Venetia, the Woman who Named Pluto

Pluto, photographed on the 2015 ‘flyby reconnaissance’ mission

How it began…

To: Professor Herbert Hall Turner, Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford

94 Banbury Road, Oxford
March 14th 1930

Dear Professor,
This new planet! As my older brother suggested the names of Deimos and Phobos for the Martian moons, I was set wondering about a name for the big obscure new baby at breakfast today. It is of course most dim and dark and gloomy. Blest if my little granddaughter Venetia Burney didn’t up and suggest a name which seems to me to be thoroughly suitable, PLUTO. I hope it hasn’t been bagged for an asteroid. He was king of the murky and mysterious nether kingdom. You see Odin was a bright god and far from appropriate; but Pluto is good. Don’t trouble to reply.
I am, sincerely yours
F. Madan

A visit to Epsom
On a chilly, dark evening in November 2005, I drove to Epsom in Surrey, to the house of Venetia Phair, nee Burney. A small and stocky lady opened the door, and greeted me with a warm smile. I proffered a bunch of purple irises, which she accepted with pleased surprise. Now 87 years old, and still sharp and alert, she was once the 11-year old who had suggested the name ‘Pluto’ for the newly-discovered planet in 1930.

I had been researching for an MA essay, on the topic of how planets and other astronomical bodies acquire their names. If I could find Venetia – if she was still alive – it would be a wonderful opportunity to hear a ‘naming’ story at first hand. After some investigation, I managed to track her down, and wrote to ask if I might visit.

Venetia on my visit in 2005, with her ‘Pluto’ album

‘This new planet!’
The discovery of the planet Pluto was a major event, as the furthest-known planet from the sun. There had been two ‘new planets’ in the previous 150 years – first, Sir William Herschel had identified Uranus in 1781, after millennia in which only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were known as fellow-planets in our solar system. This was followed by the discovery of Neptune in 1846. And then Pluto’s existence, already predicted from astronomical observations, was finally confirmed by Clyde Tompbaugh, at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona in 1930. Although all three discoveries were not single Eureka! moments, but the consequence of long periods of observations and analysis, nevertheless the actual moment of confirmation was hugely exciting to the world at large. In the case of Pluto, the race was now on to choose a name.

Instead of a suggestion from an august astronomer, it was, in fact, a little girl living in Oxford who named Pluto. What follows is extracted from Venetia’s own account of how it happened, as told to me that November evening. [square brackets are for my comments]

Venetia came from a family with close ties to education and academia. Her father had been much older than her mother. He was only in his fifties, though, when he died of complications following an operation, which came as a great shock to the family. Venetia was only six at the time of his death, and a few years later, at the time of Pluto’s discovery, she and her mother were living with her grandparents in Oxford.

Letters from Venetia’s grandfather, F. Madan, to Professor Henry Herbert Turner. Madan’s brother had named the Martian moons Deimos and Phobos, so there was already a family precedent.

Interview with Venetia

CG I’d love to hear from you, in your own words, what you remember of eventful day of March 14th 1930?

VP Yes of course. What happened was that the news of the discovery came out in the Times that morning, and I was at breakfast with my mother and my grandfather. We speculated, I suppose, and then I said, right off the top of my head, ‘Why not call it Pluto?’ And they thought it was quite a good idea.

Pluto, Roman god of the underworld, also known as Hades in Greek mythology, with his three-headed dog Cerberus

Her grandfather’s letters – preserved by Venetia in a special Pluto album – give a little more detail:

‘When I came down to breakfast as usual at 8am I saw the announcement in the Times and the Daily Mail of the discovery of a new planet beyond Neptune. My daughter Mrs (Ethel) Burney and her daughter Venetia, aged 11, were the only others at breakfast, and I at once said “What will be its name?” I thought of Odin, but did not like it. In a minute or two Venetia said, “It might be called Pluto.” The idea seemed good at once. She had learnt about the old Greek and Latin mythologies, and also the relative distances of the planets, at school.’

VP Anyway, I heard no more of it till about three months later.

CG Had you forgotten about it by then?

VP Oh, I think so! My grandfather [Falconer Madan] was a retired librarian from the Bodleian, and when he retired he had his special bay in the library, with all his interests, which were largely family history and Lewis Carroll. But he was a terrific person, really interested in everything. And he used to walk down to the Bodleian in the mornings and come home about teatime.

Bigland, Percy; Falconer Madan (1851-1935); Bodleian Libraries

Well, on the way to the Bodleian this time, he dropped a note in addressed to Professor Herbert Hall Turner. [He was director of the Director of the Radcliffe Observatory at Oxford ] But Professor Turner didn’t actually get it until the next day because he was up in London at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, trying to think of a name!

CG So they were debating it up there?

VP Oh, they were, yes. And anyway, the next day, my grandmother and grandfather told him they would pay for a telegram to the Lowell Observatory in America.

The telegram sent by Prof. Turner to the Lowell Observatory, Arizona

VP Professor Turner thought it was a good idea, and sent a telegram on our behalf. Of course, it was entirely the decision of Lowell Observatory what it was called. But there were some very fortunate things about the suggestion. I rather believe the name Pluto had been used for a comet which had failed to reappear when it should have. And they also liked the fact that Pl in Pluto tied in with P L for Percival Lowell [who had founded the Observatory specifically with the hope of discovering this planet]. So, the Observatory accepted the idea, and eventually said that as far as they knew, I was the first person to have suggested it.

CG Do you remember what prompted you to say Pluto?

VP Absolutely no idea! I suppose, knowing the names of the planets, and knowing a certain amount of mythology. We had in particular one rather good practical astronomy lesson [at school], which was to stand outside the university parks, and in the parks there is a wrought iron gate and it had a circle in it, which was roughly of a size that you could pretend was the sun, and we then took little bits of clay with us, and moulded them into shape, made them the appropriate size in relation to each other, and planted them out at the right relative distance for all the planets, at the right places. And by the time we got to Neptune we were at the other side of the parks, about a mile and a quarter away! So I do know roughly the relative size of the planets, even now.

It’s official! Pluto is named.

CG There have been some stories going round that there was some connection with the Walt Disney dog Pluto. When I looked up that on the Disney site it said the dog was named after the planet, not the other way round. Is that correct, do you think?

VP That is correct. Fortunately, yes. As far as the naming goes, though, most accounts are pretty idiotic. There’s a book called something like Brilliant Kids who made their Contribution to Science, and I am bracketed with people like Louis Braille, and the article is pure invention from start to finish.

CG Really?

VP Yes – they had the thesis that ‘you too might get to something if you work really hard.’ So I am portrayed as spending two or three days in the library…

CG Ah! So they didn’t want it to be a flash of intuition or inspiration?

VP Oh no, no! And then they said that I ‘went and told my father’, who’d been dead for five years! People tended to call me Plutonia after that!

CG Were you a bit of a local celebrity?

VP Hardly, I don’t think! My school enjoyed basking in it. And my grandfather handed me a five pound note, which was undreamed of wealth. He also gave the school a five pound note with which they bought a wind-up gramophone, and we had music appreciation lessons after that. But after Patrick Moore’s article, [he had written about Venetia in ‘The Naming of Pluto’, in the journal Sky & Telescope, Nov. 1984] the thing has slowly snowballed. The Americans got interested, and ever since, I’ve had interesting repercussions. There’s a school in Memphis, a private girls’ school, and one of their parents tracked me down. And I’ve got sixty-one letters from eight and nine year olds! Which were really great fun – they wanted to know my favourite colour, and did I like pets, and that sort of thing.

CG Are you still getting correspondence coming in now? Apart from people like me!

VP A certain amount. Have you been to the Leicester Space Centre? Because the chap who set it up was so interested in my having named Pluto, and tried to track me down. If he’d read the whole of Patrick Moore’s article, which he said he knew, he’d have found out that my [married] name was Phair and that I was living in Surrey. As it was, he started out from scratch, and he rang everybody he could find in the district of the name of Burney. There weren’t very many. And he then got into the local Oxford Mail. They had a big headline: ‘Venetia – Where are You?

The auditorium of the Sir Patrick Moore Planetarium, at the Leicester Space Centre

Anyway, eventually he traced me, and after the Planetarium was opened, I was invited to see it, and it really was a royal visit. I know now just what it’s like to be the Queen! I was introduced to every single person of the staff, and photographed, and I had to sign autographs. And when it actually came to seeing the Planetarium show, all doors were shut so that nobody could come in, and they ushered us in at the back to choose our seats. Then they let everybody else in. And of course he had to announce that I was there –

CG And everyone turns and looks!

VP Yes. I had to stand up and wave. And finally, I was taken to the part devoted to Pluto, to see a life-size photograph of me, the usual photograph at the age of 11, on the wall, with various supporting photographs, and a description.

CG It’s also like being a pop star for a day.

VP Yes, it was quite shattering. And we returned with whole carrier bags full of souvenirs. It was quite fun.

Venetia’s contribution is picked up by Punch magazine

CG Going back to the time of naming Pluto, I read that one or two other astronomers who had also put in the suggestion of Pluto were a bit annoyed to be pipped to the post by a young girl. Did you hear anything about that yourself?

VP Well, I heard that two Cambridge undergraduates had suggested it the day after. And there was a little bit in Punch – ‘Cambridge young ladies must look to their laurels’.

CG The name of a planet is a really significant thing and affects our sense of the whole mythology of the planets. So some people say that the name of the planet which is chosen is actually the one acceptable to us at the time. [I have an interest in what might be called the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the moment.] Do you think in any way you were a spokesperson for a name that was ready to pop out?

VP I’m sure the name was ready to pop out. I could also say that I was very, very lucky. Being in the right place at the right time was what it came to, with the right relations. But I didn’t feel particularly a spokesperson. The name was just an idle suggestion. But the interest in it has gone up steadily.

Venetia in her home during my visit

CG I’d love to know just a little bit about your life since then. You were a teacher? Is that right?

VP Well, I started by training – it took me two goes to get into Cambridge. I went up to Newnham in 1938. I read Economics, actually, and then I took articles to become a chartered accountant, which I did during the war, in London. I passed the exams after three years, all quite fun because for the intermediate exam we were somewhere in the City, and we were going down under our desks at intervals [presumably because of air raid warnings]. I gave that up when I got married at the very end of 1947, and we came to live in Epsom. My husband taught at Epsom College, and when our son was at prep school, I got a chance of teaching at a small private school. History –swatted up the day before! I mean, I knew some history of course. I’d done my entrance exam in history to get into Newnham. Anyway, I did that until the school packed up, and then I saw a part-time job for an Economics teacher at Wallington Grammar School. Fortunately, economics hadn’t changed very much since I came down! So I did that until I retired in 1983, when I was 65.

CG Did you have a continuing interest in astronomy?

VP Well, only in the way that it is incredibly interesting to think of these enormous distances, and so on. And to go out and recognise a few constellations, that sort of thing. But the idea of learning spherical trigonometry or whatever…

CG One thing too many!

VP One thing too many, yes.

