Sweet Chance, that led my steps abroad,
Beyond the town, where wild flowers grow --
A rainbow and a cuckoo, Lord,
How rich and great the times are now!
Know, all ye sheep
And cows, that keep
On staring that I stand so long
In grass that's wet from heavy rain --
A rainbow and a cuckoo's song
May never come together again;
May never come
This side the tomb.
'A Great Time' by W. H. Davies (1871-1940)
I recently re-visited Amberley and Nailsworth, the area in Gloucestershire where we lived not too long ago. We were there for seven years, in fact, and it’s seven years now since we moved. Although it’s not too far from our present home in Topsham, Devon, I’ve only once before made the 100 mile journey back there in the intervening period. This time, in glorious May, I rejoiced in the profusion of the local flowers of the woods, upland commons and meadows: starry wild garlic, ethereal cowslips, buttercups, bluebells and hawthorn blossom.
I’m forever interested in our experiences of ‘place’, and how they lodge in our memory as touchstones of emotional succour – or sometimes as the opposite, as places of doom or of energy drainage, best avoided in the future. For myself, this refers mostly to places where I’ve lived, and which have time to seep into the soul. That’s around twelve different places, plus one in Russia and one holiday home in Turkey. It’s a somewhat indefinite number as on more than one occasion I’ve lived in the same area but in different houses. Anyway, without getting too involved in intricate analysis here, I’m going to call it the round figure of twelve.
On Minchinhampton Common, it was – and still is, writing this a few days later – a time when the long grass is studded with flowers in the days before the cows are let loose to tear at the new fodder. Commoners have rights to graze stock – our house deeds there allowed us to graze ‘two beasts’! So in mid-May, farmers with similar rights drive their cattle lorries up there, and unload them. We witnessed it once, and laughed at the clumsy exhilaration of the cows as they kicked up their heels, snorted, then set off at what passes for a bovine gallop, stampeding and wheeling in circles, like something from a Western. Most had probably been confined to their stalls over winter, and their joy was a pleasure to behold. It wouldn’t take long before buttercups and cowslips were munched and you’d need to go to the margins of the common to find orchids, Solomon’s seal and other wild flowers not yet discovered by the herds.
Below: Cowslip, Early Purple Orchid, and the much rarer Bee Orchid, all of which I photographed on Minchinhampton Common
The cows themselves were mainly a motley crew of mixed brown, white, black and even a curiously sort of striped one, who we nicknamed Tiger. The National Trust kept a herd of belted Galloways, black and white like striped humbugs, and an elite herd of a few little Highland cows, with woolly coats and long horns, kept their own company away from the madding crowd. All the cows roamed as far as they could until stopped by cattle grids, and it was a frequent sight to see one leaning over our back wall, wondering what she might be able to reach in our vegetable patch with her rasping tongue. Or strolling through the village past our front gate, snatching at grass from the so-called village green.
And on my visit this time round, it happened to be the day of the annual ‘Cow Hunt’. No, not taking pot shots at innocent animals, but a kind of Cow Scarecrow event, with named cows dressed up and dotted around the village, such as Emma Radu Cow Moo or the like.
Hordes of families spread out through the village and over the common, parents diligently ticking off discovered cows on their lists, while excited children scampered ahead, trying to spot them in fences, gardens and the wilder spots. After which, it’s tea and cake for all on the aforementioned village green.
I began this piece with the poem by W. H. Davies, which wonderfully evokes the kind of ecstasy of a moment when impressions flood our consciousness – sights, scents and sounds arising simultaneously from the natural world around us – in his case, a rainbow and a cuckoo’s song. In my case, the sweetness of spring flowers, the silvery stone of the villages I know and love – Amberley, Box, Minchinhampton, and the leafy ancient woodland, all brought joy. For me, too, the open common and its free-ranging beasts has always carried a resonance of an older, freer way of life in the English countryside, which has now largely gone from our land.
