Glimpses of the Tarot – 2

An occasional series exploring images of the Tarot cards

This was actually the first trio of cards which I drew, but I decided it was a tough one to start with. So I’ll make it the second of my series on Tarot cards, and their imagery, history and meaning. The cards are the Star, the Hanged Man, and Death. And before you flinch at the mention of the last two, I have to say that this trio is one of the strongest grouping there can be in the Tarot to signify hope and new beginnings. The Star is indeed sometimes called ‘The Star of Hope’, the Hanged Man may in fact be choosing to turn his world upsidedown, and on the Death card there are signs of new beginnings as the old order breaks down and a new one simultaneously begins to grow. It’s a message we could all embrace.

The Star – from the Tarot of Pierre Madenié, Dijon, 1709-1740

THE STAR (no. 17)
The Star is akin to Temperance, in that an angel in one and a naked girl in the other pour water from two jugs. But here the water is poured out, one jug pouring into the waters of what could be a river or lake, the other onto the ground. This is a card where nothing is kept back. Nakedness, openness, and giving forth characterise the figure of the Star. She can be interpreted as hope, generosity and healing. In addition, stars were often believed to be souls which had migrated from human life to the heavens, and the bird on the tree usually symbolises a messenger from the world of souls.

Tarot from Bologna, 18th c, reproduced by Il Meneghello, Milan

It’s possible that this card could also be a sign of initiation, or an inner journey in the context of myth and tradition. The collection of myths surrounding the related goddesses Ishtar and Anahita from Babylonia and Iran carry a startling likeness to ‘The Star’. Ishtar is known as “The Star of Lamentation”; Anahita is the goddess of the heavenly waters that flow from the region of Venus among the stars. In one of the key myths, Ishtar travels to the centre of the underworld to fetch the water of life to restore her dead lover, Tammuz. She passes through seven gateways, leaving behind one jewel at each portal, until she arrives naked at the sacred pool. And in this underworld, the souls of the dead are represented by birds. Although it may be hard to find a direct historical link, such myths can have a resonance which finds its way into another form.

Other images of the Star may show an astronomer, or simply a maiden carrying a star symbol. These are on the left from the Jacques Vieville, pack, Paris 1650, a very early ‘Marseilles’ Tarot, and on the right, from a modern reproduction of the 15th c. Visconti-Sforza pack.

Swiss Tarot pack, probably early 19th c.

The Star can thus symbolise the heart of the matter, where there is no further secrecy or pretence. Here, there is giving and receiving through the outpouring of living water. The Star gives all she has, without stinting. It may indeed be a hard journey to reach this point, but this is where hope is renewed.

Marseilles Tarot

DEATH (no. 13)
In many early Tarot packs, Death was not named. The act of naming might invoke his fearful presence, so it was safer to include him only as an image, along with his number, the so-called ‘unlucky’ thirteen. People were all too aware that the ‘grim reaper’ with his scythe could strike suddenly, and that he had no pity on those from any station in life. In the Middle Ages, images of Death were often shown as slaughtering the Pope or Emperor first, to make a point that those at the top of society were no more protected from his blow than the poor and humble. However, there was also entertainment value in Death; then as now, people liked to frighten themselves with the macabre, and the ‘Triumph of Death’ as a spectacle on the streets was a surprisingly popular part of street carnival celebrations.

An early Tarot emblem of ‘Death’ from the so-called French Charles VI Tarot, which is now designated as Italian, probably from the 15th c.

Death as a Tarot Trump has gained a bad reputation, unsurprisingly. But if we look more closely, we can see that in nearly all the different Tarot packs, the image shows new life springing from the earth around: heads, hands and plants poke up from the ground. Death promotes fertility, as withered plants and old bones break down and form compost. Nothing is lost, only transformed. We can hope for new growth in the future, even when matters seem bleak.

Tarot of Pierre Madenié, Dijon, 1709-1740

Death in a Tarot reading is very rarely an indication of physical human death. In the Fool’s Mirror layout which I describe in my book, all 22 Tarot Trumps are used – the situation they reveal depends upon their ordering and their relationship to each other. Plainly, Death could not mean literal death on every occasion, as it will always be there in the reading! It does imply change though, and bidding farewell to the familiar can be painful. But from this comes new growth.

A balanced and watchful Hanged Man – Le Pendu – from Nicolas Convers, Marseilles 1761

THE HANGED MAN (no 12)

The Hanged Man is not what he might at first appear to be – a criminal hanged, or a traitor suspended by his feet, according to the Italian custom. In nearly every Tarot version, he looks calm and happy, a man who is in control of what he’s doing.

There are historical accounts of acrobats and gymnasts who did tricks very like this, suspended from a rope or a pole. Sometimes they performed high up on the rooftops to entertain visiting dignitaries in Paris or London, astounding them with feats of balance and upside-down contortions. In modern times, an itinerant acrobat in France was spotted holding himself in just the same position as the Hanged Man of the Tarot.