At the end of our talk, Venetia told me that although she’d been interviewed by journalists on many occasions, no one had ever brought her flowers before. We subsequently exchanged Christmas cards, and I was very sad when I heard a few years that she had died, in April 2009.

A painting of Irises by my husband, artist Robert Lee-Wade, similar to the bunch I offered to Venetia, which sealed our brief friendship

A space mission to Pluto was launched in 2006, and conducted a 6 month reconnaissance flyby in 2015. From the data and photos collected, much more information has come to light about the planet. I believe Venetia was invited to attend the launch, but at her advanced age it wasn’t a practical proposition.

A simple student guide to Pluto can be found on the NASA website here, and mentions Venetia in the account of its discovery.

But is Pluto still a planet?
Pluto’s status has been kicked around like a football over the last fifteen years or so, and is officially demoted to dwarf planet status. But some call it a ‘small planet’. In 2014: ‘The decision did not sit well with the public. Some amateur stargazers and some astronomers thought it rather arbitrary. As the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics put it in a press release, “a dwarf fruit tree is still a small fruit tree, and a dwarf hamster is still a small hamster.”’

The Pluto flyby reconnaissance, which took place over six months in 2015, after being launched in 2006

And recently, this Center held a debate and let the audience vote. ‘The result: “Pluto IS a planet.”’ . However, it seems the argument is still unresolved, with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine coming out strongly in favour of Pluto’s planethood. For astrologers, Pluto is most definitely a planet with its own symbolic meaning in our solar system, so I shall continue to credit Pluto with this status.

The Christmas card I received from Venetia. The large, well-proportioned but cosy family home, set against the vastness of the sky, seems to encapsulate her Oxford childhood home, and her place in the history of astronomy.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

Golden Quinces

This year’s crop of quinces from our garden

Our quinces are now picked, and the quince cooking season begins! You’ll find a recipe section at the end of this blog, and just to keep things current, I’m adding in an extra recipe which I tried for the first time yesterday – a beef and quince tagine.

I’ve had a love affair with the quince for the last fifteen years, ever since I began to pick the fruit from a neglected tree as I’ll describe shortly. I couldn’t let them go to waste! I knew nothing about quinces – where they came from, and what you could do with them – so I decided to find out.

The start of our quince harvest this year

Although it’s not common to see this golden fruit on sale very often, it was once highly prized. In the Middle Ages, quince trees were only planted by wealthy folk, and the dishes cooked with their fruit ranged from preserves and sweetmeats to savoury stews, where the quince provides a delicious sweet/sour background for the meat. Sometimes bowls of quinces were left out simply so that their delicate perfume could fragrance the air. We usually keep them in an old cherry-picker’s basket until I’m ready to cook them, and they do indeed have a lovely scent. Not many people in the UK cook quinces today, but there has been something of a revival in recent years, and I’ve collected various ‘quince supplements’ from magazines and newspapers.

Quinces originated in Mesopotamia, and it was the ancient Greeks who began to cultivate them, calling them ‘kydonia malon’, meaning ‘apple of Kydonia’. This corresponds to modern day Khania in Crete. Who knew that Quince means Khania? Historians also think that many early references to ‘apples’, such as Aphrodite’s ‘apple of love’, and the golden apples of the Hesperides, may in fact mean quinces. They were also used in the Middle East, then migrated to Europe, perhaps during the time of the Crusades.

My visit to a Cretan cave – the landscape in which it’s thought quince trees originated

You can’t eat a quince raw, but you can turn it into wonderful dishes – quince ‘cheese’, often known as membrillo, jelly, cakes and stews. I first started to experiment with quince recipes when I had an allotment in Bath; further down the plot was a neglected quince tree, on a strip of land which no one laid claim to. I watched these knobbly, pear-shaped fruit through the summer, and waited patiently until they’d started to ripen in mid-autumn. You need to hold back until they turn a deep yellow, but then pounce before they start to discolour. Friends visiting our garden as the quinces begin to ripen ask what those ‘furry pears’ are! Quinces have a thick down on them as the fruit grows, which is eventually shed when they reach picking stage.

When we moved to Gloucestershire, and I missed this quince bounty, we planted a dwarf Serbian quince tree in our rather exposed, terraced garden. It did well. Later still, when we moved to Exeter, I gained permission to go quince scrumping in an old medieval courtyard right in the city centre, by St Nicholas Mint. Here, in a walled garden, a beautiful quince has been planted, and every year those on the ‘quince interested list’ would be summoned to share the harvest. One year I only just managed to climb back on the bus home, laden with several carrier bags which weighed at least as much as a full suitcase.

Our quince tree in bloom – it has a very delicate scent

And now, in Topsham, we have our second Serbian dwarf quince tree, the only variety of dwarf quince tree I’ve come across – essential if you haven’t the space for a big tree, as they can grow to the size of a tall pear tree. It’s four years since we planted it, and is doing very well. It gave about 25 quinces last year, which is enough to make all my favourite recipes, and over 40 this year.

If you can grow, beg or buy quinces – and some greengrocers and farm shops do stock them now – here follow some of my favourite recipes. Notes in brackets are usually my comments on the original instructions.

Some home-made Mebrillo or quince paste – perhaps not quite so perfectly cut as those you buy in a delicatessen, but just as delicious!

Membrillo is the best known quince recipe, and the resulting firm paste is sold in delicatessens at a very expensive price, and sometimes served with cheese plates at gourmet restaurants. The term ‘cheese’ means a fruit paste, and isn’t related to milk cheese. This recipe has been known in various forms since the medieval period.

Quince Cheese (also known as Membrillo or Quince Paste)
1 ¾ kg quinces – (you can make this with any weight, provided matched with the same weight for sugar)
300 ml water
granulated sugar
caster sugar.

Wash the quinces, but don’t peel or core them. Cut them into quarters and put them into a saucepan with water. Simmer until soft, then put them through a sieve. (Warning! This is hard work but needs to be done, to get the hard pieces out. A food processor won’t do the job.)

Weigh the pulp and put into a large pan with an equal weight of granulated sugar. Stir over a low heat until the sugar dissolves. Continue cooking, stirring continuously, until the mixture becomes so thick it is leaving the sides of the pan. (You may need to add more water – take care that it doesn’t burn.)

Turn into shallow tins lined with greaseproof paper. Leave to dry in a warm place, e.g. in airing cupboard, for 3 -4 days, or in an oven on its lowest setting for 12 hrs. (I found 3 hrs worked perfectly well.) This will make the paste easier to handle and also improve the texture, giving it a slight chewiness.

Cut into pieces, the size of a square of chocolate, and roll in caster sugar. (It’s not strictly necessary to add more sugar at this point.) Pack in airtight box with greaseproof paper between each layer. (from It’s Raining Plums, Xanthe Clay). You can freeze this successfully – I’m currently finishing off last year’s just before making a new batch. And it also makes a very good Christmas present!

Hugh’s sticky quince and ginger cake, with the left-over glaze setting nicely in a jar

Sticky quince and ginger cake
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

This makes a pretty, moist cake studded with poached quince and stem ginger. Save any leftover poaching syrup – it will solidify into a jelly and is delicious spread on toast, (slightly hot in flavour because of the ginger). Makes one 23cm cake.

150g butter, softened, plus a little more for greasing
2 large-ish quinces (about 600g)
160g caster or vanilla sugar
160g runny honey
1 small thumb fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
Juice of ½ lemon
250g plain flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp baking powder
Good pinch of salt
180g caster or vanilla sugar
3 eggs, plus 1 egg yolk
100g creme fraiche
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 balls stem ginger in syrup, drained and chopped
For the topping
3 tbsp syrup from the ginger jar
3 tbsp quince poaching liquid
2 tbsp granulated sugar
Heat the oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3. Grease a 23cm x 5cm round, spring-form cake tin, line the base and sides with baking parchment, and butter the parchment.

Peel, quarter and core the quinces. Cut each quarter into 1cm slices. Put the quince into a large saucepan with 600ml water, the sugar, honey, ginger and lemon juice. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the quince is very tender and has turned a deep, rosy amber colour – about an hour and a half. (NB – in my experience, it’s often much quicker – even as little as 10 mns! I recommend not cutting the quince too small or you may end up with mush – usable, but not quite as nice as chunks. The quince may not always turn red either but that’s nothing to worry about.) Drain, reserving the liquor. Leave the quince to cool, and in a small pan reduce the liquor until thick and syrupy.

Sift the flour, ground ginger, baking powder and salt into a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs and yolk one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in a few tablespoons of the flour, the creme fraiche and vanilla, fold in the rest of the flour, then the poached quince and chopped ginger. Spoon into the prepared tin and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for about an hour and a quarter (check after an hour – if the cake is browning too quickly, cover with foil), until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

While the cake is cooking, whisk together the ginger syrup and poaching syrup to make a glaze. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, pierce the top a few times with a skewer and brush on the glaze, letting it trickle into the holes. Sprinkle over the sugar and leave to cool in the tin for 20 minutes. Remove from the tin and leave on a wire rack to cool completely.
Notes: Freezes very well. And you get half a small jar of jelly out of it – just save the left over liquid and let it set. It has an intense and sweet flavour.

The quince harvest is just about ready

Lamb Shanks and Quince Tagine
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp coriander seeds
100gm unsalted butter
4 Lamb shanks
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp cayenne pepper
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 large onions, roughly chopped
400ml lamb stock
½ cinnamon stick
4 tbsp clear honey
20g fresh coriander leaves, coarsely chopped
1 quince, peeled, quartered and cored
1 lemon, juice & 2 strips of rind
½ tsp saffron, dissolved in 2 tbsp boiling water

Grind the cumin and coriander together. Heat 75gm butter in a large casserole and brown the lamb on all sides. Remove the meat and set aside. Add all the spices (except the saffron), and the garlic and onions; cook for 2 minutes. Season and add the stock. Add 2tbsp honey and about a third of the coriander. Bring to the boil, return the lamb to the casserole, then turn down to a simmer. Cover and cook over a low heat for 1 ½ hrs until meltingly tender.

Meanwhile, put the quince in a small saucepan and cover with water. Add the lemon rind, juice and the remaining honey. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 15-20 mns until tender.

When the lamb is cooked, remove the shanks and cinnamon stick and keep warm. Add about 4tbsp of the quince poaching liquid, the saffron and its water. Bring to the boil and reduce to a thickish sauce. Taste and season.

Slice the quince and heat the remaining butter in a frying pan. Sauté the quince slices until golden. Return the lamb to the casserole and heat everything through. Gently stir in the remaining coriander and add the quince. Serve immediately with couscous or bread.

Picked, and weighed – these quinces came from the ‘Old Mint’ garden in Exeter

Quince Stew
Fry 2 large oinions.

Add 2lb shoulder of lamb, beef or veal, cut into 1 inch cubes, brown the meat. Add 1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon, ¼ tsp grated nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. Cover with water and simmer for 1 hr. Then add 2 ripe quinces, peeled, cored & cut into similar chunks, plus 4 oz soaked yellow split peas. Simmer for 15 mns, then add 4 tbsp lemon juice and 1 – 2 tbsp of sugar. Simer a further 15 mns or until ready.