A beautiful rendering of ‘Sweet Chance’ set as a song by composer Michael Head
But – and here’s the thing! – it’s also ‘sweet chance’ that W. H. Davies himself lived in this very area, and was a native of Nailsworth in his later years. He was a self-styled ‘super tramp’: born in Wales, he roamed far and wide across the world, living as a hobo. He travelled round Canada and America, trying unsuccessfully to make his fortune in the gold rush, and losing his leg in a freight train accident. But being something of a genius too, his writings took the more bohemian elements of literary London by storm, and he became an established poet, as well as publishing his autobiography. Notable figures such as the Sitwells, George Bernard Shaw, and the poet Edward Thomas became his friends. It was not a simple outcome, as you might imagine, given that a rough life and the sometimes genteel expectations of his behaviour did not always sit well with his upper class admirers. But his status as a ‘super tramp’ helped to kick start a kind of vogue for ‘tramping’ so that even much later, in the 1950s, writer Colin Wilson and his circle took to sleeping out in the rough – though in Wilson’s case, just as far as Hampstead Heath! And a well-known Soho character, ‘Ironfoot Jack’, wrote an entertaining memoir about his time on the road, and as a showman. Tramping became almost respectable.
In later years, W. H. Davies settled in a little cottage called Glendower, in a hamlet called Watledge, I used to walk past it often, if I was taking the scenic downhill route into Nailsworth, and admire its picturesque look. This was his last home, after he and his wife had inhabited several other houses in the area. His wife was much younger than him, and a former prostitute, but it was apparently a happy, settled union. His novel ‘Young Emma’ shows his sympathy for young women who got into trouble on account of their poverty and innocence. It was a close-to-life account of his wife’s beginnings, and not published until after his death.
There is much more that could be said about W.H. Davies, Nailsworth, our time in Amberley, free-ranging cows and common land, but I’ll just let this short tribute stand as a kind of marker of those special moments which can come when we revisit old haunts. A rush of memories can fuse with current impressions – for me here, ‘sweet chance’ was the scent of wild garlic, the delight of meeting with old friends, the sight of the steep valleys and tender green of the woods in May. I may experience this alchemical elixir, as indeed all of us may, but perhaps only a poet or writer of genius such as W.H.Davies can express it
The next post will stay with a literary theme, exploring the connections between William Blake and the Moravian Church. Are Blake’s visions, poems, and even his views on love, shaped by this unusual Christian church with its emphasis on visualisations, the feminine spirit, and delight in music? Join me in a different setting, but with another wild, independent genius!
Have you ever been to a school or college reunion? They can be delightful, terrifying, frustrating, intriguing, heart-warming or puzzling – or a mixture of all of these experiences! I have been to several for our secondary school, King Edward VI High School in Birmingham, where many of us have kept in contact over the years anyway. But the reunion that I went to about ten years ago was completely different – it was for pupils from my first school, where I started when I was only three and a half. And as I was moved from there aged seven, the time frame was in my very early years. As far as a reunion was concerned, it was something of a challenge – a real case of stepping into the unknown, since I had only been in touch with one other friend from there ever since the day I left. The experience led me to think about reunions in general, and how they can affect us, as they stir up memories from the depths. Or not, in the case of some major blanks! I decided to write down my impressions afterwards. This is how it went:
Arrival at Wottonley House School
I look around for familiar landmarks. I’ve stepped out of my car into the dark and wet, and notice other cars also pulling up, occupants getting out and casting an eye about, just as I am. The few lights shining show up a jumble of buildings which don’t bear an exact resemblance to my memory of this place. The main school house looming behind them is very much as I remember it though, a solid Victorian detached villa, which in the eyes of a child was large and imposing. Now I see that it’s a generous, one-family house, but not much more.
A deep breath, and I’m ready to go in. I haven’t set foot here since I was about eight years old. It was my first school, in Ash, a village near Sandwich in Kent, where I spent four or five happy years. It was known then as Wottonley House and was really, as one former pupil unkindly called it, ‘a dame school’. Indeed, it was started by a middle-aged spinster for the children of parents who were respectable, if not wealthy; they were prepared to pay modest fees to set their child on a rung of the ladder above that of the local Council Schools, as they were known. It aspired to some of the rather grim traditions of British private education – uniforms with ties, exams from an early age, strict rules on behaviour – but it was nevertheless a kindly setting for small and bewildered children. I was only three and a half when I first went, and I loved it. Not that I had much to compare it with! It’s still a school now, but under a new name and management, extended into bigger grounds and extra portacabin classrooms.
