I am training to become one of the City of Exeter Redcoat Guides, a six month long course which qualifies us to lead a variety of historic tours around the town. We tramp around the streets with our trainers – I call them ‘handlers’, as we can be a bit of a handful! – working on the different routes and the stories embedded there. All this is transforming my view of the city, as I learn to see it in its Roman incarnation, as a medieval centre of wool trade, a gracious place for 18th century gentry, a smoking ruin in the Blitz, and a trail blazer in pedestrian shopping precincts (yes, really! With a view of the Cathedral, the architect specified.) The detail of all this is enough to take your breath away, but of course we must keep our breath so we can spill it out to our future interested visitors. Exeter has minted coins, hidden the mother of King Harold, killed people with cholera, and hosted the oldest civic Guildhall in the country – the office of Mayor dates back to the early 13th century.
And I go on my own exploration tours of the city. I learned long ago that if you approach the place you live in, or near, with a specific desire to seek out its hidden treasures, you begin to see with fresh eyes and perhaps make discoveries in a serendipitous way. While living in Cambridge in the 70s, for instance, I went out on a walk one morning with this intent, and to my surprise stumbled across an archaeological dig. I’d had no idea that this was taking place; it was now empty of archaeologists, but I just happened to arrive when one of them was making her final site visit. She was able to tell me that this was an exciting new discovery of a Roman Mithraic Temple. It transformed my sense of the townscape and its ancient origins.
In Exeter recently, Robert and I went out on a cold, murky Sunday morning so that I could visit the remains of the medieval Exe Bridge, now lying beneath a modern concrete interchange of roads and new bridges. (For my presentation topic in the Red Coats training, I’ve chosen ‘Bridges over the Exe’.) I knew that it can be a dodgy area for drug dealers and the like, but we had it all to ourselves. It looked pristine, and the recent rains even gave a glimpse of what it must have looked like when water once flowed under it. We looked at the remains of St Edmund’s Chapel, patron saint of bridges, and I mused over the story of a 12th century female anchorite, who walled herself up on the bridge and refused to move to let travellers pass!
Just as we left the bridge and walked towards the nugget of medieval Exeter still preserved around Stepcote Hill, the door to St Mary Steps church opened. A congregation of two elderly ladies climbed gingerly down the steps (hence the name!) and an array of priests and servers invited us in warmly to view the church, which is normally closed. We drank in the ancient atmosphere, enhanced by recent liberal doses of incense. Another stroke of luck!
I have in mind to write a post later on about ‘Pilgrimage of Place’ – of how visiting or re-visiting a town or a landscape can be a heightened experience, often, as mentioned, with happy coincidences along the way. My survey of family historians, when I was writing ‘Growing Your Family Tree’, also showed that others had shared this experience, treading ancestral trails. When I return from my break, I hope to share this with you. If any of you would like to write to me with your own experiences, I’ll be glad to read them and perhaps share them in the post. You can reach me via the Contact form on this website or on my author’s website at www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk.
A Winter-into-Spring Break
I am now going to take a break for a couple of months, as I do every now and then. This gives me a chance to replenish my writing energy and fish up a few more ideas from the deep. Thank you for coming with me thus far!
In the 1980s, our family lived near Dulverton on the edge of Exmoor, and we quickly made contacts across a broad range of people, both of rural and town origins, and from different backgrounds. Exmoor was a great leveller – our local ‘Lady’ (who shall be nameless) had a rather public affair with her builder, and hippie incomers (rather like us!) mixed happily with Exmoor dwellers who’d been there for generations.
One of our great friends was a farmer called Arthur Oakes. He came into my orbit because he was interested in astrology, which I was teaching at the time. Arthur was then in his early seventies, and one of the most open-minded, innovative people that I’ve ever met. He was born in 1908, and was brought up on a traditional mixed farm, in the days of horses to pull the carts and machinery. However, he turned to organic ways of farming before many people had even heard of it, and was an advocate for avoiding chemicals on the land, and using good husbandry and soil management instead. His memory stretched back a long time – as you’ll read in this interview, his memories of World War I were both sharp and painful. He was keenly observant in everyday life too, always noticing something to share and to laugh over if possible.