A tiny image of male and female acrobats practising, one balancing upsidedown on a rope. From Comenius’ ‘Orbis Pictus’ 1658

And the ‘Tarlà’ Festival of Girona, still current in north eastern Spain, involves hanging a life-sized dummy dressed as a jester from a pole placed high across the street. He is said to commemorate the time of the Black Death, when citizens were confined to their quarters to sit out the plague. To relieve the fear and the tedium, a young acrobat, Tarlà, entertained them with displays of swinging and hanging from these poles.

The early ‘Charles VI’ Tarot (prob. 15th c.) card of the Hanged Man shows what is clearly an acrobat, using weights

So the Hanged Man may be someone who chooses to be upside-down, and has trained himself to do so. In this light, the main meaning of the card is skill and balance, and indicates a willingness to enter the world of topsy-turvy. The Hanged Man frees himself from conventions. He is also similar to a shaman on a vision quest, relinquishing normality to receive gifts of prophecy and healing, just as the Norse god Odin hung upside-down from the sacred world tree for nine days and nights, in order to acquire divine knowledge. Ideas of acrobat and shaman do combine well here, for both are entrusting themselves to a reversal. The acrobat must trust his training and the strength of the rope. The shaman goes willingly into the unknown, ready to be shaped by what he encounters there.

Jean Dodal, Lyon, early 18th c.

Tarot Triumphs – In 2016, my book Tarot Triumphs was published by Weiser, USA. This marked a very special moment in my life, as I first became interested in Tarot as a young student, way back in 1968. I spent time in the early ’70s researching its history, looking at historic packs held by the British Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, and reading whatever I could lay my hands on. Over the years, I learned more about Tarot symbolism, and using it for divination, and became heir to an unusual system of reading the cards known now as ‘The Fool’s Mirror’. The chance to write this book was also an opportunity to explain this, and reveal my findings during what is now nearly a lifetime’s interest in these enigmatic and intriguing cards.

You may also be interested in: ‘Glimpses of the Tarot’ (part 1) and ‘The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Kabbalah: The Tree of Life Oracle is due for re-issue October 2020, so may be on sale shortly after this blog appears.

Hidden Topsham – Part Four

A glimpse of the town from the higher part of the River Exe

Upriver – the other end of town

To round off my current series of blogs about Topsham, I’d like to take you on a wander heading out of town up the river Exe, towards Exeter.

Sir Alex’s Walk
This riverside path is far less popular than the Goat Walk at the other end of Topsham. Perhaps the warning sign gives a clue as to why this should be.

Apparently, this wasn’t always the case. Even as late as 1968, D.M.Bradbeer wrote, ‘This pretty riverside walk is much frequented on fine summer evenings, when it is pleasant to loiter on the bank and watch the fishermen at work with their nets, and the sailing boats criss-crossing on the tide’.

The vista from the path today, however, is slashed by the M5 motorway bridge, and the fishermen are gone. Seine net fishing (stretching a net across the river) is now illegal, and in any case the practice had dwindled to a final few licensed boats as the salmon stocks had all but disappeared in the last twenty years. But the river bends, beds of rushes, overgrown landing stages, muddy creeks and boats in all stages of repair give this stretch of water an eerie charm. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine how so many strollers ever did manage to walk along this narrow path, as it’s like navigating a narrow Devon lane where you need to keep an eye out for passing places.

Rats, robberies and the scenic route

Before we get to the path though, the walk first takes us down Ferry Road, passing the Recreation Ground on the left hand-side. With its children’s playground and open grassy spaces, the ‘Rec’ is well-used in a town which doesn’t have all that much public land for community use, apart from the Goat Walk fields which I described earlier. The Rec might look rather flat and featureless, and that’s because it is largely an artificial plot, created on land reclaimed from the marshes. This happened over the years by very pragmatic means, since the site was used as the town rubbish tip.

In his memoir, John Willings (b.1923) recalls how in his boyhood the site was still evolving and was certainly what we’d consider hazardous today. At one end there were the Lime Kilns where ‘children used to play in and out of the caves which, even when empty, had plenty of lime dust on the walls and floor’.

Lime kilns on Ferry Road, opposite what was Heywood’s Dock. These may be the ones that John Willing refers to. From ‘Topsham: The Historic Port of Exeter’, Peter D. Thomas (Topsham Museum)
‘The Old Lime Kilns near Topsham on the Exe’, painted by John White Abbott 1808 . One of the sets of kilns around the town, suitable for an artist’s choice of backdrop.
Below is another similar type of work, ‘The Lime Kilns near Topsham on the Exe, Lympstone and Exmouth in the Distance’ by William Traies (1789–1872)

I searched for more information about Topsham Lime Kilns, and lime kilns in general. There were several sets of kilns around the town, where limestone was calcinated at high temperatures to produce quick lime. This was used for making cement, and as a soil improver in agriculture. Stone-built kilns left to fade into gentle ruins appealed to artists of the 19th century, as a romantic backdrop, as these paintings show.