So here I am, back again. At the door to the new School Hall the two organisers sit smiling, handing out name badges. Here is Shirley, who has been working indefatigably for six months or more, gathering all the info from the far flung reaches of the internet, contacting someone who knows someone, and following up obscure leads until she has over a hundred names whose whereabouts are known, almost fifty of whom are coming this weekend. We are meeting for drinks on the Saturday evening, and lunch on the Sunday. Her friend and helper Maggie I suddenly remember. The doctor’s daughter, in whose fabulous house and garden we used to hold the Sports Days. It’s to be like that over the next two days, as memory is jolted out of its slumber, and all sorts of names and details bubble up to the surface.
I remember some people, and others remember me.
‘It’s Cherry Phillips!’ (my long-abandoned maiden name.) ‘You look just like your mother!’
My mother was a teacher at the same school; no matter that she was 5’ 2”, and I am 5’ 9”, that she had red hair and mine was dark brown, she was plump, and I am – no, let’s face it, not as slim as I used to be. Fair enough.
Now I meet in quick succession a dazzling array of blasts from the past, each arousing brightly-coloured snippets of memory, waving like flags in the breeze. Philippa, who I often played with on Saturdays, and whose mother sang opera lustily as she cleaned the house. Bob, whose father ran the local tobacconist’s shop which also inexplicably sold tennis rackets. (Or did they? Is this a curious trick of memory?) Sometimes the memories are best kept to myself, so I refrain from telling a solid pillar of the community that I remember his big feet with flapping sandals, or remind a well-groomed woman of how she once wee’d in the middle of the classroom floor. I can still see the puddle in my mind’s eye. I get on well with some that I scarcely remember, including an elegant lady who, unknown to both of us, lived close to me in Bath for many years, and some cheerful cousins of Carolyn, my former best friend at the school. (There are twenty-nine of these cousins, she tells me, though not all of them are here, which is probably just as well.) And as for Carolyn herself, we lost touch in our 20s about the time we each got married and started families. But now, to my utter surprise and delight, it’s as if we’d never drifted apart.
To my astonishment, one of our former teachers is also here. She must be well over eighty. Miss Bourne was sweet and cheerful, a safe haven to run to, and someone who would be kind rather than critical. She erroneously taught us that camels store their water in their humps, and that Jesus made a sparrow out of clay which flew away – a story I was fascinated to discover later which is only found in the folkloric apocryphal gospels. Where had she heard that? She also read us good stories after lunch during our enforced rest on thin army blankets on a hard wooden floor. Those restless, uncomfortable half-hours were made bearable by listening to ‘The Secret Garden’ or ‘The Jungle Book’.
But of Miss Cowell, the headmistress, people tell terrible tales, of how she flew into rages, and pulled them down the stairs by their hair or their ears. I do remember how she snapped and snarled, but she never dared to have a go at me – I had a charmed, protected life there, a teacher’s pet I am told now, under the aegis of my teaching mother. Once or twice I was even sent to stay with Miss Cowell in the holidays, at which point she dropped her fierce manner and became placid, and even motherly. She allowed me to paint large square biscuit tins white, to serve as rubbish bins. It was the first time anyone had let me loose with an adult brush and pot of paint, and I was in heaven. It was hot; I sat in the corridor where usually we left our coats and shoes, an area where in term-time children came thundering to and fro, and in perfect peace I painted away. I just had to take care that the blue bottle flies didn’t settle on the white paint.
The reunion restores fragments of my past to me, but also begins to give me a more objective and disturbing view of how I was then.
‘You had to have a sleep on Miss Cowell’s bed after lunch every day! We were told to be quiet and not to disturb you.’ Golly. Either I was a cute little lamb (I was certainly younger than most at three and a half) or a precocious pain in the butt.
‘You called your mother Mrs Phillips in class, but Mummy the moment you got into the car,’ recollects our surviving teacher.
Did I? That was quite a feat. And it’s a prompt: I suddenly recall letting slip ‘Mummy’ in class, and all the children roaring with laughter, my face feeling hot with shame.
‘You had been looked after by someone when your mother started teaching here,’ she continues, ‘but it didn’t work out, so she asked if she could bring you to school.’
Interesting. I have snapshot memories of being cared for by a woman called Vera who was unkind and regularly smacked my bottom. Even though, as a small child, I never thought that complaining would do any good, maybe my mother figured out the situation. I was certainly ready to come to school, and have an enduring memory of sitting in the dining room after lunch with ‘Listen with Mother’ on the radio, watching the dust motes dance in the sunbeams that were coming through the serving hatch while Mum did the washing up. Through the hatch, my mother asked me from the kitchen, ‘Would you like to go to school?’ Oh yes! I would, I would!