The family was not from Exmoor; it seems his father came from the Welsh borders to Norton Lindsey in Warwickshire, and that Arthur himself moved his family down to Exmoor during his own farming career. As a boy, he’d been to Grammar School in Coventry (which had to be paid for in those days – a struggle for his parents to afford) and he used to read everything he could get his hands on.
Arthur also came to a small group that Chris and I were running at the time, called ‘The Journeyman’s Way’, an approach to self-development based on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. (for the background to this, please see ‘Soho Tree‘, a website which I manage with colleague Rod Thorn). He was one of our most regular and steady members.
In terms of social life, he and his family were a lively, jolly lot, and many was the evening we’d get a phone call at about 5pm, saying ‘Are you doing anything tonight? Come over and have supper! Bring the children.’ When we’d get to their farm at Howtown, near Winsford, there would be a merry gathering of a dozen or so people entertaining each other, kids of all ages charging through the house, and generous plates of food set out buffet style, provided by Arthur and Enid’s grown-up daughters Val and Deb. Everyone would mingle and chat until those with small children or farms to run would begin to rub their eyes and head for home.
I valued our contact with the Oakes family enormously, and at one point, when I was writing a book for schools on Life in Britain in World War One, and a companion book on Life in the 1930s, I interviewed Arthur about his experiences. Much later, I transferred the scratchy tapes to digital, as I still have them – and was recently able to send them electronically to Arthur’s grandson, so that they can be preserved within the family.
Arthur Oakes died in 1989, and I attended his funeral on a brisk spring day when the little churchyard was filled with daffodils. I remember him saying a few years earlier, ‘I was watching a stream flow into the river yesterday, and I thought, “This is what will happen to me when I die – a small stream joining the bigger river.”’
You can see Arthur above as he appeared in my book ‘Life in Britain in the 1930s‘ discussing how he thatched hay ricks – the photo of him also comes from the 1930s.
THE INTERVIEW For this blog post, I’ve highlighted the extract from that interview which has always stayed clearly in my mind – Arthur’s personal memories of World War One, which shaped his subsequent views about war and poverty. It comprises the first quarter of the interview, slightly edited here for clarity, but with the aim of preserving Arthur’s voice. It’s been a moving experience, listening to that voice again.
World War One
CG Could you start off by telling me your earliest memories?
AO My earliest memories were really of the First World War. And the thing that struck me with horror, and has stayed with me ever since, was when the government, towards the end of this 1918 war –about 1917 – got into dire straits, and were requisitioning horses. They wanted them to go over to France and fight, and to pull the transport wagons and the ammunition. And I remember soldiers arriving in our farmyard and having all the horses rounded up and saying to my father, ‘We’re having that one, and that one, and that one.’ There were three that went, which were very much family pets. And one that was a carthorse. They just wrote out a chit to my father, and told him to take it somewhere or other to get his money. They said that the chit gave him the opportunity of having them back for free at the end of the war. Well, we never had them back at the end of the war – there wasn’t any end for those horses – only death.
I remember the soldiers taking our horses, leading them away, and my father leaning up against the wall in the yard and weeping over it. These two ponies were extra special, you know – he’d brought them from Wales with him. He’d used them – he’d had generations of them and bred them down, sending them to special stallions, and they were little workhorses. The ponies took them [Arthur’s parents] to market, they did the shopping, they did the shepherding, they pulled the food around for the sheep, and my father said, ‘I shall never see them again.’ And it suddenly struck me that there was no excitement in war, or any war, there was just misery. Then my brothers went [to war] and it really hit home. I wouldn’t have been very old then.
CG – How old would you have been?
AO – Eight. And up till then, the war had been an excitement.
CG – What had excited you about it?
AO – Well, it had been a total change – we hadn’t got young men working on the farm because they’d been called up. The usual razmataz of soldiers in uniforms, and blackouts too – but the things that were exciting to a boy who’d got pretend guns, suddenly turned into tragedy. And from then on, I feel now that I probably went into myself, because fear suddenly hit me. If they could take the horses, they could take other things that were my solid background, and things might begin to disappear off the road, as it were. It wasn’t long after that that the hay ricks did disappear, because they came to requisition hay to feed the horses on as well. I began to become aware that I was afraid of military dictatorship, military government.