But they could also be the scene of high drama. On Nov 27 1908, The Western Times reported that a daring robbery had taken place at the Topsham lime kilns situated near the River Clyst. A young man, named Leonard Johns, who was employed at the Odam’s Manure Works nearby, had just been to the bank, and was walking back with a bag containing £35 for the payment of the company’s weekly wages. ‘His assailant sprang upon him suddenly from tunnel in the old kilns, and, throwing a sack over his head, stole the bag and made off on a cycle towards St Mary. Our picture shows the boy Johns with the bag, and a well-known amateur actor who, to enable the scene to be reconstructed, impersonated the character. The masked robber is still at large.’ Does this grainy photo perhaps show one of the earliest ‘Crimewatch’ re-constructions? Later, the empty bag was found under the bridge at Winslade Park.

A photo from the article of 1908 in the Western Times, perhaps rather daring for its day, in asking an actor to play the part of the wicked thief. (Retrieved from the British Newspaper Archive)

Returning to the lime kilns at Ferry Road, these would certainly have been a potential health and safety hazard for the children who played in them, both because of any residual heat and the very real possibility of the lime dust irritating or even burning the skin. The Wikipedia article which cites this risk also contains the surprising information that we may be eating it in our bread and cakes: ‘It is known as a food additive…as an acidity regulator, a flour treatment agent and as a leavener. It has E number E529.’

If Topsham children of the 1920s and 30s survived their encounter with the lime kilns, they could skip a little further along a rough track, (now the continuation of Ferry Road) to watch Mr. Punch Miller driving his horse and cart full of rubbish down to the tip several times a day, fulfilling his role as town dustman, and little by little building up the land which would become the playground of their future grandchildren.

In John Willing’s day, it was still very much a work in progress. Sport and rodents flourished together: ‘Enough of the wasteland at the “Rec” had been recovered, levelled and laid with turfs to provide a football pitch, which became waterlogged after every spring tide – and a part for swings and see-saws. Most of the area was still an ‘open’ dump where flocks of screeching gulls would pick at garbage and dozens of rats would scurry among the rusting tins and decaying waste. At one time the rats became so numerous that a hunt was organised which turned out to be a great sporting event for the town. The local fire brigade had been called in to pump water down the rat holes and flush out the rats who were than chased by packs of dogs and men and children armed with heavy sticks. Over 300 rats were killed…’

The path running along the river’s edge on the reclaimed land of the Recreation Ground today

At the end of the Rec and beyond what is now known as ‘the dog walking field’, Sir Alex’s Walk begins in earnest, winding its way past the gardens of the houses built on higher land in Riverside Road. This is where D. M. Bradbeer’s vision of a ‘pretty riverside walk’ begins to hold good.

The houses of Riverside Road, with an enviable view across the river

Again, John Willing lights up the less pretty realities when he recounts his cycle ride along the highest and narrowest section of the path. His father had given him a hand-me-down, heavy old bike, and John was determined to take it out on what was probably the most unsuitable track in the town for a trial run: ‘Being rather unsteady on my new acquisition I accidentally rode right over the edge and landed in the thick oozy mud – bike and all! I had to wade along the mud dragging my bike until the bank became low enough for me to clamber out. Covered from head to foot in the black stinking mud I dare not go back along the path where lots of people were taking their Sunday evening stroll…So I went on to the Newport fields and hid there until it became dark!’

The prevalence of mud, especially at low tide
Looking back towards the Lock Keeper’s Cottage, on the right. The river and the canal run in parallel down to Turf Locks about a mile further down

On the right Retreat House comes into view, a much more beautiful landmark than the motorway bridge which is now alarmingly close by. Retreat House is a grand mansion re-modelled in the early 1790s by Sir Alexander Hamilton, merchant and High Sheriff of Devon. Earlier in the 18th century, it had housed French prisoners taken in the Napoleonic Wars As you may guess, Sir Alex also gave his name to the walk. The name has been modified in popular use, and sometimes still appears on maps as ‘Serrallick’s Walk’. Sir Alex was apparently knighted simply for congratulating King George III on surviving an attack by a madwoman who tried to stab him.

The view of Retreat House from Sir Alex’s Walk. Apparently, it was intended that members of the public should be able to admire it as they passed.
The front facade, invisible from the riverside. (Estate Agency photograph)

Beyond here, it looks at one point as though the path ends in a sharp drop, but when you get closer, if the tide is low enough, you see a set of steep, muddy steps leading down to a concrete path which continues forward, skirting the Retreat Boatyard. This is a fully working yard with expert boatbuilders.

And this is as far as I’m going up the river today, although you can continue beyond the bridge, skirting the Newport Homes site and heading…well I don’t know how much further! One day I will find out.

From the Facebook page of Retreat Boatyard

Names of the River

I’d like to end though with a mention of the old names for parts of the river, which have their own mystique. These were used not so long ago by the seine-net fishermen, as useful markers, guides to the spots to be fished: Clock, Black Oar Hard, The Drain, Cupboard, and Ting Tong, for instance, refer to places further downstream, but perhaps there are corresponding names for this upper stretch of river too? Please do leave a comment if you know of any!