But memory is a trickster, artful in layering recollections together. Perhaps the conversation happened earlier, somewhere else in the house, and I was just remembering it as I sat listening to the radio. It seems odd that she would have asked me something so important through the serving hatch. And, as the former pupils dig into the detail over the next two days, we find gaps and clashes in our narratives. Some things we all remember – Swedish drill in the playground, and a new classroom being built. One person remembers elocution lessons, and the rest of us deny that we ever had them. With difficulty, we recall that the art teacher was called Miss Painter (yes, really). But I seem to be the only one to recall the big drawstring bag that held masses of polished wooden bricks, some shaped like arches and pillars, with which you could build impressive structures. I wasn’t alone though in recalling ‘Music and Movement’, broadcast through primitive speakers. ‘The sun is out, children, so skip, skip! Oh dear – now a rain cloud is coming! Jump over the puddles.’
Photos that people have brought of past events trigger distant memories. I see my mother in one, organising a race on Sports Day. This stirs me up, because here is another moment of her life, just when I thought I there were no more to be found. After her death, my brother and I went through all the photographs, which have since become imprinted on my mind as the total of her recorded life. Now I get a different take on her. Everyone keeps saying, ‘Your mother was a wonderful teacher!’ I didn’t know that. I struggle with this new definition, then step back from my own childhood impressions till I suddenly see her more objectively: at the time, she was still keen and relatively young, with a first-class training from Homerton College, Cambridge. After the disruption of the war and two children later, she was at last having a chance to use all that training. She could teach history, French and English, and play the piano for country dancing.
My father was teaching in another school in the area at the time, a boys’ grammar school where he was deeply unhappy, under a headmaster whom he hated. Stories about him, which I now heard from a man who’d gone on to that school from Wottonley House, were grim. His temper, always easily triggered, led to swiping his badly-behaved pupils with a metal-topped cane. I feel shame. But Mum, I realise now, was possibly at her happiest. She loved the little town of Sandwich, as I did too. But my father won out in his dissatisfaction and permanent restlessness; we moved house so that he could change jobs. Mum was sad, and I was devastated. One day, out on a walk by the river, I overheard my parents telling my maternal grandparents, who had come to stay, that we were going to leave Sandwich. It as like a bucket of ice tipped over me. I kept the dreadful knowledge to myself, till someone saw fit to mention it to me at a later date. And perhaps that first traumatic experience of uprooting has led to my own desire to switch locations every so often, much as I hated it at the time. As children do though, I adapted quite easily to a new life in the Midlands.
I relish a memory which three of us now share at the reunion. It’s of an extraordinary birthday party; we agree that it was the best one we ever went to, held in the garden of a huge, Lutyens designed house in Sandwich, known as The Salutation. A titled family lived there, with their two daughters and son, all of whom were pupils at Wottonley House. There was a treasure hunt in the orchard for the party, where we were each given a different strand of coloured wool, which we followed through the trees, unwinding it from branches and trunks, untangling it from the web other bright threads, until we reached the present at the other end, beautifully wrapped in tissue paper whose colour matched that of the thread. In dreary post-war Britain such things as coloured tissue paper were a luxury, that is if you could find them at all. ‘I tried to re-create this treasure hunt for a party recently,’ says the now well grown-up birthday girl, ‘but I couldn’t. I asked my mother how she did it, but she couldn’t remember.’
And it’s curious how facts can get distorted. Carolyn’s cousin clan begins to discuss their family history, and her older sister Jan says, ‘Our great grandfather was a Brook.’ It’s noisy in the school hall, and Carolyn hears this as, ‘Our great grandfather was a crook’. I, on the other hand, hear it as ‘…was a drunk.’ We discover our mistakes just in time before his reputation is lost forever.
The cauldron of my own past is now being stirred with a long stick. As discussion progresses amongst the assembled guests, sediment from the bottom of the pot floats up and colours the liquid above, producing feelings, vague memories, things that I can almost taste and smell but not name.