It hit me too when I went to market with my brother in the holidays, to take some sheep along. He was about eighteen – he was ten years older than me –and there was a recruiting officer even in the market, who said to him, ‘What do you think you’re doing? You know you ought to be in uniform.’ And that scared the pants off him. And eventually he was in uniform. But that sort of thing was kicking the world from under me, kicking the solid world from under my feet.
The Armistice and aftermath of war
Arthur and his brothers worked hard on the farm – it was expected of them, and they would turn their hand to whatever jobs needed doing, whether roundingnup sheep, taking animals to market, or the carthorse to the blacksmith. Visiting the blacksmith was one of Arthur’s least favourite jobs, because the smith had a queueing system, and sometimes he had to wait in line the whole day to get his horse’s hooves and shoes seen to.
AO I think the next great step forward in memory was the Armistice, the bells were all ringing – what a relief! But even then, there were food difficulties. Very much so, because I think they didn’t get around to rationing until the war had ended. Although food stocks were fairly good – if you knew where to get them! I remember swapping bacon for Cheddar with the local vicar! I came down to him with a great chunk of bacon, on a bike, and he loaded me up with as much Cheddar as I could carry back. He’d landed a great hundredweight of sugar from somewhere, and so all these sorts of swaps were going on.
However, soon after that period my father went out somewhere – I was probably rising nine. Came home with the sweetest little pony from somewhere. which he picked up for a few pounds. He said, ‘Look here – you jump on its back, and if you can manage it, it’s yours!’ Of course. the blooming thing hadn’t really been broken in, but between us we managed it – it was only small – black, with a silvery mane, I still remember. That taught me to ride. And during that period – we kept it four or five years – I used to do a lot of work with it, driving sheep from A to B. I hadn’t got a dog, but this pony was as good as a dog – it really was a marvellous little thing.
But I also have the memory of it going, because hard times struck, really hard times. I came home from school one day and missed the pony – it had gone. I said, ‘Where’s Bess?’ and ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘bit of bad news – I’ve had to sell her.’ The rent day had come along, and she’d gone, you see. Those sorts of things knocked security out of youngsters. We had the rug pulled from under us, time after time.
CG – Now this was in Warwickshire?
AO – Yes, we lived close to Coventry at that time. However, he pulled enough money out of his hat from somewhere, and was able to pay for me to have a bit of education at the local grammar school. I used to cycle there as a day boy for five or six years.
Above: the pretty village of Winscombe, Somerset, where Arthur farmed when we knew him in the 1980s.
Below: Tarr Steps, the famous prehistoric stone bridge over the River Barle on Exmoor, where he had previously farmed and where his daughter Deb trained horses for re-enactment and film work.
The Depression Years
AO –It created the first socialism, that thirties did, really and truly, and the poverty had to be witnessed to be thoroughly appreciated and understood, because should they get out of work, which they did, I think it was a pound a week they got as compensation, to keep a family on. [This would compare to about £50 – £60 today.] And what on earth was it? They used to go out and get a rabbit, for which they’d get locked up if they got caught, and they’d pinch mushrooms.
My father got me so annoyed, because he couldn’t see the other side of the coin. These people, in his opinion, were not helping themselves. For instance, he sold a lot of trees off the farm he owned, for a second income He had a lot of big old trees and elms cut down – the trunks were taken away by horsepower to the timberyards, and the tops were left lying all around. And thinking he was doing these unemployed men a good turn, he’d say, ‘Well you can have a top, if you clear it up.’ But these poor men hadn’t even got the tools to work with! They hadn’t got the tools to work with. And he lost patience with them. His generosity didn’t go so far as to say, ‘Well, you borrow my axe’, or anything like that. He thought that somehow or other, they ought to have had one. He could not understand.
It wasn’t much better for his own men working on the farm. He was paying them £1.50 at the time, with a free cottage and free milk and free vegetables, practically feeding them as well. But they didn’t have much out-of-pocket cash. And the rule was that if a man broke his fork, for instance, it was deducted out of his £1.50. One poor old chap, he said, ‘Look, I can’t manage. I just can’t manage, you know.’ These sort of hardships were hitting me, probably turning me from Toryism to Socialism, really and truly. I can’t forget them, because there was real poverty, and real need, and real hardship. And I think if the men got condemned because they took ten shillings up to the pub and blew it on getting drunk, they were to be excused, because their life was a misery, to see their kids in need, and their wives driven frantic. These days it would end up in broken marriages and all sorts of things, but in those days didn’t because of necessity they had to cling together. The necessity just to live, to hang on. It was a horrible state of affairs.
