The Ship of Night

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

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

Part One – The Little Foxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Life with Tarot

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

Travellers along the Silk Road

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


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

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

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

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

The Trade Routes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The deity of the Pole Star, a guide for travellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

Suzani from the Silk Road
The Bazaars of the Silk Road

Exeter Dreaming

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

Exeter dreams of its past, through paintings and photos which capture the romance of years gone by. I love to look at old photographs of the city, but even more I love gazing at the old postcards with softly coloured paintings, bought and were sent in their thousands during the early days of tourism. In the late 19th and early decades of the 20th century, before colour photography became the norm, artists of calibre were commissioned to paint scenes of Exeter’s historic streets, buildings, parks and waterways. I’ve collected a few of these, and share some of the city’s ‘dreamtime’ with you here.

Over the past autumn and winter, I trained as a city guide for Exeter, and tramping the streets with my fellow trainees, learning about their history, and reciting their stories, it’s as if we were walking the ‘songlines’ of the city. I feel that it’s akin to the way that Australian Aborigines walk their ancestral paths across the terrain, in order to recall and enact the old myths of creation, and the history of their people; this is known as ‘the dreamtime’.

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

Although much of Exeter has been redeveloped, following the devastating bombing raids of World War Two, there’s still a great deal of its history to be seen. And as well as seeing what’s evident now, I also came, eventually, to experience the city as multi-layered. The city’s past is there, and what is not visible to the naked eye starts to become alivee and vivid to the mind’s eye. Below my feet lies the remains of the Roman bathhouse…here is where Perkin Warbeck besieged the city…and this is the place where lived Gytha, mother of King Harold.

Here are the first four postcards of my collection, three of them with named artists.

Exeter from the Canal

Henry B. Wimbush evokes for us here a stately panorama of the city, with the Cathedral as a luminous landmark on the hill at the horizon. But although everything looks serene, the canal itself has a most contentious history. In 1913, when the postcard was sent, time was fast running out for its use as a shipping canal.

It was first proposed around 1280, when Isabella de Fortibus, Countess of Devon, blocked off most of the river Exe downstream, in order to bring more waterpower to her paper mill. (The area is known today as ‘Countess Wear’.) She left only about nine metres clear, which made it hard for large ships to pass through, and thus caused much complaining in Exeter itself. The city was dependent on its port, for the export trade of its woollen cloth, which is what made the city wealthy and famous from medieval times until the 18th century.

But matters were about to get worse. Around 1330, her descendant and kinsman, Hugh de Courtenay had a falling-out with the mayor over whether he or the bishop was entitled to the last pot of fish in the market! Courtenay swore he would get his own back on Exeter, and completely blocked the river. He set up Topsham, a few miles downriver, as the port where ships would now dock and he could collect the revenues, since he owned the quay there. This lined his coffers nicely. Eventually, in the 1500s, Exeter was granted the rights to remove the weir, but as the river was largely silted up, there was no choice but to dig a canal instead, to bring goods to be landed in the city itself. However, it took until the 1830 to complete the project in its entirety, and although Exeter partly got its port landings back, goods had to be transferred to small lighters (boats) and pulled upriver by horses. The canal now ran to what is known as Turf Locks, just past Topsham on the opposite bank. But it was too late to be of great use. Seagoing ships had become too large to pass up it, trains were shortly to take away much of the trade, and Exeter was no longer a chief centre of wool production.

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

The postcard of 1913 shows one larger ship berthed at the quayside (on the very left), but already the serenity of the scene indicates that its days of glory were in the past. And the little lockkeeper’s cottage on the right would later be demolished – by mistake, as it happens!

The artist was Henry Bowser Wimbush (1858-1943), who was known for postcards and book illustrations, as well as for paintings, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy. He roamed both in Britain and abroad to create his art, but settled in nearby Taunton later in life. (see also The-Postcard-Depot)

The postcard was sent to one Miss Connor in Acton, and the message simply reads: ‘We shall arrive at Padd[ington] at 8.30 tomorrow so expect us home soon after 9.’ In those days, you could confidently send a postcard to announce your imminent arrival!

‘Old House, King Street’

Exeter lost around two thirds of its old buildings in the Blitz of World War Two. Of those that remained, many were demolished later when the Council went on a re-development spree. Some that could have been restored were removed in the name of ‘progress’. (An anonymous website Demolition Exeter sets out to explore this outrage ) Buildings around King St, named in the postcard, and Preston St in the ‘West Quarter’ of the city took direct hits, and are nearly all rebuilt today. At first I thought this was just a charming scene of old houses, in a bygone street where the women are perhaps carrying bales of cloth – the staple of the wool trade. There is what seems to be a pedlar with his basket on the right, a workman with a wheelbarrow, and a family grouped in the distance. The artist Sidney Endacott is well-known for painting scenes on Exeter postcards: his views are both delightful and collectable. (More about Sidney and Worth, the postcard publisher, below.)