We pore over photos, trying to sort out names and faces, and ponder the geography of the school, which has changed. The playground is bigger now, but we recall its former shape, and how it held us all safely at break, the five-barred gate shut firmly while we played. How curious the games seemed to me when I first arrived at school, until I was initiated into them: ‘Farmer may I cross your Golden River?’ ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf?’ ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ and ‘Witches and Fairies’. The agony when you waited to be chosen to be on someone’s side, and the excitement when you could finally take part. I also learnt fortune-telling by counting the stones on the plate after stewed prunes at lunchtime: Who will I marry? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief! What will I get married in? Silk, satin, cotton rags. How will I travel to the wedding? Coach, car, carriage, dustcart. I suspect this kick-started my later interests in Tarot cards and astrology!
A Press photographer turns up to take our picture. One joker rolls up his trousers to expose his knees, schoolboy style. I and another woman are asked to put our arms around his shoulders and tickle his knees for a close-up shot. Then we all line up, grinning broadly, with our remaining teacher sitting in the middle, arm raised, swinging the old school bell.
The bell is also used by Shirley the organiser to summon us to lunch. She reads out the old rules of the dining room. ‘Line up quietly. Say thank you. When you have eaten your first course, talk quietly to the person on your left.’ Etc. This is news to me! I recall none of it. But along with others, I remember the horror of being forced to drink a bottle of milk in break, sometimes warmed on icy mornings and tasting even more disgusting as a result. Once I found a drowned blackbird feather in it. (Mrs Thatcher, Milk Snatcher? Maybe you did schoolchildren a favour!) I remember too one of the boys being sick after eating stew for lunch, and how I was both fascinated and repelled at the pieces of carrot spewed over the floor.
Visual memories have stuck, too, for me and others there. We had different pictures of fruit and flowers for our coat pegs so we could identify them before we learnt to read. (But did I have a Cherry? Not sure.) We drew pictures for Bible Study – I had trouble with the table legs splaying out sideways for ‘The Feast of Canaan’, but I liked the idea of turning water into wine and threw myself into portraying the ancient story with coloured crayons. We learnt simple French using picture cards for each object. I remember the deep purple of the plum, and the soft velvet of the cushion, each image painted on a varnished and slightly yellowed card.
We can’t quite agree on where the original School Hall was located, where we had Assembly every day. Apparently on my first few days I sent everyone into fits of laughter by calling out ‘Present’ after each name read out on the register. Well, I don’t remember that exactly, but I certainly did believe that saying ‘Present’ meant that I would be given one. At least one, and possibly more if I said it enough times. I must have been a very literal child.
By and large, we were all happy at this school, and the talk has been bubbly, enthusiastic. As the time comes to leave for the long drive home, I recognise, with some sadness, that this is a unique occasion, never to be repeated. I may see some of these people again, and indeed, since then I have done that, but the fact is that all of us will never be in this place together again. It has stirred and moved me, and left me both savouring and questioning the memories from the deep roots of the past.
This account was first written in 2008, and revised and updated for this blog in 2022. Photos below show a further reunion with Carolyn and her sister Jan, when they came to visit me in Devon a few years ago.
My book ‘Your Life, Your Story’ takes a look at the question of memory and of memoir writing. It also shows you how to tease out the stories from your life, and share them with others.
‘Growing Your Family Tree’ investigates the task compiling your family history, especially the aspects of field trips to ancestral places and also the lived experiences which are a part of genealogical research, such as finding new relatives, and discovering secrets from the past.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, I made a number of trips to the Silk Road, travelling both along the ancient trade routes and to individual countries such as Syria, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkey. I felt instinctively that this period offered a golden opportunity to visit Central Asian and Silk Road countries, while borders were largely open, and political upheaval was minimal. I also had the time to do this, and travel was relatively inexpensive, so I decided to seize the chance while I could. And so it proved – sadly because of radicalism, civil war and political upheavals it would be very hard to do all of the same trips today.
However, it has ever been thus on the Silk Road. Only during the reign of Tamerlane (Timur) in the late 14th century was it possible to travel through his vast empire without impediment from beginning to end – and that was because he was a tyrant who imposed complete control on the routes! So I relished my journeys along at least part of the Silk Road, and studied its history and culture further to fill in the background. The talks and lectures I was able then to give were popular; everyone, it seems, wants to be an armchair Silk Road traveller, if they can’t get there in person! And who doesn’t love the colourful pictures of its remote mountains and lively markets?