I’d particularly love to know where the name ‘Ting Tong’ comes from. There are Inner and Outer Ting Tong Lanes a few miles away in Budleigh Salterton, but I’ve found little clue about their origin, apart from the fact that Ting Tong means ‘a little crazy’ in Thai. Wikipedia suggests: Possibly related to Thing (assembly)#Viking_and_medieval_society’. I can’t see an assembly being held in or on the far side of River Exe, but who knows? My Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words (excellent for Call My Bluff party games!) is silent on ‘Ting Tong’, but does have ‘Ting Tang’ as meaning ‘the saints-bell’. The ferry from Topsham across the Exe used to carry monks heading from Sherbourne Abbey to Buckfast Abbey and points west in medieval times. Ting Tong lies on the opposite side of the river from Topsham, not too far from the present ferry dock, so perhaps the monastic travellers would ring the bell to alert the ferryman when they needed a return ride?

Looking south across the river from the present ferry crossing point

References

A History Little Known: A Topsham Childhood of Yesteryear John Willing (1984)

For details of Retreat House: Topsham: An Account of its Streets and Buildings, Caroline Obussier & contributors (The Topsham Society, revised edition 1986)

River names and map in Talking About Topsham, Stories of the Town Recorded by Sarah Vernon (2007)

Topsham Museum is closed until Spring 2021, but offers an excellent ‘Walking Trail’ map, which you can download here. The Museum is staffed by knowledgeable volunteers who may be able to help with individual enquiries too, about the history of the town and its families.

All photos except illustrations, or where stated, are by Cherry Gilchrist

You may also be interested to read:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham, Part One

Hidden Topsham, Part Two

Hidden Topsham, Part Three

‘A Writer’s Life’ – The Perils of Publishing

I plan to drop a few posts into Cherry’s Cache about my work as a writer, which has now spanned more than half a century. This first one is about what happens, or can happen, at the end of a book run. The next one will be about how I began writing for magazines – in this case the teenage magazine ‘Jackie’ in company with two schoolfriends. Then, if all goes according to plan (which a writer’s life never does) I’ll bring in early poetry outcomes. Hang on in there, all of them are more entertaining than they might sound!

The End of The Line

The background to this story is my interesting relationship with waste and recycling. In my teens, I haunted some of the very first charity clothes shops. There was a 1930s silk yarn crocheted top which I wore for years after I pounced on it in an early Oxfam shop. Then, as a college student, I volunteered eagerly to go to the town rubbish dump to pick up props for a play. I think we were after wooden beer barrels, and having made a deal on a couple of these, I was invited by the aged site caretaker to view the ‘special rubbish’ in his shed. (And yes, it was a genuine offer. I found some exciting items, as I recall.)

In the 1970s, when I was in my mid-twenties, I opened a first-wave vintage clothes shop in Cambridge, called ‘Tigerlily’. The word ‘vintage’ hadn’t been coined then, so we referred to our stock as ‘period clothing’. As I’ll be writing more about that in a later blog, it will suffice to say here that I used to drive up to the rag mills of Yorkshire to find treasures for my keen customers, hidden among the vast malodorous bales of old clothes.

The term ‘recycling’ was not in common use at the time either, but it was certainly practised in the rag mills. I was astonished and delighted to see how everything except suiting material could be sorted and put to good use. Headscarves were saved for export to Nigeria, crimplene dresses for British market stalls, gentleman’s waistcoats for Pakistan. Wool was to be re-spun, sorted by colour into vibrant piles on the decaying wooden floors of the old mill. And most important of all, as far as I was concerned, the ‘hippy stuff’ – Victorian petticoats, 1940s crepe dresses and the like – were put aside for people like me. But as for the suits and tweeds, they could only be pulped for cardboard.

Bales of clothes arriving at a Yorkshire rag mill. These were often old textile warehouses now converted to taking clothes collected as waste from around the country

After I finished my vintage enterprise, I thought I was done with the commercial face of recycling forever. But then, one day, it came my way again.

The article which follows was published in the ‘Author’ magazine in 2007. This journal of the Society of Authors covers many subjects, but I don’t think they’d ever had one on the problems of disposing old books before. Acceptance came the same morning! The fee helped to restore my costs, and soothe my wounded pride.

The eternal optimism of authors at a book launch! From left to right: Lucy Oliver, Cherry Gilchrist, Eve Jackson, and Lyn Webster Wilde for the launch of our new books in the series ‘Compass of Mind’, published by Dryad Press

The End of the Line

            ‘That’ll be £7.36,’ he told me.

            £7.36 for a thousand copies of my priceless book. Oh, and he wasn’t paying me – I was paying him, to get rid of them.

We were at the local tip in the city of Bath on a chilly autumn morning, amidst a cheerful crowd of householders disposing of their assorted rubbish. I’d been clearing out the attic before moving house, and had decided that I couldn’t take all these books with me. I’d had 4000 copies printed of my guide to Russian Lacquer Miniatures, which sold well enough through the gallery I had at the time. But would I ever sell the last 1800? I doubted it.