(Found on a forum, said to be from Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. I’ve used lamb shoulder, and I soaked the split peas for 2hrs, and parboiled them too to be on the safe side.)

Some of last year’s crop in my cherry-picker’s basket. They change from green to yellow quickly, so it’s important not to miss the moment.

An old Turkish recipe that dates back to the Ottoman Empire, from Gamze Mutfakta, on Food52.

Quince, prunes or dried apricots were commonly used in lamb and beef stews. Quince is an ancient fruit that grows across Turkey. It’s not an easy fruit to eat when raw. It also has an extremely tough flesh, which is difficult to cut up and swallow. But If you leave a quince on a sunny windowsill it will slowly release its delicate fragrances of vanilla, citrus, and apple all over your house. And if you cook it, those scents blossom into a magnificent perfume in your dishes whether its a stew or a dessert. The fruit turns its colour from yellow white to a light rose when its cooked. Such a magical fruit. (I agree!)

Serves 6-8

Ingredients
2kg Quality beef chuck or rump, cut into 6cm pieces
3 quinces
4 medium onions
4 cloves garlic
1/2 cup sultanas
2 tbs tomato puree
3-4 green peppers (a mix of red, yellow, green and orange is fine)
1-2 red peppers
3 tbs olive oil
1.5 glass red wine
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 bay leaf
Salt&pepper
Water

Directions: Peel and chop the onions, then peel and slice the garlic. Peel, core and slice the quinces in cubes. Put them in a bowl of cold water with lemon juice.

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil over a medium heat in a large saucepan and sauté the onion and garlic until soft. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside, then add the beef and sauté for 5 minutes until all sides are seared add sultanas and the quince & stir for 5 minutes. Return the onions and garlic .Deglaze with red wine.

Add the tomato purée, peppers (cut into chunks or broad strips), cinnamon, bay leaf, allspice, turmeric and enough water to cover (+1 cm)

Season and stir well, bring to the boil then simmer for at least 45 min -1 hour.

Serve with Pilav or mashed potatoes.

Cherry’s notes: Delicious! I made about a third of this quantity, and scaled down the ingredients proportionately, although I still kept to three quinces. Two would have been better, as they need to balance out the meat. I also added 2 or 3 tbsps of runny honey to counteract the tartness – this gave a good sweet-sour flavour. I didn’t have allspice so I used 2 star anise instead, which worked very well. Judging by other similar recipes, the spices can easily be adjusted according to taste or availability.

You may also be interested in ‘Alchemy and Cooking’ And, in that context, these related books:

Writing for Jackie magazine

Three little maids from school are we,
Pert as a schoolgirl well can be,
Filled to the brim with girlish glee,
Three little maids from school!
Everything is a source of fun,
Nobody’s safe, for we care for none!
Life is a joke that’s just begun –
Three little M-a-i-d-s – from school!

(From ‘The Mikado’ by Gilbert & Sullivan)

This is the second of my ‘Writer’s Life’ posts, where I revisit the days of writing for Jackie magazine, in company with my old friends Helen Leadbeater and Mary Cutler. We began contributing to Jackie while we were at school together, and all three of us have continued to write professionally. Recently, we’ve been comparing notes about how it all started.

Reunited at my wedding to Robert Lee-Wade in 2009

My story
I knew from the age of about four that I would be a writer. That might sound strange, but it was a simple, matter-of-fact kind of knowing, although I soon embroidered it by imagining myself as a popular children’s author, famous for my exciting adventure stories. In the end, my real genre turned out to be what I call ‘creative non-fiction’. I like to write about subjects that I’ve experienced and researched, and to share these with others, with a strong leaning towards ‘wisdom traditions’ and social history. The list is varied, from Russian folklore to life stories, Tarot and alchemy. I still occasionally dream of unlocking a brilliant novel from deep within, but I also know that it’s highly unlikely to happen. Perhaps a writer needs an impossible ambition as a kind of motivation, to keep writing in the genre she does best.

We had excellent English teaching at my secondary school in Birmingham. Our Miss Flint was a real-life Jean Brodie without the sex scenes, though her prim exterior belied a passionate heart. ‘A dramatic tragedy,’ she told us, ‘should leave you exhilarated and wanting to dance out of the theatre’. We didn’t practice ‘creative writing’ as such, although I do still have an epic poem I wrote at the age of 12 about ‘The Minator/His roar’. Instead, we learnt how to construct essays and arguments, to understand poetic rhythm and metaphor, and to put words together in concise and meaningful conjunction. Our year at school produced other writers as well, notably Lindsey Davies of the ‘Falco’ Roman detective series.

Cover from the time we were writing for Jackie – did one of us have a piece in this issue, I wonder?

Jackie on the horizon
Although our formal education was high-minded, we wallowed in popular culture; we read teenage magazines, watched ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’, tuned into Radio Luxembourg and in our mid-teens swooned over the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (see ‘Mick Jagger and the Cigarette Butt’) And then it occurred to us that we could be participants, not just consumers.

My diary entry for Oct 16th 1966 reads:
‘Helen and I have decided to prostitute our art form and try to write for teenage magazines to earn some money. I’ve knocked off one crummy story, which I’m going to send up to Jackie. With a nom de plume, of course!’

‘Jackie’ was published from 1964-1993 by D. C. Thomson & Co, based in Dundee, who describe themselves as ‘Family Publishers since 1905’. Their vast range of magazines and newspapers has included ‘The People’s Friend’ and ‘The Beano’. They have had a strongly Protestant Christian stance, and certainly in the Jackie era this fed through into their editorial policy – good clean fun, and nothing ‘below the waist’.

The London offfice of D.C.Thompson – the real work was done in their HQ in Dundee. The ‘Protestant Truth Society’ bookshop next door is probably linked to the company’s strong association with a Protestant ethos.

I was living at Helen’s house during term-time, after my parents moved to Shropshire, so we had plenty of time to cook up our schemes. Helen has a great talent for story-writing, and although my first offering of a ‘crummy story’ wasn’t published, hers was snapped up in an instant by the delighted editor. It began: Raphael was an actor. Not a very good one, though I used to tell him he was marvellous. I think he just liked dressing up. We met because he hurled a sword at my feet in Regent Street, then we had a drink, and he upset everyone by saying: ‘Hamlet died in this shirt once.’

Helen’s first published story for Jackie; luckily, her mother Noel Leadbeater preserved a copy! (See a separate post about Noel and her war work)

I kept trying, and managed to get a few chat pieces and (I think) one story published in Jackie, and the cheques started rolling in.

Then Mary joined us: ‘So after you two got your feet in the door, I had a go, and my first story The Boy at the Bus Stop was accepted.’ (I’ll round off this piece with her tale of how that came about.)

Two more Jackie covers from the 60s – on the left is the very first edition, from Jan 11th, 1964

A meeting with Mr Small, aka Mr Big
The editor, Gordon Small, was not only delighted, but excited – he saw possibilities for brightening up his fiction team. He came down from Dundee to Birmingham to meet Helen and Mary for tea in the Grand Hotel on Colmore Row. They came after school, and arrived in their uniforms. He was astounded. ‘We clearly weren’t at all what was he was expecting – maybe not his idea of a Jackie reader,’ Mary recalls. (And perhaps the same was true the other way round. ‘He wasn’t small at all,’ says Helen.)

But after all, no laws were being broken, so he suggested they might try writing a serial together as a picture strip story, different to the narrative stories they’d produced so far. These Jackie strip stories were illustrated by a team of Spanish artists, who enjoyed creating characters with pouting lips and flowing hair.

‘They were sent the scripts and the drawn artwork would be back several weeks later’, writes Anne Rendall, a former member of the editorial team. Everything had to be done by post, and there were also language issues. ‘One script called for a one-armed bandit, i.e. gaming machine, to be drawn and when the storyboard came back we had a gangster minus a limb…’ ( ‘A Little Bit of Romance’ in Jackie: 50 Years)

A Jackie picture strip story of the time

For Mary and Helen, the process didn’t quite go as expected, as Mary relates: ‘We talked a bit about the serial and then spend a hilarious evening in Helen’s bedroom thinking one up about two girls – basically me and Helen- and their various adventures. I remember us being very partisan about our own characters- it was a lot of fun. Clearly he [the editor] didn’t think so, and told Helen so, but he did want to see her again.’

Helen confirms this: ‘He did offer me a job on Jackie, but it was in Dundee and I had a university place waiting at Kent. I think if it had been in London I might have been tempted.’

Mary continued working for Jackie into university days (as did I): ‘But I did go on writing stories,’ she says. ‘Three or maybe four – I remember I bought my winter coat for Cambridge with the last cheque. I’m fairly sure that was for twelve guineas. It didn’t start off as that much, but I’m sure about the guineas – a bit eighteenth century even then. I haven’t got copies of any of the stories, I’m afraid. The disadvantage of always living in small places with no storage space, is that anything I want to keep usually ends up in damp sheds or garages.’

A Fall from Grace
My writing was on a different tack. I wrote some opinion pieces – one on how hard it was to find shoes when you have big feet, I recall – and then I was offered a regular slot doing ‘On the Spot’ interviews. The desk editor sent me a question, and the idea was that I would stop young passers-by and ask them their opinions. The one which sticks clearly in my mind was, ‘What nationality of boys or girls do you fancy the most?’ (or words to that effect) And with a heterosexual slant, of course. Well, I tried. I went out onto shopping streets and halted promising-looking teenage girls (mostly) and boys (sometimes) and not one of them had anything interesting to say. Maybe I was a rubbish interviewer back then. In this particular case, I happened to know a couple of very handsome boys from Mauritius, living as art students in Birmingham, and I thought they would do nicely, so I invented a quote from an imaginary girl about how gorgeous Mauritians were.

Temptation had crept in, and gradually I began to compose all my pieces this way. I knew I could write far livelier and more fascinating answers than I was likely to gather on the street. I kept on with the column in my first year at university, and was coming to rely on the cheques, when disaster struck. I got a letter from the very pleasant female desk editor. I was rumbled.

‘You don’t mind, I don’t mind, but I’m afraid the editor minds,’ she said.

What had happened was that the magazine had begun to ask for names and partial addresses for each interviewee. Some young and hopeful readers had tried to write to the person quoted, presumably looking for a date or pen pal. And their letters had been returned, undelivered. I was sacked. I was also ashamed, as I’m not a duplicitous person by nature. Oh well!

As I was then – something of a hippy student, embracing the maxi-coat culture, hair as long as I could grow it.

With hindsight, perhaps they had a bit of a cheek to get rid of me, as the agony aunts of the famous ‘Cathy and Claire’ problem page didn’t really exist either. Former editor and contributor Gayle Anderson reveals: ‘I was an agony aunt. Well, I was two agony aunts: Cathy and Claire for Jackie magazine. Yes, the shock news is that they weren’t real and they were one person. The letters were initially sent to a Fleet Street office, mainly to give the illusion of a hip, cool London base. Then they made their way in overnight lorries to the magazine’s actual home in Dundee.’ OK, but she and the team were sincere. And so was I – more or less.