In today’s post, I’m exploring the magic of Silk Road bazaars, and in a couple of months’ time I’ll publish a post on Travellers and Traders along the Silk Road. And more may follow – so watch this space!
Times of Change
There have certainly been changes in the last fifteen years, since I visited the Silk Road and its countries, like the Chinese policy of aggression in the Uighur province, which has affected the historic town of Kashgar, with its enormous Sunday market and charming houses with painted balconies. I am not sure that I could bear to go back there now – I’d rather remember it as it was. But nevertheless, most of what I write and the pictures I show still tell a tale of Silk Road countries in general, even if some specific locations have altered.
The Life of the Silk Road
The enchantment of the bazaar
Bazaars cast their magical spell over me, every time. In Silk Road countries, I have shopped in bazaars in Istanbul, Damascus, Kashgar, Samarkand, Tashkent, Marrakesh, Fez, Cairo, and Rawalpindi, to name but some of that I have visited. They are more than markets, glorying in flamboyant display, and creating a sense of opulence. Even humble sacks of spices are arranged in a palette of pleasing colours, metal teapots are set in towers to create a dazzling array of silver, and piles of slippers with striped silk and pompoms suggest the floors of a Sultan’s palace. I love nearly all markets but the Silk Road bazaars with their exuberant offerings, turning all their goods into exotic treasures, are irresistible.
The Story of the Silk Road
The Silk Road flourished between the 1st century AD, and the 15th century, after which time better trade routes and shipping routes opened up between East and West. However, despite its romantic sound, the term ‘Silk Road’ itself was only coined in the 19th century. The Silk Road was also not just one road, but a network of branching routes connecting countries from China and India in the Far East through Central Asia and into the Middle East, with final routes into Italy, Greece, and even Britain. Silk itself had been discovered in China by at least as early as 3,600BC – the legend has it that a Chinese Empress accidentally dropped a silkworm cocoon into her cup of tea, and as it unravelled in the hot liquid, she teased out the thread and was struck by its possibilities! Sericulture, the making of silk, became de rigeur for all Chinese ladies in the centuries that followed, and much time and effort was lavished on their silk road ‘houses’ to rear the worms which spin those cocoons. Soft, strong, lightweight silk became a precious commodity, its secret guarded for centuries by the Chinese until it was spotted by the Romans and export finally began. (One bargaining chip was that the Chinese were especially eager to acquire decent horses such as bred by their neighbours over the border in what is now the Kirghystan area.) But the trade routes were used for many, many other goods sent from East to West, and West to East, including ceramics, rhubarb, gunpowder and paper.
The old trade routes of Silk Road with their caravans of camels, yaks and horses still persisted to some extent in terms of travel, right though into the early 20th century. In their final years these were documented by a duo of Christian missionaries, Cable and French, who described them in their atmospheric book, The Gobi Desert (details below). But even today, the legacy of Silk Road bazaars is still thriving, as celebrated here.
The language barrier
‘I’m talking about camels -CAMELS!’ Many nationalities of travellers and merchants have travelled up and down the Silk Road for at least two thousand years. How did they manage to communicate with each other, given that they spoke dozens of different languages? They developed a simple, but cunning way of getting round this. For much of the Silk Road, either Chinese or Turkic languages were the main ones spoken, and these all have some similarities even though they are significantly different from each other. Only very rarely did traders travel from end to end of the Silk Road, so the chances were that the other travellers and traders that they were meeting came from just a few countries away. Thus to exchange information, the merchants would first of all state what the subject of the conversation was going to be: ‘My words are going to be about woven silk – camels – porcelain bowls – bandits up ahead…’ or whatever the vital topic was. You can imagine that this might have been protracted on occasion – ‘C-A-M-ELS – got it??’ and perhaps with some pantomime or gestures: ‘BANDITS – I’m dead!’ (enacting stabbing chest with knife) That way, each could pick up enough to give a sense of the potential deal or danger, and further conversation could now be exchanged within the framework of the subject.
Goods came from far away lands, so buyers at Silk Road bazaars could expect to see some items that were new and strange to them. Even today, some exotic-looking items in a bazaar can be mystifying – the pictures above are actually of sugar, as sold in the bazaar at Samarkand! And I’ve noticed that in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, it seems that every time a new exotic design comes onto the market, it’s presented in dazzling displays, alerting buyers to something new and glamorous. One year, for instance, it was coloured glass lanterns, and the year before that, embroidered wall hangings. You can see examples of these below.