I also had several hundred remaindered books, other titles that I had bought up cheaply from my publishers, and some of their pages were looking distinctly yellow by now. So I ruminated on what I might do with them all.

Some of the books of which I had too many copies

           

 My ex-brother-in-law, if one can have such a relation, worked for the Oxfam Books team. I emailed him: would he, on behalf of Oxfam, like copious quantities of books which I – ahem – couldn’t sell off? He replied, saying they would be glad to take my ‘back list’, and how many boxes did I have? Ah, back list! I knew there had to be a word for it, and back list sounds so much more reassuring, so professional and a part of the everyday ebb and flow of publishing. He arranged for the local van driver to come round and pick up a large pile.

But all the Oxfam bookshops in Britain, even if they each had an organised publicity campaign, couldn’t shift more than a thousand books on an obscure, if beautiful, Russian art form. Besides which, I still planned to sell some, and if my title swamped the market with 50p offers, or even a penny plus postage on eBay, what chance did I have to flog it at the usual £10? No, some would have to go to the dump; there was nothing else for it.

I cajoled my husband Robert into loading the books into the car; only authors who have had remaindered books will understand just how heavy the printed word weighs. This was all about the world of materiality, not of high ideas and fabulous prose. We drove to the refuse disposal site, as it is officially called, and tried to decide where to tip them. As you will doubtless know, each type of rubbish has its own marked bay. There are bays for cardboard and for paper, separate bins for bottles, clothes and shoes, a shed for electronics and TVs, and – oh yes – a skip for books.  ‘Charities and schools will benefit from your donation’, it read reproachfully as we began hurling the book boxes into the Landfill Only bay. An attendant had already stopped us classifying them as paper, or as cardboard. And why wouldn’t we give them to the book skip, he asked?

‘Oh, copyright reasons,’ I told him loftily. ‘They must be pulped, you see.’

His supervisor loomed over us. ‘You can’t chuck those there,’ he said. ‘Those will take 200 years to decay. And what’s more, it’s commercial waste.’

            ‘No, no, it’s not!’ I said hastily. ‘They’re my books.’

            ‘They’re trade.’

            ‘They’re personal.’

            ‘Trade.’

            ‘Personal.’

            ‘So, do they form a part of earning your living?’

            ‘Yes,’ answered Robert, just as I said, ‘No.’

I was about to cite the Society of Authors survey on the low income of authors, and the plight of following one’s literary calling in this day and age. But my case was already lost.

            ‘You’ll have to go to the weighbridge,’ he said testily. ‘Ask for Glyn. You’ve got to pay for it, same as any builder’s rubble.’

I hope other authors reading this will be wincing at the prospect of our works being categorised along with bits of cement and broken bricks, with old posts and twisted metal railings, with bags of plaster and unspeakable filth from beneath the floor boards. The elegant sentences that you turn, dear fellow author, will become printed ink on the page, a page that is printed thousands of times, and will become ultimately, as far as worms, mother nature, and refuse supervisors are concerned, merely a chunk of matter that clogs up landfill and has no useful purpose to fulfil in the ongoing earthly cycle of regeneration.

One of the Bath refuse depots

We approached the weighbridge and the taciturn occupant of its hut.

            ‘Are you Glyn?’

The corpulent individual lounging against the doorway nodded.

            ‘What you got there?’

            ‘Books. My books!’ I said, hoping for a last minute reprieve.

            ‘Any good?’

            ‘Oh yes! A brilliant book. Would you like a copy?’

He thumbed it, wrinkling his nose. ‘Nah. Not interested.’

            ‘OK then, how much is it going to cost us to dump these?’

            ‘That depends on how much they weigh. You gotta weigh them in the car first.’

We were wondering where the weighing actually took place – Robert last remembered seeing a weighbridge by the M4, 12 miles away – when it dawned on us that we were already standing on the weighbridge itself, being counted along with the car and the books.

Then we were given permission to go back down to the bays.

The original supervisor had marched up to the weighbridge and back with us, to check our conduct. ‘Chuck it in with the cardboard,’ he said tersely.

My fabulous colour photographs, illustrating the book, were quantified as cardboard. But there was now a ray of hope for their evolutionary progress. At least they might turn up in a baked beans packing case somewhere, or perhaps be turned into boxes to house books of the future.

We threw our book boxes in, with satisfying thuds as they hit bottom, and returned to the office pay our dues. Then we realised that he was calculating the cost without us on the weighbridge, this time round.

            ‘Stop! We’re not on it!’ Robert called out.

            ‘Don’t make no difference.’

            ‘Oh yes it does,’ we said in one breath and leaped onto it to stand beside the car. It was bad enough to have to pay for the books, let alone be charged for our own weight as well.

Glyn announced the sum of money owing. £7.36. I had come without my purse, Robert had a fiver on him, and by scraping out the little film canisters where I keep change for parking, we paid our dues.

The receipt says, ‘Do call again.’ I don’t think I will – not unless I have to.