And then…
However, I’m proud when I tell people that I used to write for Jackie. At about the same time, author Jacqueline Wilson began her career as a staff writer for D. C. Thomson, and Sue Arnold was a fellow contributor, so the three of us were in good company. I did go on to write articles and even a story or two for other magazines, including Good Housekeeping, and I’m glad to be an occasional contributor nowadays to a variety of magazines, on topics drawn mostly from subjects covered in my books. I’m not primarily a journalist, though, so a toe or three in the water is enough for me.

Helen Leadbeater (left) and Mary Cutler (right) went on to excel in their chosen fields of writing. Both worked as regular scriptwriters for the Archers – Mary was recently honoured for completing 40 years as an Archers writer, and she has also dramatized her friend Lindsey Davies’s Falco novels for radio. In this link, Lindsey says: ‘My feelings about these adaptations are that Mary does the best possible job.’

Helen has also written for the television drama ‘Crossroads’, and more recently the acclaimed ‘Pargetter Triptych’, with actor Graham Seed, as the ghost of Nigel from the Archers. (Whose fall to his death from the roof of Lower Loxley, her friend Mary was responsible for writing.) Listen to them here, enticed by the following description:
Nine and a half years after the deadly fall from his roof, in three lockdown soliloquies, Graham Seed wonders whether the ghost of Nigel Pargetter may be unquiet in his Borsetshire rest. Nigel revisits the places he was familiar with in life, remembers the people he knew, and worries at the questions that keep him there – what really happened that night on the roof? Was the fall an accident? Or could it possibly have been something more sinister?
Voiced by ‘Nigel’ himself, back from the grave; in the guise of actor Graham Seed. Written by Helen Leadbeater, former writer of ‘The Archers,’ who knows ‘Nigel’ so well as she helped create his character alongside the then editor William Smethurst in the 1980s.

To finish with, here is Mary’s account of her first Jackie story, written especially for this blog:

The Boy at the Bus Stop
This was my first story for Jackie. The heroine was a plain, but clever and interesting girl, who against all the odds gets her man – a basic romantic trope since Jane Eyre. It was completely autobiographical. When I was in the Sixth form I had a hospital appointment which meant I varied my usual route to school. That’s when I saw the eponymous boy standing at a different bus stop I could tell from his uniform that he went to our brother school next door. He had big brown eyes and looked a bit like Paul McCartney. I was smitten. That was odd, because John Lennon was my preferred Beatle. I picked him out the first time I was shown a cover of ‘Please, Please me’.

‘I like that one.’
‘Oh Mary, you can’t like that one, my school friends chorused. He’s married!’

Anyway, I digress. Naturally, after that I varied my route to school so I could gaze from afar at my beloved. In the true tradition of romance that was as far as it got – although he did smile at me once. And then, tragedy – I heard on the school grapevine, which had supplied me with his name, too- that he was going out with a girl from another nearby girls’ school and apparently she was everything a teenage boy could desire. I had no chance.

Besides, ‘You can’t like him, Mary. He’s got a girl friend.’

Still, he gave me the inspiration for the first piece of writing I ever got published – and paid for- so not all bad.

About twenty years later I got friendly with one of the other Mums at my daughter’s nursery. We both worked for the BBC in different capacities and it turned out she was a native Brummie, too and had attended the girls school near to mine… You can see it coming, can’t you? I confessed my illicit passion for her boyfriend. She was highly amused, particularly at the idea that she had been some kind of teen goddess. ‘If only you could have seen me’, she said.

We became very good friends and I was invited to her to her fortieth birthday party. And guess who was sitting across the table from me? At last I gazed into those big brown eyes. Just for a couple of heart beats I was transported back that bus stop. But alas, dear Reader, this has no Jackie fairy tale ending. I enjoyed talking to him- he was very sweet. But he really wasn’t very interesting.

Helen trying out one of our old gym slips at a school reunion in 2017. The current students had kindly created what they called ‘a museum’ for us to explore, full of old memorabilia!

Books by Cherry Gilchrist

Glimpses of the Tarot – 2

An occasional series exploring images of the Tarot cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swiss Tarot pack, probably early 19th c.

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

Marseilles Tarot

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

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

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

Tarot of Pierre Madenié, Dijon, 1709-1740

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

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

THE HANGED MAN (no 12)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean Dodal, Lyon, early 18th c.

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

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

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

Hidden Topsham – Part Four

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

Upriver – the other end of town

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

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

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

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

Rats, robberies and the scenic route

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Facebook page of Retreat Boatyard

Names of the River

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

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

Looking south across the river from the present ferry crossing point

References

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

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

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

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

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

You may also be interested to read:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham, Part One

Hidden Topsham, Part Two

Hidden Topsham, Part Three

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

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

The End of The Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End of the Line

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

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

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

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

Some of the books of which I had too many copies

           

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

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

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

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

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

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

            ‘They’re trade.’

            ‘They’re personal.’

            ‘Trade.’

            ‘Personal.’

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

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

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

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

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

One of the Bath refuse depots

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

            ‘Are you Glyn?’

The corpulent individual lounging against the doorway nodded.

            ‘What you got there?’

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

            ‘Any good?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            ‘Don’t make no difference.’

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden Topsham – Part Three

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

Beast or Dragon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Susan Morrish
It looks slightly Viking influenced

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

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

Samoa Terrace

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Johnny’ Cridland and the Goat Walk

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

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

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

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

The Cridlands

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

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

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

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

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

‘A costly nest of vice’

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

Jubilee Pier

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

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

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

Photos of Jubilee Pier, now completely destroyed

St Sidwell’s Railings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Civil War

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

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

Topsham Cats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham Part One

Hidden Topsham Part Two

The Red Corner and the Symbolism of the Russian Home


This post is adapted from ‘The Russian House and the Craft of Living’ – Chapter Three in my book Russian Magic (first published as The Soul of Russia). It’s the last of the current series of posts about my travels to Russia and the culture that I became immersed in.

A house in the village of Kholui

The House as Microcosm
The traditional wooden Russian house (known as an izba) is a model of the universe, and a microcosm in its own right. Although the izba may look as though it only has a ground floor, closer investigation usually reveals a trapdoor in the ground floor leading to an underground cellar, and very often a ladder rising to an unheated attic room above. This symbolically embodies the three worlds of underworld, a human or middle world, and an upper world connecting it to the sky. The decoration use and lore of the Russian home is redolent with this symbolism, connecting it to Slavic myth, and the three vertical worlds represented in the ancient Russian Tree of Life.

The house, where many generations of a peasant family lived and died, was associated by its inhabitants with a small universe, connected innately with the world of nature and the Cosmos. Peace and harmony should be reigning in this well ordered world – once and forever.’ (Krasunov, p.12)

Everything in the traditional Russian house is charged with meaning. It is a vital living space laid out according to the rules of the cosmos, and in which certain rites should be carefully observed to keep it in good health as a home, and beneficial for the humans who live there.

My own house in the village of Khouli

The Human World of the Izba
As you enter the Russian home, you may have to stoop low as you pass through the doorway. This is deliberately done, so that anyone entering must show respect for the house, and in particular for the Red Corner, the sacred area of the home where the family icon is kept. Traditionally, the icon stands on a high wooden corner shelf, draped with an embroidered linen towel, and lit by a small votive lamp. In Orthodox culture, icons are not just religious images, but are considered to be holy objects, empowered in their own right as a gateway to the divine. The icon is also a charged symbol that represents the welfare of the family itself. In a TV interview, at the time of the Kursk submarine disaster in the year 2000, an old woman sobbed bitterly as she talked about her grandson, who was trapped at the bottom of the ocean: ‘The icon fell off the wall a few days ago,’ she sobbed. ‘That is a bad, bad sign.’

The Red Corner – typically, an icon placed opposite the entrance to the room, draped with an embroidered towel. Such towels were said to have the power to heal a sick person if used to wipe their face

The Red Corner, krasni ugol, is thus called because the colour red means ‘beautiful’ in Russian culture. The word krasni for red comes from the same root as the word for beautiful, krassivi. This is a pre-Christian Slavic tradition, and the ceremonial linen towels are embroidered in red as the colour is considered sacred, and represents not only beauty, but the force of life itself. Russia is known as the ‘country of two faiths’, and it is plain that there are few boundaries between the Christian and the indigenous Slavic symbolism in Russia. The same towel that may be embroidered with figures of the Mother Goddess, the tree of life, and sky spirits in the form of horses, is used to drape the family icon in the mark of deepest respect.

An old embroidered towel in my possession. The peackock symbolises the sky, as do the horses. The figure on the house is likely to be the old Mother Goddess
An icon of St Paraskeva, otherwise known as ‘Mother-Friday’, and associated with spinning and marriages. Her role resembles that of the old Slavic spinning goddesses, and she protects women but will punish them if they do not honour her festivals
Elijah the Prophet was also a suitable subject for a domestic icon, as he was closely linked to Perun, the old god of thunder and lightning, and it was best to keep on the right side of him

The Stove

The polarity of Christian and native religion also reveals itself in the layout of the room. Diagonally across from the Red Corner, is the place where the stove often stands, the pechka that is also known as ‘the Little Mother’. While the Orthodox icon guarantees a link with the heavenly rites of Byzantium, the stove is the elemental crucible of life itself. A Russian proverb, which literally translates as, ‘To dance from the stove’, means ‘To begin at the beginning’: the stove is the origin and the perpetuator of life. Without pechka, there is no life in the home; she is the source of warmth and comfort that may actually keep the family alive during the long Russian winters. The pechka is multi-purpose – not only is it used for heating the home and for cooking, but traditionally it was also the place for sleeping. The classic construction of the stove is as a large box shape, constructed out of brick with a plaster finish; its flat top, six feet or so below the ceiling, provides an excellent sleeping platform.

An old Russian house stove or ‘pechka’. This one is probably in a house set out now as a museum (Wikipedia creative commons)

The stove requires skill and patience to manage. In the village house that I owned in the same village of Kholui, I knew that I had to listen carefully when I was given instructions on how to light it, or my stays there in winter would be icy. The critical stage of the operation was to wait observantly for the time when the logs had burnt down, and the tiny, residual blue flames had been replaced by an orange glow. Only then was it safe to close the dampers, which would keep the heat in for another eight hours or so, the brick casing acting as a giant storage heater. Otherwise, deadly carbon monoxide can seep into the home, causing acute headaches or worse. I never did master the skills of drying mushrooms or making porridge overnight in the cooler ovens of the stove, but I learnt to respect the life and death powers of the ‘Little Mother’, and to love her gentle, penetrating warmth.

A village wedding: the scene is set in a traditional home with the table in front of the Red Corner, and the stove nearby (Fedoskino lacquer miniature)

Food and hospitality

The other key feature of the traditional living room is the dining table, and to sit there is to be ‘in the palm of God’, as the old saying expressively puts it. By tradition, it would be set under the Red Corner, and much of family life would be lived around this table. Food and hospitality is a crucial part of Russian culture, both rural and urban.