Hats, Caps and Headgear
Another way to do a quick check on the home country or region of another merchant or dealer was – and still is to an extent – by checking their headgear. Even today, in Uzbekistan and in Kashgar market, a whole variety of caps and hats are on offer. (You can see some of them in the photo above of the men arguing over their donkeys.) Pointed felt caps for the Kirghiz can easily be distinguished, for instance, from the round flat hats for the Uzbeks.
‘Another frequent sight in the bazar is the Kirghiz, wearing a pointed cap of bright chintz bordered with lambskin, and a heavy fur coat even when the day is hot. His boots have high heels…he sometimes carries a hooded falcon on his wrist…’ (The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable and Francesca French, a fascinating account of life in Central Asia by missionaries who saw the last days of the old Silk Road trading routes in the early 20th century.) Indeed, I did manage to buy some Kirghiz riding boots of black leather. I showed them to a shoe mender back in the UK – he marvelled at them, as no nails at all were used, only tiny wooden pegs, in a style that he hadn’t seen since boots made before WWII.
Immersion in the life of the bazaar
My first experience of bazaars was as a student of 20 years old, when I elected to spend the summer vacation in Istanbul. I enrolled in a scheme to match up British students with Turkish families, a homestay in return for helping them to speak English. The journey was epic – 3 days packed into a hot train with a group of fellow students, no bunks, working toilets or refreshments. We ground to a halt somewhere in a barren plain in Yugoslavia. (This was not the Orient Express, but the unglamorous version via Munich and northern Greece.) The train arrived 24 hours late, and I was met by my Turkish family, waving frantically to me from the platform, having recognised me from the photo I’d sent. I hadn’t received the one they’d sent me, so was wondering who the ‘housewife’ was that I had been asked to tutor. It turned out that the agency had got it wrong, and fixed me up with a 33 year old bachelor who fancied marrying an English girl! I was too shy to admit to the mix-up, but luckily he lived with his aged mother and father, and spent most days working in the family pharmacy with his father. So by day I was free to roam the city streets, crossing over on the ferry to Old Istanbul and its fabulous bazaar. As a long-haired, mini-skirted wearing student, I was lucky not to get into trouble! In the bazaar, I learnt how to bargain, and was entranced by the huge building, with its arches and painted ceilings, and labyrinthine layout. I’ve been back many times since; the spell was cast in those early years, and has never been broken.
The Bazaar of Istanbul
The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is known as Kapali Carsi, and is probably the most famous bazaar in the world. It’s also often regarded as the most perfectly constructed and best organised one too. Like other major bazaars, it began as a complex of strong rooms where valuables could be stored and protected, offered as a commercial service, and shut up tightly at night. This turned into the first Bedesten, or covered market, in Constantinople, created around 1461 during the Ottoman period. Its jewellery section today still remains at the centre, a traditional placing in the best-protected area of the bazaar. (Though today more modern, securely-guarded gold jewellery stores can be found at the perimeter of the bazaar.) Like other bazaars built from late medieval period onwards, it was given a domed roof, in this case with fifteen large and eight small domes. Over the course of time, it expanded; the Sandal Bedesten was built around the first Bedestan, and other side streets grew up too, ringed round with 30 caravanserais, as lodging houses for merchants. Today’s bazaar still covers 100 acres, with some 18 gates and 4000 shops. It was badly damaged in an earthquake of 1894, and by the1950s was in serious decay and decline . It was a close call as to whether it would survive, but now it is restored, and buzzing with life once again.
Not all bazaars are as grand or splendid, of course. Sometimes a small town bazaar might offer, say, predominantly water melons, hunting knives and bread for sale, depending on their local specialities. And not all are picturesque. Visiting Morocco in the 1970s, I shrank from scenes of horror in the butchers’ quarter, where stalls were hung with blood-dripping meat, darkly encrusted with flies. I also spied fascinating but sinister ‘witchcraft’ stalls selling ingredients for potions and magical spells, who knows whether to cure or curse. But I remember too the enchantment of arriving by bus at a little Moroccan town one evening, and stepping out straight into a street market lit by lanterns in the dusk – no electricity in those parts. An enticing scent of grilling kebabs floated on the air, stallholders called their wares, citizens bustled about, looking for the final purchases of the day. I felt I had entered a magic realm.
