read full and imaginative versions of the tale at Legendary Dartmoor. and Dartmoor – Learning.

Here I am, demonstrating the size of the mighty Bowerman and his Nose

But I wonder about this story? Who is really the villain, who the victim? Whose side are you actually on? That of Bowerman a mighty man of power and status, hunting the defenceless hare, or the witches who may have been local ‘wise women’ and healers? Women’s secret gatherings were often feared for no good reason, and their knowledge of natural magic reviled. Of course, the witches could have been malevolent hags, ready to curse and enslave, and Bowerman could be a brave protector of the people. Well, it’s only a story….Maybe the ambivalence is part of the fascination of old legends, told in different ways at different times. I’ll leave you to choose!

The Fearsome Pig and the Phantom Piglets

This fearsome phantom pig is from Swedish folklore, but legends of spirit pigs are found widely across Northern Europe, harking to the times when wild boars roamed the landscape, as indeed they did on Dartmoor. The boar was a creature of awe and worship, and sometimes associated with the gods of the land

To finish, I return to the story of the Phantom Piglets, who I first wrote about in ‘Us Wants to go to Widecombe Fair’. This is truly a Dartmoor special. Here’s the tale again:

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

My husband and I shall soon be spending an autumnal weekend on Dartmoor in this area, and I will of course be out searching the hills and horizon for any signs of the Ghostly Pigs. The wild and lonely countryside around the places mentioned lends itself to legends of frightful fiends, so who knows what other spectral beasts I might encounter? Don’t forget the Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sherlock Holmes, based on real stories of a giant phantom hound – and of course there is the Old Grey Mare herself, who we also met in the Widecombe Fair blog.

The lonley landscape near Vitifor and the Warren House on Dartmoor

Further Reading

Read more about women’s magic and legendary archetypes in my study of feminine mythology

Discover the intricacies of Dartmoor at ‘Dartmoor 365’, a walker’s guide to each of the 365+ square miles in the Dartmoor National Park

For a taste of nature spirits, demons and wise witches and wizards from another culture, try my book ‘Russian Magic’, based on years of visiting rural Russia and learning its customs.

Topsham at Halloween

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

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

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

The Ghosts in the Bookshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Headless Train Guard

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


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


A ‘Fatal Accident on The Exmouth Line’

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


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


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


Western Times – Wed 16th June 1875

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

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


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


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


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

A Ghost in Paradise?

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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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

Below: Looking forward to Christmas at Great Paradise Cottage

Stories from the Christening Mugs – Part 2

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

The Mystery Mug

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

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

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

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

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

The Unidentifed Babies

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

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

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


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

Ronald Arthur Shipstone

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

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

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

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

The Shipstone Star Brewery in New Basford, Nottingham

Joe Singleton

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

W. H. C. Gayner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time….

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

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

A Struan Loaf and a Dragon for Michaelmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Red dragon of Alchemy – symbolising transformation through fire

The Dragon Churches of Old Radnorshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Struan Bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Recipe

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

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

THE LOAF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may also be interested in:

Alchemy and Cooking

Baba Yaga and the Borderlands

Golden Quinces

Stories from the Christening Mugs – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

Silvester Rose

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

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

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

Places and families

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

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

Frederick John Bartlett

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

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

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

Emily Cranfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Stories and a Mystery Mug

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

A Pixie in Bude – Pamela Colman Smith, Tarot Artist

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pixie of Bude

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

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

A quiet arrival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visions, Music and the Golden Dawn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visions, creative imagination, or synesthesia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Collaboration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Outcome

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

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

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

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

Postscript

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

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


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


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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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

Us Wants to Go to Widecombe Fair!

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

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

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

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

Widecombe Fair

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Phantom Piglets

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Lightning Strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

You may also be interested in other Devon posts:

Dartmoor Ponies

To Brixham for a Sailor’s Cap

Sin, Seduction and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

The Tidal Town of Topsham

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

To Brixham for a Sailor’s Cap

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

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

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

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

Our starting point, at Exmouth

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘fun’ end of Dawlish Warren

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

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

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

The Topsham Two – a flyaway pair from Dawlish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The charm of Maidencombe Beach, with its very own waterfall

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

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

The house that fell down the hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Coming Up

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

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

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

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

You may also be interested in:

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

Summer is a’Coming Today! May Day in Padstow

Refugee Ancestors: A Huguenot Family in Devon