An antique samovar, one of a number which I collected and brought back to the UK

The samovar, or ‘self-boiler’ as the word translates, is also a key part of Russian hospitality. It is sometimes seen as another symbol of the mother, along with the pechka and the Matrioshka doll. Its comforting curves, its decorative and gleaming brass, nickel or silver finish, and its near-boundless supply of hot water, make it a natural centrepiece for the tea table. Traditional samovars, as opposed to modern electrical ones, are heated by means of lighting a bundle sticks or some charcoal in the central funnel, which then in turn heats up the water in the large outer chamber. The tea itself is made separately, in extra-strong quantities in a small teapot, which is then topped up with hot water from the samovar itself. Samovars are still popular, and large versions are often used in hotels and offices as well as at home. But as a friend told me:
The best kind of samovar is the kind that you light with charcoal and twigs, and add herbs to as well. You can sit outside in the garden, breathing in the fragrant steam and having a cup of tea every now and then; it is happiness that lasts for hours.’

The ceremony of ‘Bread and Salt’, on this occasion to welcome visitors arriving by boat

The best known ritual of hospitality in Russia is the welcoming ceremony known as ‘Bread and Salt’, khlebsol. A round loaf is used, in which a little hollow has been scooped out to hold a mound of salt; the loaf is placed on one of the long, embroidered linen towels, and offered to guests on arrival. Although the custom of Bread and Salt doesn’t take place on a regular basis these days, it is still often carried out at weddings, when the new bride enters the home of her mother-in-law.

Khokhloma wooden table ware and decorative panels is still popular in Russian homes today. The principal red, black and gold colours are said to relate to life, compassion and eternity.

The Underworld
After the bustling life on the ground floor of the house, the middle world, the descent into the cellar may seem dark and eerie. The cellar, or podpol, is a small room under the floor of the home, generally used as a place of storage, where root vegetables can be kept in a cool but even temperature through the winter, or jars of marinated salad and home-made apple juice left until they are needed. But in terms of traditional belief, it is known as the place of the ancestors, and the residence of the domavoi, or house spirit.

Domavoi, in one of his typical guises

Domavoi’s name comes from dom, the Russian word for house, and he is one of the tribe of Russian ‘nature spirits’. These characters are temperamental, elusive, and tricky to deal with. They are akin in many ways to the mischievous ‘elementals’ of the Western magical tradition, or to the pixies and sprites of Western folklore. A domavoi is actually associated with a family rather than a house, and any family that moves house may have a difficult time ahead if they do not persuade their domavoi to come with them. One tried and tested method is to coax him into a sack, carry the sack to the new abode and then quickly offer domavoi a plate of porridge to help him settle down. Another is to cut a thick slice of bread and place it under the stove in the new dwelling. It is important to invite domavoi to come with you; even if he is capricious, the family needs him to be there.

Although domavoi is commonly associated with the ancestors, and the cellar of the home, he also likes to sit in the stove, and sometimes in the attic. In general, it is considered unlucky to see domavoi, for this can presage a death in the household. If you do see him, he should not be addressed as domavoi, but more often as ‘master’ or ‘grandfather’.( In various traditions it is common to avoid calling a magical creature by its real name; in Russia the bear is often referred to as Mishka, an affectionate nickname, rather than by its proper name of Medved, or ‘honey knower’.) You need to know how to recognise domavoi too, as like most nature spirits, he can appear in various forms. He might appear in the shape of a tiny, wizened old man, covered in downy hair, or as a tall figure ‘black as coal’, or even as an animal or a bundle of hay.

Mishka the bear, for whom there is a mixture of respect and affection in Russian tradition. Here he is a bee hive, so that honey, which he loves, can be made inside him.

Is the belief in domavoi obsolete? Some Russians may well regard it as a quaint old folk belief, but to others the presence of spirits in the home and landscape is very real. On the island of Kiji, in the far north of Russia, I asked a woman from the regional city of Petrozavodsk what she thought about the domavoi. She answered me with great seriousness:

‘Every summer I come to work with tourists here, and I live alone in one of the old wooden houses. Oh yes, domavoi certainly exists. When I sit in this dark house at night, I sometimes hear a knocking, or I hear someone singing a melody. And even when I know the house is empty, I sense that there is someone upstairs. This is undoubtedly the domavoi.’

And a small post-script: I had just sat down to breakfast with my husband after writing this, when we were both startled to hear a loud knock come from the cupboard under the stairs. Thinking that one of the cats had got trapped in there, I opened the door to investigate. There was nothing to be seen. Except, perhaps, domavoi?

Here, Domavoi seems to be on good terms with the household cat. Cats are much liked as pets in Russia, and are considered to have magical powers themselves
A Russian woman demonstrating the art of spinning, in a folk museum

The Attic and The Upper World
Many Russian houses have an unheated attic room, used mostly in summer. It is often known as svetelka, a word associated with sunlight, and with the sun itself, which is considered to be the protector of the home. Its lofty position was said to be beneficial for young girls, and would help to guard their innocence. However, although unmarried sisters and their girlfriends might officially sit up here together to sew or spin, it was also the place for divination, especially in matters of love. Here they might unbraid their hair, an action which would loosen the bonds of the everyday world, and invite the powers of magic in. While their mothers believed them to be safely occupied with spinning and needlework, they would gaze into a mirror to see the faces of their future husbands, or tell fortunes by interpreting the shapes of melted wax dropped into a bowl of water.

Divination in a mirror, which was often carried out on the eve of special festivals
Girls telling their fortunes from floating candles. This scene is set in a living room rather than an attic. They have loosened their hair to release the spirits of the otherworld

Within living memory, the women’s tasks of spinning and weaving were key activities in country life, and discarded spindles, distaffs and spinning wheels can still readily be bought at flea markets. It was not only a practical occupation, but also symbolised the bringing of order and civilisation to the community.

The Spinner – an etching by B. Zabirokhim in my collection

Mokosh the old Slavic mother goddess played a particular role in relation to spinning, and another female household spirit called Kikimora presided over distaff and loom. Kikimora was quick to punish any women who did not put their spinning and needlework away tidily at the end of the day! She might, however, help out the diligent housewife by taking on some of her work at night.

Cantankerous Kikimora, the spirit of spinning

Distaffs were often highly decorated, painted in lively colours with human figures, animals, and geometric motifs.

A museum collection of distaffs (Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

The attic, therefore, could be a place both of light and innocence, and of magic. The sky world is related to the top part of the house, which is often decorated externally to reflect this. In the Volga region especially, the protruding end of the ridgepole is frequently fashioned into a form of a horse, known in Russian mythology as a sky creature. Symbols of the sun, such as cockerels or circles with rays around them, and those which signify heaven, like peacocks and bunches of grapes, are commonly found carved into the upper part of the house façade, and boards covering the ends of the roof beams are commonly known as ‘wings’.

Roof carving of peacocks and grapes preserved in a museum collection
The bathhouse, standing well away from the main house so as to prevent fire

The Bathhouse
The bathhouse has been an important part of Russian life since time immemorial, and the custom of weekly steam bathing in an extreme temperature was noted with surprise by early travellers to Russia, one of whom described it as ‘a veritable torment.’ Saturday night is the traditional Russian day for bathing, said to be a choice of day originated by the Vikings.

The bathhouse is a house in miniature, built out of wood with a pitched roof and its own small chimney. It usually stands apart from the izba to avoid the risk of fire. Water is heated in a copper in the lighted stove, and the art of bathing involves the skilful creation of steam to the required degree. There are various stages in the ritual, such as rinsing oneself with warm water and then lying on one of the wooden benches before engaging in the more intense process of steaming. Switches of birch twigs (venniki) are used for one person to flick or whip another with; the sensation is light and stimulating, and far from painful! There is a tradition that the birch should be cut in early summer, when at its most potent. The family whose bathhouse I used told me that they try to gather them around June 24th, the old Russian midsummer festival.

Here birches are also treated as ‘wishing trees’ – ribbons tied on to affirm a prayer or a wish. Birch branches are cut at midsummer to dry for use in the bathhouse.

The bathhouse is inextricably bound up with magic and divination. Any spell or charm is most potent when cast at midnight in the bathhouse. The role of the bathhouse is considered by some authorities to be that of a pagan temple relegated to this warm and steamy place after the old religion was displaced by the coming of Christianity. The rituals once carried out on the bride’s wedding eve were always conducted in the bathhouse. This was an occasion for women only, usually with just the bride’s girlfriends present, though sometimes with the male village sorcerer in attendance too. Girls hoping to marry would take away some of the bathing water to ensure their future luck.

The special properties of the birch are also reflected in the custom of decorating the church with branches or – as here – small birch trees around the time of the Trinity (Whitsun) festival

Playful versions of divination in the bathhouse for love still take place today. Girls set up a deliciously scary ritual, in which they go into the bathhouse one by one, into an atmosphere thick with steam, and feel around until they touch someone’s hand. The type of touch they encounter tells them what kind of husband they will marry– if it’s a hairy hand, he will be rich, if smooth then he will be poor, and if wet, he will certainly be a drunkard! In practice the game is often aided and abetted by the local boys, who enjoy taking a turn to hide in the bathhouse and frightening each of the girls in turn.

Bannik – another mischievous household spirit

The Bannik
The spirit of the bathhouse is known as the bannik. Like most Russian domestic spirits and nature spirits, he is a shape-shifter, who can change his appearance at will. For much of the time, he is not seen at all, since he owns a cap of invisibility, but he might appear in the form of a large black cat, or perhaps as an old man with a green beard. Bannik can also manifest as a heavy stone or a burning coal, so potentially he could be around in the bathhouse at any time, making it a place of menace, as he is bad-tempered, and brooks no breach of etiquette. Students working on Kiji Island (in the far north of Russia) during their summer break told me that they always treated bannik with great respect. One of their number, an intellectual young man who thought he knew better, refused to ask bannik’s permission to enter the bathhouse as required, and neglected to leave a little offering of soap or a fir twig for the bath spirit as is the accepted custom. The next time he entered the bathhouse, he tripped over, dropped his glasses, and trod on them by mistake. Stooping down to retrieve the now broken glasses, he stood up too abruptly and cracked his head on a low beam. Since then, his friends reported, he has always shown the proper respect to the spirit of the bathhouse.

Potent, risky, pagan, but also a great source of pleasure to almost every Russian today, the bathhouse retains its position in the heritage of Russian traditional culture and magic.

Another representation of Bannik, partly disguised by the birch leaf switches

Decoration of the House
There is an intense love of colour and decoration in Russia, and the country is rich in arts and crafts. Houses are often decorated on the outside with wooden carvings, and home owners compete with each other to create the finest of these. As well as symbols representing the sun or sky in the upper parts, there may be carvings of lions or mermaids to protect the home, birds to symbolise happiness, and beautiful descending panels of fretwork on the front wall, imitating the embroideries on the ceremonial linen towels.

The most prominent and typical decorative feature of the izba is the carving around the window: lacy fretwork window frames known as nalichniki, which incorporate a variety of motifs, often rosettes or floral designs, and sometimes even the Communist five-pointed star. As for the origin of this custom, one suggestion is that it is a way of protecting the home, by guarding the windows against the entry of evil spirits. The other is that it provided a beautiful framework for an unmarried daughter as she sat sewing at the window, ready to catch the eye of any eligible young man strolling by.