The Wheel of Nature and Life
Arthur’s own family were never short of food, and always had a warm house, for which he was thankful. However, their farming fortunes were very mixed, and there were hard times like when his father couldn’t sell the wool from the shearing. Demand for produce varied hugely. His mother had her own small poultry business, which helped to keep them going, but nevertheless they were never too far from the bread line. But as Arthur said: ‘There was this feeling of self-sufficiency. We could feed ourselves on what we grew’. A traditional mixed farm, like the Oakes’s, could provide grain for flour, meat, butter, milk, eggs and vegetables. And although the overall picture Arthur painted wasn’t rose-tinted, he was at pains to point out that within farming itself, there was always the chance for renewal. The cycles of life and the land breed optimism, because the wheel always turns again:
‘Farming always seemed to be the remedy – however bad it was, there was always hope in farming. Spring comes along, and you plant a new crop, and you’ve got lambs, and you think things are bound to be better this year, because it’s going to be a bountiful year. And it very often was.’
A strange thing happened when Arthur died. We knew that he’d got cancer – he was just over 80 by then, but it didn’t seem too serious or without hope for recovery. One Sunday afternoon, Chris and I drove to the Gower peninsula from Bristol. As we traversed some heathland near to the coast, I had the Ordnance Survey map open and noticed an interesting ancient site indicated on our right, called ‘Arthur’s Stone’. It turned out to be a single standing stone, and as we slowed down to take a look, I noticed a curlew standing close to the road, its proud, curved beak in profile. This gave me an eerie feeling. It was also an unusual bird to see, at least in our experience at that time. Then, after we got home, the phone rang, and it was Arthur’s daughter Deb, calling to give us news of his death. I have ever since felt that Arthur’s spirit was set free to bid us and others farewell. Look at his photo above, and you’ll see why the curlew’s beak seems so appropriate!
You may also be interested in other life stories of people that I’ve encountered:
This time of the year is one of transition, but moving so slowly that it can feel as though we are caught in a spell of darkness – both in the sense of a ‘phase’ and of ‘magic spell’. Is this really the turning point of the year? It seems as if we are suspended, despite the thrust of New Year celebrations. As I’ve written previously, older cultures honoured this ‘time out’, the Twelve Days of Christmas, when work should cease, the gods themselves take a rest and the veil between the worlds is thin. In the old Irish tradition, ‘the gates of heaven are open.’
But the standstill of the year at mid-winter also poses practical issues. Our three new young chickens are enduring what are basically 15 hour nights, from the time they instinctively return to their perches at dusk soon after 4pm, to the first lightening of the sky and cry of the gulls from the river at about 7.15 – exactly the time that I’m writing this! So I’ll break off to go and open up, and make sure they have plenty of feed to peck at to restore their strength.
Just before I go, I’ll post a link below to a traditional song which has a bittersweet quality, and captures the mood of longing, wistfulness and hope which I feel is the essence of this time:
For the night is long And the day is grey The old year is fading The new comes our way.
We know by the moon That we are not too soon And we know by the sky That we are not too high We know by the stars That we are not too far And we know by the ground That we are within sound.
The blog that I’ve prepared below talks about another kind of New Year renewal, one that occurred for me around twenty years ago, but which has stayed with me as an occasion to cherish.
Renewal at New Year
It was the eve of the Millennium. Everyone else was celebrating, but I was languishing at home, ignoring the festivities as best I could. My city exploded with fireworks, fizz and general rejoicing, while I huddled deep inside my spacious house. My husband and I had recently split up and my two grown-up children now had their own lives. I felt very alone – I usually had two Maine Coon cats for company, but tonight they hid themselves in the deepest part of the basement, terrified by the noise. While the rest of the world was celebrating, I switched off my phone, detached myself from the world, and retreated to a very solitary place in my soul. Although harrowing, I realised too that it was a turning point, and from here on I needed to find a way to live positively in my home.