On the question of security for traders, I was reminded of the effect of Timur/Tamerlane on the safety of goods and travllers when I visited Damascus in the early 2000s. Bashar al-Assad was already President, some would say dictator, with a tight control over the city. In the bazaar, I bought a gold chain from an Armenian jeweller. He told us that he had no fear of anyone robbing his shop; he could even leave it unlocked and walk away, and nothing would disappear. This is one of the ironical effects of a tyrannical regime.
Ceramics traditions and servicing
Below: Ceramics have been part of Silk Road trading for about a thousand years, with Chinese porcelain a valuable commodity sent with great care to the West. Something of that tradition is carried on today with the exuberant pattternings of Turkish ceramics, proudly displayed for visitors and locals. I have lost several impulse purchases in breakages over the years – they don’t travel well in luggage! In Silk Road days, the porcelain could be mended at Tashkent en route if it had got damaged in transit.
Bargaining and bazaars go together. And there’s a fascinating range of customs relating to bargaining across different Silk Road countries. In the Yemen, they have a practice of using hand gestures under a cloth held over the hands of buyer and seller, so that no one else can see the deal that is being done. Fingers symbolise numbers, and ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses are signalled with the eyes. Perhaps this too relates to the need to overcome language barriers, the old challenge of the Silk Road. In the Levant, it’s common for the stallholder to state too high a price, then walk off in disgust when the buyer refuses. His son then magically appears, takes over the process and offers the customer a special discount to make up for the disappointment – the seller re-appears and berates his son for being too soft, and so the performance goes on. Somewhere along the line, a bargain may be struck.
If you enter a bazaar, be prepared to bargain. It’s expected of you. Aim at a price of about half what is initially stated, though I often feel in fact that about two thirds is fair. Bargaining is part of the game, and merchants have practised it over hundreds of years. The pantomime of expressing shock at the seller’s opening price, the gambit of walking away when an agreement seems out of reach, are all part of the ritual of the bazaar. (‘Come back, lady! Ok, for you special price…) I’ll just add a quick rider that of course there are variations, when bargaining hard is not the right etiquette, for instance for food, or in countries which may have their own accepted limits of discount (generally about 10-20% reduction in countries of the former Soviet Union).
Tips for the bazaar
Learn the basic numbers in the language of the country. I only have a little Dutch and much less Turkish, but by learning numbers to understand prices and make offers, I was able to bargain in the flea markets of Holland and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Be polite and friendly. It goes a long way. Don’t feel pressured into buying something if you’re offered a glass of tea or piece of Turkish delight. It’s part of the ritual, and the seller knows full well that not every interaction leads to a sale.
Be ready to walk away if you can’t strike an appropriate deal. If there’s more room for negotiation, the seller will call you back. Only start the bargainingprocess if you really do intend to buy something (at the right price). It’s offensive to make a game out of it. Beware of self-appointed ‘guides’, especially those who offer to take you to their uncle’s/cousin’s/brother’s shop…But you probably know that already!
All the contemporary photos of Silk Road scenes are copyright Cherry Gilchrist
My own book Stories from the Silk Road is a re-telling of traditional stories from the Silk Road area for children. Most of these stories were gleaned while I was on my travels, either by hearing them or finding them in books with local collections of stories. They are narrated here by the Spirit of the Silk Road, who also describes the its wonders as we travel down it. It is illustrated with stunning pictures by Nilesh Mistry, who carefully studied photos and historical pictures that I assembled for him, to ensure authenticity. (You’ll find different editions of this book, some with another cover; it is currently out of print, but copies are usually available on Amazon.)
There are plenty of books about the history of the Silk Road, but those most relevant to this particular post are:
The Gobi Desert – Cable, Mildred & French, Francesca, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1942) – Recording at first-hand the last traces of the ancient ways of travelling and trading on the central stretches of the Silk Road, as experienced in the first half of the 20th century. You can read about the authors’ extraordinary lives here, women who eventually received the Livingstone Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
The Bazaar – Markets and Merchants of the Islamic World – Weiss & Westermann (Thames & Hudson, reprinted 2000)
Below: Old markets in Samarkand, where the magnificent buildings have since been restored.