Girls wearing another form of decoration, garlands of autumn leaves, perhaps also to catch the eye of young men walking by. (St Petersburg)

Text and photographs © Cherry Gilchrist 2020

Related Reading

Gerhart, Genevra (1994) The Russian’s World, Holt, (Rhinehart & Winston, USA)
Fraser, Eugenie (1984) The House by the Dvina: A Russian Childhood (Corgi, UK)
Hubbs, Joanna (1988) Mother Russia, (Indiana University Press)
Milner-Gulland, R. (1997) The Russians, (Blackwell, USA)
Billington, James H. (1970) The Icon and the Axe, (Vintage Books: Random House, New York)
Gaynor, Elizabeth & et al. Russian Houses, (Benedikt Taschen Verlag – no date).
Hilton, Alison (1995) Russian Folk Art (Indiana University Press)
Ivanits, Linda J. (1992) Russian Folk Belief, (M.E. Sharpe Inc.)
Krasunov, V. K. (ed.) (1996) Russian Traditions, (Kitizdat,Nizhni Novgorod)
Rozhnova, P. (1992) A Russian Folk Calendar, (Novosti, Moscow)
Ryan, W. F. (1999) The Bathhouse at Midnight (Sutton Publishing Ltd., Stroud)

Russian Magic – You will find much more detail about the Russian izba and traditional way of life, with folk customs, fairy tales and Slavic mythology, in my book Russian Magic, which is available in printed and electronic form .

The Legendary Art of the Russian Lacquer Miniature

The Story of the Golden Fish – Lacquer miniature from Kholui

This article was first published in the American magazine ‘Russian Life’in Nov/Dec 2001. It was based, at that point, on my nine years of travelling to and from Russia, investigating the art form, staying in the village of Kholui, and running Firebird Russian Arts in the UK. (A busy time!) Now, nineteen years later, of course much has changed. The Western market for buying lacquer miniatures has almost dried up, and many artists have switched to painting icons and commemorative panels, as this article in the New York Times illustrates. (NB – this otherwise excellent article is not always accurate on history or painting techniques!)

Everything about the history and style of the art form still stands, however. I hope that in time, the lacquer art painters will profit better from their creations, and find a market for the traditional boxes once again. One issue is the sheer time-consuming nature of creating them; as the Russian cost of living rises, and the differential between this and the West diminishes, it’s almost impossible for buyers to compensate the artists adequately for their skill and work. Money for commissioning icons, however, can be found more readily.

Please noteIt’s extremely hard to photograph Russian Lacquer Miniatures well, since they are tiny, shiny and convex! Any gleams on the photograph are from where the light is catching the lacquer polish.

Snowmaiden – the beautiful girl whose arrival heralds the winter snow, and who melts away at the first sign of spring. An older miniature from Kholui.

The article begins with an account of the scene that I described in my earlier post, ‘The Russian Diaries’.

The road to Kholui passes through stretches of open meadowland, brushing the edge of the forest, and traversing marshy tracts until it swings around the last sharp bend and meets the broad River Teza. This is the end of the road. The silver sign of the Firebird welcomes the occasional visitor. The fine, but crumbling, church singles the place out as one of historical importance. Substantial brick-built houses along the riverbank indicate that once rich merchants lived and traded here. The other houses in the village are traditional brightly-painted wooden izbas, with carved fretwork around the windows and eaves.

But this is no typical Russian village: of its 1800 inhabitants, 300 are artists. Kholui’s roots as an artistic community stretch back to the thirteenth century. For hundreds of years, it was also an important trading centre. And, along with three other villages – Palekh, Mstiora and Fedoskino, it is now home to a unique art form, the Russian Lacquer Miniature.

The quality of the Russian Lacquer Miniature is widely-known around the world, but even the average Russian knows very little about the art form. In Russian cities, cheaply-painted boxes are sold to tourists for a few dollars as ‘Lacquer Miniatures’, and in the States, many people erroneously call them ‘Palekh boxes’. Anyone can admire and enjoy a genuine lacquer miniature, but when you understand more about its history and the work that goes into it, then you truly begin to value it.

The history of the Russian Lacquer Miniature can be traced back to Russia’s ancient past, yet it is a comparably young art form. It looks timeless, but was only fully established as a genre in the 1920s and 30s. There are two distinct chapters in the history of lacquer miniatures.

In the 13th century, the village of Kholui, and its neighbours, Palekh and Mstiora, were icon-painting centres, founded by monks who fled the Suzdal area to escape the Tartar-Mongol invasion. They made their way into remote forested regions about a hundred miles to the east, where they established three separate settlements. Over the course of the centuries, these three villages trained generations of icon-painters. The names Palekh, Kholui and Mstiora became synonymous with schools of icon-painting, and their icons can often be found in museums and auctions today.

A Fedoskino box, with its lavish use of gold leaf paint: a scene from Ruslan and Ludmilla, the tale in verse by the poet Pushkin

The icon-trading attracted commerce and fairs and markets arose. Kholui, now the quietest of the lacquer miniature villages, was once the liveliest and probably the wealthiest. Major fairs were held there at least five times a year, with buyers and sellers arriving not only from far-flung corners of Russia, but from abroad. Cloth, furs, fish, ‘lubok’ prints and anything and everything was sold here, along with the icons. Drunkenness, merry-making and quarrels abounded. One deep pool on the edge of the village is still known as ‘Turk’s Lake’, into which, it is said, a Turkish trader was hastily tipped after one quarrel too many. Old coins are regularly dug up in Kholui gardens, and the fair still just about lives on in the memory of old folk, though it was suppressed in the 1930s.

An incredibly detailed miniature of Kholui Fair as it used to be in days of old, with all kinds of entertainment going on, and peddling of wares. Traders arrive by boat. Artist Viktor Malkov

The trade in icons fell into sharp decline at the end of the nineteenth century, partly because mass-produced printed icons were cheap and widely available. After 1917, religious painting was discouraged, putting the remaining icon-painters out of a job. Officially, icon-painting was now defunct. Unofficially, the tradition was carried on secretly; the former director of the Kholui lacquer miniature workshop said he used to tip off the artists when official visitors were coming, so that they could hide any icons in progress.

The second chapter in the evolution of the lacquer miniatures as an art form came after the Bolshevik Revolution. Dedicated artists who remained cast around for something into which to channel their talents. They tried painting carpets and china, without great success. Then, in Palekh, an artist called Ivan Golikov began to create the first lacquer miniatures. The miniature form actually sprang out of the icon tradition, since icons often contained a border of miniature paintings around a central subject.

Icon from Yaroslavl, with miniatures surrounding the subject, and a richly-ornamented, colourful style which was adopted by the Russian lacquer miniatures artists. This is St Paraskeva-Friday, a protectress of women and guardian of spinning and weaving traditions.

But now, instead of sacred themes, Golikov took the age-old legends and fairy tales of Russia for his subjects. He retained the use tempera, egg-based paints, and much of the icon style. In particular, the richly-coloured, gold-ornamented icons of Yaroslavl served as inspiration, their horses and chariots, robes and palaces already almost suggestive of fairy tales rather than religious themes. But, significantly, Golikov changed from using wood to lacquered papier mache as a base.

A classic Palekh image, with strong colours, a black bacground and fine gold leaf ornament. The heart-shaped box though is more unusual.

This is where Fedoskino, the fourth village comes into our story. Fedoskino artists argue that they were the first school of Russian lacquer miniature painting, since their workshop was originally set up in 1798. It was the brainchild of a merchant called Korobov, who realised that he could sell vast quantities of snuff boxes if he could make them both cheap and attractive. Many people could not afford the snuff boxes made of ivory, jade or other precious materials which were in vogue at the time. Using a process which he discovered in Germany, Korobov began to produce little boxes of papier mache. He employed artists to decorate them, and he finished them in lacquer to produce a very durable and attractive finish. Over the course of time, many other beautiful but functional types of boxes were produced, as tea caddies, card cases and so on. And, since Fedoskino lay just north of Moscow, it was well-placed to serve the fashion-conscious clientele of the city.

The Fedoskino artists painted in oils from the start, and took their style from mainstream art, which at that time in Russia was very similar to Western art. They did begin to introduce a distinctly Russian flavour however, painting troikas and village scenes, and girls in national costume. They also began to concentrate more and more on the quality of the painting itself; it was no longer enough just to decorate a box. The workshop, a highly successful venture, subsequently passed into the hands of the Lukutin family, and remained as such until it became a co-operative in 1910. It has always retained its distinctive style, which is also now often characterised by an underlay of mother of pearl, or gold leaf. This gives the miniature an iridescent sheen, and an inner glow, and is particularly effective for bringing to life snow scenes, sunlight, and silken draperies.

Fedoskino artists, because they use oil paints, can achieve high standards of portrait painting. An older Fedoskino miniature.
A mother of pearl underlay is created ahead of painting most of the miniature itself. The story of ‘The Flying Carpet’ – eventually, a Firebird will be painted in the cage the prince is carrying.

Back in Palekh in the 1920s, Golikov gathered a small group of artists around him, and this founding group set the Palekh style securely in place for succeeding generations. It is, not surprisingly, very iconic, with beautifully detailed faces, and elongated figures poised in dignified stances. It consists of vivid colours, often including brilliant reds or blues, but always used with restraint on a background of black lacquer.

All the lacquer miniature schools generally use black for the outside of the box, and red for the inside, though they paint over the black to a far greater degree than the Palekh artists. Red equals life and beauty in Russian colour symbolism, and the black expresses both the mystery and the sorrows of life. The black background helps the vivid miniature scenes appear as if they are floating in another dimension of time and space, drawing us into the intense world that they create. The gold of the delicate ornament, used to highlight detail and provide a decorative border, is a symbol of eternity. This trio of colours – red, black and gold – also forms the basis of colour in other Russian folk art too, especially in the lacquered wooden ware of Khokhloma.

Kholui and Mstiora followed Palekh into the painting of lacquer miniatures in the 1930s. There was some rivalry between the villages, as each was eager to define its own status, and over the course of the years all three villages have developed very distinctive styles and outlooks. Kholui is dynamic, colourful, relying on contrast and a depth of perspective, and it often contains superb natural detail. Kholui artists today show remarkable creativity, especially the talented 26 or so members of the Kholui Union of Artists. Mstiora style is dreamy, with delicate, carefully-graded colours, and usually all of the background is painted over. Mstiora style needs a different eye; there is often less detail than in Palekh or Kholui painting, but the overall effect is wonderfully harmonious.

An example of Mistora work, with fine architecture and muted colours
Mstiora artists also sometimes use a kind of celestial blue in their creations, based on the colouring of some of the old icons from the area.

So despite the early start in Fedoskino, the genre of the Russian lacquer miniature with its four schools only really came to birth in the middle of the twentieth century. It remains a very Russian art form at its heart, with subjects drawn from fairy tales, historical legends, Russian landscapes and architecture, and festivals and scenes from old village life. The artists meticulously research their themes, if they are not within living memory. Sometimes flowers, animals, portraits, and non-Russian themes are painted, often with stunning results – but stray too far or too often from the Russian flavour, and the art weakens.