But there is more to this ‘old house’ than meets the eye. It was in fact known locally as ‘The Norman House’ and was probably one of the very oldest in the city. The Normans arrived here in 1068 under the banner of William the Conqueror himself, who chased the mother of the defeated King Harold out of the city, seized her lands, and set up a castle for his own soldiers at Rougemont, near the East Gate. Remains from Norman times are rare, though, in domestic buildings. As Exeter Memories put it:
On the corner of Preston and King Street was what appeared to be just another slum property, with a few ancient features. In 1914, the City Council purchased the building with a view to clearing the area. In 1915, they sent a photographer to record the building–the photographs revealed a building far more interesting, than originally thought. It had many Norman mouldings, one over the door, and stone decorative strips at the base of the interior walls. The house had many 16th-Century features, including Tudor plaster work ceilings and a collar-braced roof. It was for the Norman features it became known as the Norman House.
Alas, although it was taken care of for a while, it was eventually allowed to become derelict, and was then finished off by the bombs of 1942.

Here is another image to dream over, therefore.

Mary Mol Wildy and her famous Coffee House

This gorgeous building was built as Exeter’s first Customs House in 1596. Later, in the 1720s, it became Mol’s Coffee House, a place for gentlemen to gather with their business chums and read the latest newspapers from London. It ran for over 100 years – presumably presided over by subsequent hosts to Mol! – but is still known by her name today. In the first part of the 20th century though it became Worth’s Art Gallery, which in the years after it finished business as a more general art gallery, has best known for the series of postcards it produced and printed. This is where the postcard of King St was published, and the man who painted it was Worth’s best-known artist: Sidney Endacott (1873-1913).

Sidney was a local lad, born in Ashburton, and a pupil at Blundells School, Tiverton. He was capable and talented, but unfortunately suffered from a permanent bone infection (osteomyelitis), which cut short his life. However, he still managed to join his brother in America for a while, where he created wood carvings for a grand mansion in Kansas. After his return to Devon, he taught art but then hit a winning streak by painting postcards for Worth’s. These became very popular, catering for the growing number of tourists in the city. It’s thought that he probably created around 500 designs overall, delightful paintings which create a romantic atmosphere around the city sights.

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

This corner of the Cathedral Close where Mol hangs out still looks much as it did in these postcards – one of which is a painting by A. R. Quinton, and the other a photograph. The Saxon church of St Martin of Tours still sits next to Mol’s and two of the medieval houses on the left in Quinton’s painting, built originally for priests in the 1300s, also survive as Loake’s high quality shoe shop. (They are also famous for having garderobes, which can be described as luxury medieval toilets with ‘a long drop’.)

As for Alfred Robert Quinton (1853-1934), his landscapes and cityscapes were drawn from his annual tours by bicycle around the British Isles. His work routine would be to travel around England and Wales for three months of the year, mostly during the summer months and often by bicycle, during which he would draw sketches and take photographs of locations which he would then work up into paintings in his studio during the winter months. Many of his artworks were also published as postcards by Raphael Tuck and J Salmon Ltd and remain popular with today’s collectors.

Quinton on his sketching tours, equipment strapped to his bicycle

The painting of Mol’s, aka Worth’s Gallery, in Quinton’s postcard is more matter-of-fact than that the other two in this blog post, but enjoyable for its detail, including the little figure poring over Worth’s art prints, and a woman and child about to enter the gallery. The card was posted in 1933, so I suspect the wagon was a bit of an anachronism, although the painting could have been made some years earlier. The message on it, sent to Jersey, begins, ‘Dear Alice – Tell mother that I am anxiously waiting for a letter I sincerely hope that …alright’ and then descends into a scrawl.

The photographic postcard was sent by a young man studying at St Luke’s religious educational college, writing home to his father. By contrast to the other one, it’s a model of neatness. ‘The weather today is summery, with hot sun and no clouds… The church on the left is the oldest in the city about 1050’. (Good try, but not quite! Being more precise, it’s from 1065 but still qualifies as Anglo-Saxon, preceding the Norman Conquest by three years!)

That’s the end of today’s dreams of Exeter! I hope to be sharing some more with you later, when I’ve acquired more old postcards to share with you.

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

You may also be interested in:

Posts on nearby Topsham, my home town:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham (1)

Hidden Topsham (2)

Hidden Topsham (3)

Hidden Topsham (4)

Topsham at Halloween

Lockdown Topsham

Topsham celebrates