Editions of my other book on Russia, which thankfully I haven’t had to dispose of in the same way. Paperback and E-book versions.

You might also be interested in The Russian Diaries’ and ‘The Cosmic Zero’

Hidden Topsham – Part Three

This time, I’m going take us to some Topsham hot spots of hidden stories and unsolved puzzles, between the church and the riverside at Ferry Road. We’ll also meet two female saints who came to an unfortunate end, view some railings, and encounter some Topsham Cats.

Beast or Dragon?

The parish church of St Margaret’s set up high above the river’s edge has one of the best views in town, looking across the river to the Haldon Hills. It is dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch, which could indicate that the original donor had taken part in the Crusades, according to an archaeologist friend. The old Norman church was, however, largely demolished and rebuilt in the 1870s. A pamphlet circulated at the time offers compelling reasons in favour of this renovation, including: ‘Because it may improve the voice and lungs of the Vicar, and induce him to remain more at home and attend to the duties required of a Clergyman.’

The Font at St Margaret’s Church, Topsham, thought to be Norman, but could it be earlier?

But there is still one treasure inside the Church dating from early times – the ancient font. This has a mystery of its own: what are the symbols carved on it? Some say that they are a dragon and a moon, but ‘Historic England’ begs to differ slightly: ‘The Norman font has a circular bowl with big conical flutes, and on one side a large standing beast or dragon holding an apple (?) in its mouth.’ The question mark is theirs, not mine.

I put the question to the British Medieval History Facebook group, in 2018, along with a photo, and here are some highlights from the discussion that followed:

Debbie Worden
St Margaret of Antioch was supposed to have been swallowed by the devil in the shape of a dragon, wasn’t she? Thanks for the fab photo!

Cherry Gilchrist
Yes, you’re right – maybe it has something to do with Margaret’s ordeal by dragon-swallowing. Some nice images of her here.

Sara Bicknell
All of the images of St Margaret I can find show her coming out of the dragon, not going in. Unless, thinking on my feet, this is a lion….It’s got a mane…

Marcella Normanno
Poor dragon, he may not be the scariest or the most powerful, but fat… and a round object? Some people have no imagination.

Colin Torode put up a photo of the Topsham church seal, from the RAMM collection

The seal of St Margaret of Antioch, held at ‘RAMM’ Museum, Exeter


Colin wrote: ‘The seal of Topsham Church (in Exeter Museum) shows St Margaret of Antioch emerging from the Dragon. The dragon on the font is slightly strange, but it’s not that unusual to find dragons and other beasts on fonts – especially on early fonts. They could be telling a story or they might have an apotropaic function. It’s been noted that the area around fonts is often high in apotropaic marks, put there to ward off evil spirits. Fonts tended to be placed to the north of the church, near to the “devil’s door”, so it would be natural to decorate them with protective imagery.’

Susan Morrish
It looks slightly Viking influenced

Sara Bicknell
Further research dates the original church to Saxon times, I’m wondering if the carving might be preserved from even earlier. See, I looked up Norman lions (and dragons, I’m open minded) and it looks nothing like but it does have a chunky, late Saxon/Viking look about it, as I say. Please excuse my tenacity but I was an Anglo Saxon archaeological specialist in a previous existence.

Perhaps you might have something to add? Please submit your comments!

Samoa Terrace

Here’s an unassuming little plaque, placed almost out of view, high on a terrace of red-brick houses on Topsham’s High Street.

So how did this idyllic island, far away in the Pacific Ocean, give its name to a street in Topsham? The answer lies in guano, better known as bird poo! The terrace was built by John Potbury Cridland (1849-1930), who made his money by shipping tons of the ‘product’ from Samoa back to Britain.

Image of Samoa – where anthropologist Margaret Mead made a famous study of the love-life of the islanders, living in what seemed to be a peaceful and ideal community.

David Bewes, whose wife is a descendant of the Topsham Cridlands, tells the story of this man who had an unusual career:
John Potbury Cridland, (1849-1930) was born in Topsham. He started out as a mason, but then became a shipwright. However, in the 1871 census, he is listed as a ‘light keeper’ at Dungeness lighthouse in Kent, and is believed to have worked on a number of lighthouses before heading off to the islands of Samoa in the Pacific Ocean. Here he ran a guano business for some years, and also founded a Masonic Lodge. When he returned home, he started to build “Samoa Terrace” in Topsham. He had to stop building, though, when he ran out of money, so he returned to Samoa to generate more funds before returning to Topsham and finishing the terrace of about six houses.
(Email correspondence with Cherry Gilchrist)

Samoa Terrace, Topsham. The plaque naming the terrace is rarely spotted by passers-by

This article gives you the low-down on the properties of guano as a fertiliser, which was so prized that it went by the name “white gold.” In 1856, America even passed a law permitting itself to take over any unclaimed guano territory anywhere in the world. Who would have thought such a far away saga could have had a direct influence on the town of Topsham? Imports of guano were sometimes stored in warehouses in Topsham, which must have been a smelly business.