The artists of this genre go through a thorough training lasting five years. Each of the four villages has its own art school, and outsiders are welcomed as well as children born and bred in the village. There is healthy competition for spaces, with about four or five applicants vying for each slot. In general, students do not pay tuition, though schools are beginning to offer a proportion of fee-paying places simply to survive. Students must show not only a talent for art, but also must also have excellent eyesight and good general health.

Artists at work: preparing tempera paint, painting, and completing fine gold ornament

Contrary to popular belief, the lacquer miniature artists’ eyesight does not typically deteriorate more than other adults, despite the fact that they carry out such incredibly detailed work. (Painting fine gold ornament is especially taxing and is done with the finest of brushes.) They are taught so well that they work more with mind and hand than with the eye .In fact, lacquer miniature artists prefer not to work with magnifying glasses, as they like to see the whole of their composition at once. But students don’t spend all their time in such concentrated work; they are also encouraged to work in charcoal, oils and watercolours, to draw from life, and to study the history of art as well. Much of their miniature training is acquired by copying from examples, so that they learn in a very disciplined and structured way. For their diploma, however, they must produce a completely original composition.

It is important to understand that lacquer art does not depend entirely upon original compositions. The word ‘copy’ often has negative connotations in Western minds. But this does not mean something slavish and mechanical; it is rather the chance to re-create the work of a master. This approach is common in Eastern art as well as in icon-painting, where the artist does not have to strive to be original. Some artists at the pinnacle of the profession only paint originals or ‘author’s works’ as they are described in Russian. Others will only ever paint existing subjects, drawing from a range of designs and repertoire. Altogether, this forms the body of the art, which has a life of its own and a strongly collective element. Even the most ‘original’ artists usually meet in council in their union or co-operative to discuss their works – and criticisms are certainly made, especially if other artists feel that new compositions are spoiling or weakening the tradition. Artists who leave and settle elsewhere are rarely able to keep up the quality of work; the members of the collective rely on each other, the spirit of the art, and indeed the ‘spirit of place’ of their village.

The Russian belief in nature spirits, or respect for the elements of nature, is strong. This is ‘Leshi’, the forest master, said to protect all the beasts and birds of the forest. Miniature by Pyotr Mityashin, Kholui
‘Vodayanoy’, the Lord of the Waters. Each river is said to have its own Vodyanoy. A miniature from Palekh

Some years ago, the Soviet government tried to artificially create a fifth centre of folk art in the industrial city of Lipetsk. Artists were tempted to re-settle there with promises of modern flats, bathrooms and running water (luxuries not available in the ‘izba’). Sadly, the experiment was a failure; nothing new or creative has emerged from Lipetsk, and it now turns out low quality miniatures for the tourist market. The artists who moved there could never return, and gradually they lost both their individual creativity and the vital link into the main body of the art.

The four lacquer miniature villages are all quite individual, set in beautiful countryside which is a source of inspiration to the artists. Intense sunsets, deep forests, spring floods, fall harvests and winter snows all fuel their imagination. The artists are rooted in the traditional life of the Russian countryside, with seasons for potato-planting and mushroom-gathering, berry picking and fishing. And, like most rural Russians, they have to make do for themselves, mending their homes and tending the vegetable plots. Women and men are both in the ranks of artists, sometimes even working as a husband and wife team, taking turns minding the children while the other one paints.

The Firebird – a popular subject for miniatures and in fairy stories. Above is an example from Kholui, and below is one from Palekh

Meanwhile, more than ten years after the lifting of state controls, lacquer miniature artists find the situation for selling their art to be quite fluid. Though some regret that they are no longer as financially secure as they were, most prefer the creative freedom: they are no longer tied to a production quota, and can work as and when they please.

The four original state-run studios, one for each village, still function in various disorganised stages of privatisation. Some artists work there on salary, while others are members of co-operatives or unions. Still others go it alone. Much depends upon their contacts, and the selling network that they find their way into. Thus, it is not always the best artists who are the richest.

The domestic market for this art form is weak, although recently record prices for lacquer miniatures have been extracted from tourists in St Petersburg. The plain fact is that most miniatures find their way West; in Russia, only corporate customers such as banks regularly buy them. Once, museums were queuing up to buy the best lacquer miniatures, and none of the real masterpieces ever left the country. Now the museums do not have the funds for such purposes, and Russians with money would rather buy consumer goods rather than art.

‘The Bell’s Story’ from Palekh
‘The Magic Flying Stove’ from Fedoskino

This dissolution of control over production brought other challenges as well. In Fedoskino and Palekh especially, artists have split into many groups, some of them now in a difficult relationship with one another. But on the whole, genuine aspiration and honesty is still at the heart of the tradition, and the studios still work with dogged persistence in extremely difficult market conditions. Each village has its own stupendously good museum, and exhibitions, celebrations and jubilees are common excuses to get together with artists and colleagues from the other lacquer centres and party at great length once the official speeches are over.

Young newly-qualified artists celebrating one of the anniversaries of Kholui as a lacquer miniature painting centre. The Firebird remains the main symbol of the village

It is worth noting that the making of the papier-maché and the lacquering and polishing of finished work is actually not done by the individual artists. Rather, it is done by another team of craftsmen, who are skilled, but who do not enjoy the status level of the artists. It is an interesting process in its own right, involving just the right type of cardboard, from which the papier-maché is made, the ‘slow-cooking’ of the papier-maché for two or three months, and painstaking lacquering and polishing. Three or four coats of lacquer are applied before the artist begins painting the miniature. Afterwards, between seven and twelve coats must be applied, and each one dried and polished to achieve the right finish. The lacquer has to be made to just the right formula; untrained city artists producing ‘souvenir’ boxes often slap on a couple of coats of floor varnish, and hope for the best. This will usually crack up within a couple of years, whereas properly lacquered works will survive, with only a little dulling, for centuries.

Above: making and lacquering the papier-mache boxes

No genuine lacquer miniature is complete in less than three months from start to finish, and many will take a year or more. The simplest design will take the artist several days to paint; the most complex more than twelve months.

Polishing the finished box on a velvet-covered electric wheel. Great care must be taken, as the artist’s painting is already on the lid of the box!

As the basis for the lacquer miniature, the traditional form of the box is still the most popular. Yet, as the art became finer and finer, so the utility of the box was largely forgotten, and the miniatures became collectors’ items in their own right. Although the art of the miniature is the main focus, a miniature on a box is still evocative, like an exquisite treasure chest. Some of the old functional shapes have been retained, such as the ‘inkwell’ and ‘cigarette case’, but for decorative interest only. Artists often paint plaques and panels as well, and brooches have gained in popularity in recent years. They also occasionally paint wall panels and frescoes – on a completely different scale of course – and lovely examples of these can be seen in the restaurant in Palekh, and in the children’s home in Mstiora.

Artists sometimes paint murals and panels too. This is an example from the children’s home in Mstiora

It is often asked whether there is a Persian or Moghul influence in the miniatures. The artists themselves deny this, and it is more likely that there is a slight similarity of style, simply because of painting lively scenes on a small scale in vivid colours. Once at a British art exhibition, Uzbeki miniaturists were painting in the next tent to Russian lacquer miniature artists. A British interpreter was getting very heated as she defended her Uzbeki artists against the supposed crimes of their ‘thieving’ former overlords, claiming that those Russians next door had ‘stolen’ the tradition from the Uzbeks. The Uzbeki Minister of Culture, who happened to be present, gently put her right. He noted that they had actually sent some of their own Uzbeki artists to Palekh to train in miniature painting and production, having lost their own indigenous tradition some time back. With the help of this input from Russian artists, they are now trying to re-create their own style using Russian technique as a basis.

The creative potential of the Russian Lacquer Miniature can be tapped in unexpected ways. But at its heart, it remains a uniquely Russian art form, its little boxes dispatched across the globe as messengers from the soul of Russia, carriers of her magical tales and traditions.

‘On the Riverbank’ from Palekh

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

Baba Yaga and the Borderlands

This article is adapted from my book Russian Magic (first published as The Soul of Russia). It opens Chapter Five, ‘The Secrets of Life and Death’ celebrating the mystique and myths of the Russian witch and crone, Baba Yaga. Although she’s a popular figure of Russian folk lore, yet she’s a shadowy, complex figure, who may have a role in the old pre-Christian rituals of the land of ‘Rus’.

This is the second of four posts celebrating the years I spent going back and forth to Russia, in search of its ancient culture and mythology. I’m flattered that the young conductor Alexander Prior said of my book: ‘It’s the first time any Westerner has understood the Russian soul.’

Baba Yaga’s Kingdom

‘Beyond the thrice-nine lands, in the thrice-ten kingdom there lives Baba-Yaga, the witch. Her house stands in a forest beyond the Flaming River.’ (from the story of Maria Morevna)

Original etching by B. Zaborofin, 1992, collection of Cherry Gilchrist. Baba Yaga holds a book titled ‘Russian Folk Tales’ and her house is built on chicken legs, according to tradition.

Baba Yaga is an ugly, cantankerous old woman, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken’s feet in the middle of the forest, and who flies around the skies by means of a pestle and mortar. She captures small children, tricks young maidens, and kills just about anyone who crosses her. This wicked witch of Russian fairy stories is familiar to every person in the land, and her fame, or notoriety, has spread further afield, so that she is also well-known in Europe and America. She is a stock character in folk tales, and also turns up regularly in other contexts: in modern Russian cartoons and children’s books, as a puppet, and in more high-minded art as a character in Modest Mussorgsky’s suite of music, Pictures from an Exhibition.

Baba Yaga is also a useful weapon for Russian parents to frighten small children who are misbehaving. 

‘Sit down, and finish your supper, otherwise Baba Yaga will come for you!’

Olga, otherwise an extremely patient grandmother, had finally had enough of small Dima’s noisy behaviour at the supper table. On hearing the dreaded name, he subsided instantly; a watchful, fearful look in his eyes as he sat back quietly to eat his meal. A few minutes later, though, after the threat of the witch had worn off, he began to jump up and down again.

Olga was quick to react. She got to her feet and peered out of the window.

‘Baba Yaga’s coming down the lane now,’ she said.

Dima was back in his seat before any of us could blink twice, and we finished our evening meal in peace. Baba Yaga is fond of stealing little children in order to cook them up for her own supper.

But although she has a world-wide reputation, and is a star of wonder tales, woodcuts, comics and animated films, Baba Yaga remains enigmatic and ambivalent, ultimately a mysterious figure whose source is unknown. No one is quite sure of her origins, her function, or of whether she is ultimately a force for good or evil. All studies seem to agree, however, that her role is much more than that of a pantomime-style witch. Baba Yaga stands at the boundaries of life and death, at the borders of darkness and rebirth.

A depiction of Baba Yaga by the famous Russian illustrator, Bilibin, dating from 1900. She flies through the air in a mortar, steering it with a pestle. The forest is her natural habitat.