The house would be mine for another two years, until it had to be sold. I had agreed to this, so that we could divide up the assets, so for this period I needed it to be more than an empty shell. Right now, it felt like a place of pain and loss, but our family had spent thirteen happy years there. It had been full of friends, too, and a sanctuary for kindred spirits, with whom we’d talked on deep matters way into the night. And it was my creative hub – I’d written some of my best books there. But now, after our break-up, I felt that the atmosphere was tainted. Could I recover the joy and richness that this home had given us? Enough, at least, to begin my new life in the shell of the old?
A few days later, once the frenzy of the Millennium had died down, I came up with a plan. I knew both from my work with women’s groups and from my training in ritual, that it’s possible to make significant changes in the atmosphere of a space or a building. You can clear the space of recent clouds or conflicts. And with conscious input, you can make a sad place sing, or turn a decaying mood into a beam of hope. The home wouldn’t be again as it was – I had to accept that – but although we can’t ever turn the clock back, we can make it tick cheerfully again.
My network of women friends has always been hugely important to me, and I wanted to engage them in this task. Together, I believed we could dispel any lingering traces of unpleasantness and fill the house with laughter again. This was to be a celebration, an evocation, and a renewal. I invited about a dozen women to spend the evening with me, and indeed the whole night too if they wished. The purpose was serious, but hey, we were going to have fun too!
Women have their own way of using their collective bond to lift spirits and achieve a positive effect. As I’ve written about archetype of the Lady of Light, in my book The Circle of Nine:
“Just being with other women and doing practical, even frivolous, things can be enormously helpful. …Going round the stores, trying on clothes and rummaging through cosmetics in some ways recalls the “gatherer” women in tribal societies. These innocent and apparently light-hearted activities can be of genuine help in releasing a woman from her struggles with individual problems, and bringing renewal through the light that her sisters generate.”
For the first part of the evening, we chatted, laughed, ate, and drank sparkling wine. Not everyone was well acquainted, but I’d chosen women who all shared a devotion to something more profound, and who could honour the spiritual in our lives. When I felt the energy was sufficiently high, and the mood was warm, I asked if the group would purify and bless the house for me. They knew my situation, and were willing to help. I asked them to organise it for me; it was very important that I should step back and relinquish control, in order to truly benefit from the occasion. They must bring light and energy into the house in their own way.
The main purpose, I explained, was to re-awaken all the happiness and good which had been in this home. This in itself would probably be enough to disperse any clouds of negativity. (If the house had had a very unhappy or troubled past, it might have needed a different and deeper kind of ritual. But it had been a happy home for us, and indeed for the family who was there when we bought it.) I would give thanks for this, and then, with the spirit of the house hopefully free and cleansed, I could dwell there with relative peace of mind. After the sale, I could step forward freely into a new life, and whoever lived there next could enjoy a friendly atmosphere.
It was a large house, on several floors, and I suggested that they go through the house however they pleased, as long as they visited each part of it, including the cellars and the attic! Candles and incense were available, bells and bowls, or whatever they wanted, could be used. I reminded them of the useful technique, of striking two stones against each other so as to banish any lingering shadows. They set off like a gaggle of giggling pilgrims. I could have trailed in their wake, but it was a huge relief to leave the process to them.
They rose to the challenge wonderfully. I never discovered every detail, but my abiding memory is of a group of women carrying candles emerging from an upstairs room in a glorious wave of light, laughter, and love. Though they laughed, they were solemn; though they were not formal they brought words of meaning, and true compassion into the house.
I mark that evening as the turnaround point. It was the time when I began to love my home again without being so attached to it, and to feel that I might in due course step away from it without regret. Perhaps this was the night when I learned the immense significance of female friendship.
That was just over twenty years ago, and life has indeed moved on. I sold the Bristol house, moved to Bath, met my second husband Robert on a cruise and started a new life together. Since then, we’ve lived in Gloucestershire and now reside near Exeter in Devon. The family has re-configured, and I now have two lovely granddaughters and an amicable relationship with my ex. Sometimes when you can’t see beyond the clouds of the present moment, it’s worth just entrusting yourself to a future which you can’t envisage, but will come in its own way and in its own time. I regard those seven years which I subsequently spent living alone as very useful, and a good foundation for beginning again in a new partnership.