‘Johnny’ Cridland and the Goat Walk

John Potbury Cridland also wanted to re-shape the river foreshore at what is now the Goat Walk end of town. (Mentioned in Hidden Topsham Part Two.) ‘Mr Cridland’s Plan’ was for a four and a half acre recreational area, and he despised the alternative version of the raised river path, which we have today. He wrote indignantly to the Board of Trade in 1909:

‘The Shipbuilding trade having been destroyed here and there being no other works of any kind carried-on, the inhabitants are now trying to improve the town in order to attract visitors and to make it a residential centre.’ The plan for the path, he told, was absurd: ‘As a Freeholder and an inhabitant of Topsham I strongly object to this path being made. It would be an unsightly encumbrance on the foreshore and a laughing stock for all visitors to this town.’ (Letter in possession of David Bewes)

We can catch a glimpse of this plan in a photo from 1909, as a poster stuck up in a shop window. On it is written:
Mr Cridland’s Plan – The Improvement of Topsham – The rents of the Bowling Green Marshes will pay (for the) Improvement.

John Potbury Cridland is buried in Topsham Cemetery with other members of his family.

The Cridlands

John Potbury Cridland’s family has had a history of entrepreneurial development. When we moved into our house in Fore Street, we found this plaque propped against the ivy-covered garden wall, inscribed: ‘This part of Great Paradise rebuilt A. D. 1845 Richard Cridland’.

Richard Hunt Cridland (1788-1855) was John Potbury’s grandfather. He was born in Topsham as the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Cridland and (probably) Daniel Hunt. He was a mason, carpenter, joiner and also the parish sexton. He married Mary Wills and his own son Richard (one of their 11 children) became the father of John Potbury Cridland, of guano fame. Richard junior (John Potbury’s father) was also a stone mason and he became sexton in his turn, although there was a mild scandal when he took over the post:

Some excitement exists in our parish in consequence of the irregular appointment of the current sexton. It appears that Richard Cridland the elder vacated the office of sexton in 1838 and the church wardens and minister nominated and presented Richard Cridland the younger at the visitation – the appointment being vested in the parishioners by immemorial usage. This innovation having been discovered, the appointment has been set aside, and the election of sexton is fixed for Monday next, at 11 o’clock, there being two candidates for the office.
Western Times – Saturday 09 October 1841

However, to return to ‘Great Paradise’, Richard Hunt Cridland also built and bought up properties. Our house on Fore Street was one of them. It was originally a medieval cross-passage house, added to over the centuries and standing as one major dwelling until Cridland divided it up into three in 1845. They shaved off part of the magnificent Beer Stone fireplace (now in our sitting room) in order to squeeze in a central, tiny front door, which we’re tempted to nickname ‘The Needle’s Eye’. The name ‘Great Paradise’ (paradise originally means ‘garden’) may signify that the land was once held by an abbey, but we’ve yet to find any historical record of this.

Richard Hunt Cridland left a detailed and complex will in 1855, dividing up his property and cottages among family members. He also built workers’ cottages in Follett Road, then called Higher Passage.

‘A costly nest of vice’

Follett Road is our next stop. As our previous stroll down White Street showed, innocent exteriors may conceal notorius pasts. Here, the respectable white facades of Clara Place were intended to obliterate the traces of a far more disreputable building which once stood her. This was the town workhouse, institutions known mainly for their harsh treatment of paupers, but was condemned for immorality when its female inhabitants began to offer special services to to supplement their meagre means. It was described as ‘a costly nest of vice and dissipation’ by Robert Davy (Topsham: An Account of its Streets and Buildings). A local developer, William Clapp (an unfortunate name in the circumstances) finally pulled it down and rebuilt it, naming it ‘Clara Place’ after his most virtuous wife. Now it’s divided up, with charming cottages, with a central garden.

Jubilee Pier

Follow Follett Road down to Ferry Road, and turn left towards the Passage Inn and the Underway, where fishermen not so long ago hung their nets on the steep walls there to dry and be mended. The Underway today is a popular spot for people to sun themselves on the benches, picnic and even play chess.

Chess and a glass of wine on the Underway. Permission was kindly given by this couple for me to upload their photograph.

But there is also a small, sad feature which is partially hidden today. At low tide, stone footings are revealed in the mud.These are the remains of Jubilee Pier, a white painted wooden structure which was built in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. However, its upkeep was neglected, and 1917 Tom Pym, a boy of 8, fell through some rotten boards and was drowned. The pier was pulled down shortly afterwards and never replaced.

Photos of Jubilee Pier, now completely destroyed

St Sidwell’s Railings

Back by the Passage Inn, near the ferry, you will see some handsome light blue iron railings, acting as the boundary of a riverside garden. For years, no one knew where these had come from. Now they’ve been traced St Sidwell’s Church in central Exeter, which was bombed into ruin in World War 2. According to Chips Barber, in Topsham Past and Present, these were ‘salvaged from the tip for a mere twenty pounds.’ You can see Sidwell’s initials ‘SS’ and a scythe pattern in the ironwork, shortly to be explained.

I knew nothing about Saint Sidwell(a), so I went into Exeter to find out more. Gary, a helpful manager at the St Sidwell’s café took me into the new Chapel, part of the modern St Sidwell’s Church and Community Centre. Here I marvelled at the bold modern window celebrating her life, and the two Victorian windows rescued from the bombing and beautifully restored. But who was Sidwell herself?

St Sidwell’s Church, Exeter: Victorian stained glass windows of St Sidwella, and the modern, large-scale chapel window celebrating her life

Sidwella (or Sativola) is Exeter’s very own saint. She too was beheaded like Margaret of Antioch who we met earlier. (Although Margaret came out of the dragon unharmed, her Roman captors still chopped her head off because she wouldn’t renounce her faith.) According to tradition, Sidwella was either Saxon or Celtic, living in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ after the Romans had left Britain. The story goes that she was the daughter of a rich local landowner, with a jealous stepmother who was determined to prevent Sidwella inheriting the wealth which she planned would come to her own children. The stepmother bribed a reaper in the hayfield to behead the innocent girl, which he did with his scythe (hence the symbol in the railings). Immediately, a spring of pure water bubbled up where her head fell. The water was discovered to have healing properties, and the well built around it was considered sacred. A cult of St Sidwell thus emerged in Exeter, around the site of the current church and the well itself, as people came on pilgrimage from far and wide for healing and worship.

So where is the well? After a couple of false starts, my trail led to the Pura Vida Café in – yes, I should have guessed it! – Well Street, close to Sidwell Street itself. Clare, the mother of the young proprietor, explained that they have had to board the well over as it was making the room too damp, but showed me photos of how it had looked. It’s still preserved under the black and white chequered flooring.

Photos shown to me at Pura Vida Cafe of stages of uncovering and recovering the sacred well

And, as it turned out, Clare is a Topsham lady who used to run Pebble House Nursery where my granddaughter spent many happy hours, so we had plenty more to talk about! Maybe all such trails, even outside the town, lead back to Topsham?

The Civil War

Across the road from St Sidwell’s railings, there is a steep bluff, and the land above this is thought to have been the site for the garrison camp during the Civil War. Exeter was under siege, and fighting was fierce at times in Topsham, with canons and guns in use. Topsham was defended by the Royalists, but a couple of years later, Cromwell’s army placed garrisons in the neighbourhood, and its leader Sir Thomas Fairfax stayed for two weeks in Topsham. The site itself had probably been a look-out since at least as early as Roman times – the current owners of Eleanor’s Bower where it’s situated have found many shards of Roman pottery there.

View from the Civil War garrison and look-out post, now part of Eleanor’s Bower garden (private)
Where a quiet cup of coffee is now enjoyed , anxious military commanders once kept watch and even fired at the enemy. (Eleanor’s Bower, private garden)

Topsham Cats

I’ve ended previous Hidden Topsham posts with ‘Topsham Fancies’; now it’s the turn of ‘Topsham Cats’. Cats, after all, do hide away for much of the time when there are strangers around. Here are three associated with Follett and Ferry Road.

The black and white cat near ‘Furlong’ paused only long enough on the railings for me to take a photograph.

The grey cat in Clara Place, also hoping that the railings would act like stems of long grass to hide her, was especially shy. I photographed her because someone in Topsham was missing a grey cat, and I hoped to reunite them, but this cat turned out to be a legitimate resident of Clara Place.

Finally, there is Cosmo. Cosmo is a cat of character and might well be related to ‘Six Dinner Sid’ of picture book fame. Rumour has it that he was originally abandoned when someone moved house on the Strand. He is well-known for loitering around the Strand and Monmouth Street, where he has been kept in food by various kind people over the years. (He was occupying a seat in the Museum Garden the other evening.)

However, he has also been taken in by two separate households on Follett Road, after presenting himself as starving and homeless at their back doors. Each household in turn fed him, made him comfortable, and offered him a forever home. However, after a week or two, Cosmo tired of life at the northern end of town, and returned to loitering back down south again. While I was taking this photo in Monmouth St a couple of months ago, a gentleman opened the door, and I explained that I already knew a little about Cosmo. His benefactor rolled his eyes, and said, ‘Yes, he certainly knows where to come.’

Cosmo recognises me now and if he’s feeling sociable, he’ll graciously allow me to stroke him a little, before re-asserting his independence. How do you tell him from another black cat? You’ll know if it’s Cosmo once he raises his chin, and reveals the tell-tale little splash of white on his chest. He’s old and bony now, but is still able to dash into the bushes when he hears a bird flutter there.

Arch rivals in the back gardens of Fore Street and Follett Road – our own black cat Zaq in a stand-off with Spot (who has now moved to Sweden, I’ve been told).

This has been the longest of my Hidden Topsham posts, and to ease the length of these narratives back again, the next will be a shortish stroll upriver to Retreat House.

You might also be interested in these earlier blogs about Topsham – just click on the link to open them:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham Part One

Hidden Topsham Part Two