‘Leg of Stone, Toothless Crone’

Baba Yaga is of grotesque appearance, with lank greasy hair, a long nose, and a leg which is either made of stone in polite renderings, or of faeces in more earthy accounts. Her bulk fills up her hut when she is at home, and, when out of it, she flies around in a mortar made of iron, which she steers with a pestle. Sometimes, as in the story mentioned below, she rides instead on a magic horse chosen from her herd of doughty mares. She lives deep in the forest, and has a fondness for killing and perhaps eating visitors, whose skulls she nails to posts impaled in the ground around her hut. This hut also has the property of revolving at the witch’s command, hiding or concealing its entrance according to her word.

In common parlance, the term Baba Yaga is used in Russian for any cantankerous old woman. There is no common agreement as to where the Yaga (or Iaga, Ega, Egibihk and other variations) part of her name comes from. The ‘Baba’ prefix refers to woman or mother, but Yaga may be connected to the word for snake, for pain, or even for pelican, according to various authorities, or, more likely, to none of these.

Her role in traditional stories is to challenge anyone who strays into her domain, whom she may then attack, kill, advise, help or strike a bargain with, or any combination of these functions. She is fond of both drinking and spilling Russian blood, and can smell it approaching from afar. New arrivals are often greeted with the question, ‘Are you here to do something, or are you running away from something?’ – words that suggest a ritual confrontation, a challenge to test the visitor’s determination.

Her attitude towards children and girls is different to the stance she takes with young men. She may capture and consume small children, she may imprison young girls or choose to let them go unharmed, but she always challenges and tests youths and men. This has led to a theory that Baba Yaga is in origin the ancient goddess of the underworld, who conducts young men through initiation ceremonies at their coming of age. They must show bravery and cunning, avoid the traps and snares that she sets, and perform near-impossible tasks in order to win through and be worthy of manhood.

An episode in the story of Maria Morevna, when Ivan, the young hero, agrees to look after Baba Yaga’s horses in return for her sparing his life (attribution at end)

In the story of Maria Morevna, quoted earlier, Prince Ivan encounters Baba Yaga when he is in search of his abducted wife, the warrior queen Maria Morevna. Baba Yaga’s house is surrounded by twelve poles, all but one crowned with a human head, and Ivan recognises that the last one has been saved for his own head to crown. But Baba Yaga promises to spare him, and grant him his freedom, if he will look after her horses for three days. She has many fine mares, and flies around the world each day on one of them; she is ready to offer Ivan one of these magical steeds if he can care for the whole herd.

The task is more difficult than he thinks, since for two days running, the horses gallop off into the forest as soon as he takes them out to pasture, and he falls into a heavy slumber till the end of the day. But he is then helped by creatures who he has been kind to earlier in his travels, and manages to get the herd back to the house with the mares intact. At midnight, knowing that Baba Yaga will never honour her promise, he decides to escape; he steals a colt and rides off towards the flaming river, where his wife waits for him on the other side.

Going to sleep on the job, as with the story of Prince Ivan and the Firebird, is a mistake for young would-be heroes, and in this case it may correspond with the sleep deprivation that often accompanies initiation rites, where keeping a vigil can be a significant phase of the process. All the old habits of eating, sleeping and bathing must be uprooted, and Baba Yaga’s offer of steam baths and food in some stories may be echoes of new and possibly dangerous experiences in this department. There is a strong tradition of women initiating boys into manhood in various societies: for instance in the early Middle Ages in Western Europe, women would present young men with weapons so that they could become warriors or knights. And in mythology, King Arthur himself is said to have received his magical sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake.

Male initiation is often sexual, too. The horrific appearance of Baba Yaga as an ugly old crone, who may be farting and exposing her foaming genitalia, denotes the reverse of everything lovely and maidenly. This may challenge the young man’s unquestioning attachment to the beauty of the female form, and force him to look with different eyes at an adult woman. The witch is also the opposite of the comforting, familiar mother figure, and this may help to break his dependence upon his mother, in order to claim his manhood, and make a new and truer bond with a woman who can become his wife. In the story of Maria Morevna, although Ivan is married to her already, she is abducted on account of his naivety and carelessness, and it is only by showing genuine bravery and effort that he can finally reclaim her, and make her truly his own. 

If the forest ritual was once a cultural event, marking the passage from youth into manhood, then most likely it would have been enacted by a person, male or female, dressed and masked as Baba Yaga, to give a terrifying appearance. Some weight is lent to this by the fact that fairy stories may contain ‘a’ Baba Yaga, or even several of them, suggesting that there could be local Baba Yagas. There may be three sister Baba Yagas, for instance. This may also relate to the symbolism of the triple goddess, an idea which is widespread through various cultures. The three faces or figures of this goddess are maiden, mother and crone, and there is no doubt that in this schema, Baba Yaga would be a manifestation of the crone figure.

Baba Yaga’s hideous appearance here is given full rein by the artist (From ‘Heroes, Monsters and Other Worlds from Russian Mythology, by Elizabeth Warner, illustrations Alexander Koshkin. Eurobook 1985)

The symbolism of the triple goddess is intimately connected with the phases of the moon, so that the maiden can be seen as the crescent moon, who then grows to fullness as mother, and finally declines into the dark phase as the crone, a phase associated with Hecate in Greek myth, for instance. The crone may be frightening, old, smelly and in some ways evil, but she is also the embodiment of wisdom, and no understanding of woman is complete without her. It has also been suggested that Baba Yaga’s hut, which revolves to conceal or reveal its opening, may itself be associated with cycles of the moon, and of feminine sexuality, so that Baba Yaga’s role as crone could also thus embody knowledge about female sexual cycles, about menstruation and the waxing and waning of fertility and desire, knowledge which young men need to acquire as they are about to enter into relationships with the opposite sex. Such an interpretation also goes a long way to explaining the ambivalence of Baba Yaga, and how she can never be finally upheld as totally good or evil.

A sample sketch of Vasilisa the Fair prepared by artist Natalia Danilin for a proposed Russian Oracle by Cherry Gilchrist

The much-loved tale of Vasilisa the Fair gives us a heroine’s perspective on an encounter with Baba Yaga. Young Vasilisa is sent to the forest by her cruel stepsisters to fetch a light from Baba Yaga’s house in the forest. On approaching the hut, she meets three horsemen, one white, one scarlet and one black; they represent Day, Sun and Night, and they are under Baba Yaga’s command, for she, as many stories about her relate, has power over the winds and weather, sun and moon. Baba Yaga sniffs out Vasilisa’s approach, and offers her a light only on condition that the little girl stays and works for her. The tasks seem impossible, but Vasilisa has an ally – a little magic doll that her mother gave to her as she lay dying. The doll helps her to do the housework, and finally Baba Yaga turns Vasilisa out of the house and gives her the light she requested to take home.

In terms of the lunar cycles and the symbolism of the triple goddess, Vasilisa may be seen as the ‘maiden’ phase of the moon, and her mother as the full moon, who then died to be followed by the black lunar crone. Vasilisa wins the light of her crescent moon back by braving Baba Yaga’s darkness, and earning her respect through hard work and integrity.

Russian lacquer miniature illustrations of Vasilisa the Fair, meeting the Knight of the Sunrise. (Left – Kholui School, Right – Palekh School)

Perhaps Baba Yaga once played a part in coming of age ceremonies for young girls too, and perhaps, too, this is an example of one, although I have not come across any direct mention of this.  

Vasilisa the Fair, using one of the lighted skulls from Baba Yaga’s hut to help her see her way in the dark and make her escape

Baba Yaga is a figure who stands at the borders of life and death, and as both boys and girls have to die to their childhood in order to enter the adult world, she is an appropriate figure to meet them on the threshold of that transition. She is herself a symbol of death in some old folklore customs; at harvest time, for instance, an effigy of Baba Yaga may be created in straw, and subsequently destroyed. This is said to act as a reminder that the day of reaping and death comes to us all.

In many tales, it is made clear that the witch lives close to the borders of the otherworld. One hero finds her abode right at the end of the earth: ‘A little hut stood there, with no road beyond it, but only darkness so deep that the eye could not pierce it,’ as we are told in the story of The Enchanted Princess’.

Baba Yaga’s territory is already considered to be in the world of ‘the living dead’, known as the ‘thrice-nine land’. This lies far beyond the human realm, and from here one must set out to confront the final boundary to the ‘thrice-ten kingdom’, often understood as the realm of the truly dead. This boundary may be described as the ‘flaming river’ or ‘the blue sea’. In one story, it is charmingly defined as the ‘Currant River’, crossed by the ‘Cranberry Bridge’. Indeed, it is not enough just to reach the boundary, for a means must be found or created to pass over it. In the story of Maria Morevna, Ivan calls up a bridge by waving a magic kerchief, a trick sometimes employed to make it passable. In fairy stories such as this, the hero performs the superhuman feat of going to the‘thrice-ten land’ and  returning, perhaps as young men once did symbolically through their ritual ordeals. Baba Yaga has been the catalyst for this.

A ‘lubok’ or wood-cut print of Baba Yaga, probably in battle with a wizard

She also remains a key archetype in Russian mythology, represented not only in stories but in popular rhymes, and in old folk woodcuts, known as lubok. In one famous and often copied lubok, she is depicted as fighting something described as a ‘crocodile’, but which looks more like a furry figure, or a bearded man with a tail. This has been interpreted as representing a political satire on Catherine the Great (the witch) fighting with Peter the Great (the foreigner, and thus the dangerous crocodile). However, as one study points out, both Baba Yaga and the crocodile are designated as guardians of the underworld in traditional lore; the appearance of the so-called crocodile as half human, half furry animal may in fact be a shaman magician. These wizards were real life characters, but were popularly regarded as a combination of beast and man. According to accounts given by the wizards themselves, battles were also traditionally fought between witches and sorcerers, and it may be an old magical battle that we see here.

Whatever the final definition of Baba Yaga, if such a thing is possible, she remains as a figure who can both attract us to the darkness of her mysteries and repel us with her disgusting appearance and unpleasant ways.

Once, I was dreaming by a camp fire in Russia

References – Image of Ivan and Baba Yaga in ‘Maria Morevna’ from ‘Life in Russia’

Suggested reading on Baba Yaga and Russian myth and fairy tales

Forest of the Vampire (1999) (various authors), (Duncan Baird, Amsterdam).

Haney, Jack V. (1999) An Introduction to the Russian Folk Tale, (M. E. Sharpe Inc, Armonk, New York & England)

Haney, Jack V. (2001) Russian Wondertales (two vols), (M. E. Sharpe, New York).

Hubbs, Joanna (1988) Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis)

Ivanits, Linda J. (1992) Russian Folk Belief, (M.E. Sharpe Inc., Armonk, New York & England)

Johns, Andreas (1998) Baba Iaga and the Russian Mother in The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 42, No. 1.

Krasunov, V. K. (ed.) (1996) Russian Traditions, (Kitizdat,Nizhni Novgorod)

Phillips, C. and Kerrigan, M. (1999) Forests of the Vampire, (Duncan Baird Publishers, London)

Ryan, W. F. (1999) The Bathhouse at Midnight: Magic in Russia,(Sutton Publishing Ltd., Stroud)

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist