The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

A supplicant seeks the compassion of Kuan Yin

The Practice of Meditation
By the autumn of this year, 2020, I will have been practising meditation for fifty years. I began as an undergraduate, when I joined a Buddhist class to learn Samatha meditation, which focuses primarily on the breath. Later I changed to a different, Western practice which uses an inner sound as its focus. Meditation itself is subtle, but the most effective practices tend to use very simple methods to help still the mind, paying attention to breath, sound, or an image. There is no striving for effects; the aim is to bypass the ‘busy mind’. Trains of thought, rising and falling emotions, and physical sensations can be acknowledged, but are not dwelt on. We cannot stop these entirely, but we can learn to let them go, and thereby open up to a different, spacious and more inclusive form of consciousness.

The essence of meditation is the engagement and holding of a mental object, which can be a sound, image, or movement like walking. As the mind stays with this object it gradually magnetises all the mental movements, flurries of thought and feelings, associative chattering etc. towards a single vector, rather like iron filings turning in one direction. And so random thought activity tends to die down, and settle, not so much around, as near the object, which itself gets finer and finer as does the breath. The seed-object can disappear, or hover on the edge of awareness, and pure consciousness rest within itself like fine wine upon its lees.’

(Tessellations, Lucy Oliver – Matador, 2020, p.51)

In the traditions I’ve studied and encountered, regular practice is crucial, along with an experienced teacher or ‘checker’, at least in the early years, to help you stay on track. Meditation as such can’t really be learnt from books. And it also takes time. My first meditation teacher described the practice as being like a drip, drip, drip of water – a drop a day, perhaps – until the cistern eventually fills up and you have a reservoir. Regular meditation is not exciting or instantly gratifying, although it can and does bestow a sense of calm, and helps to centre one’s being. Over time, though, it becomes a core practice, which can become the quiet centre of your daily life.

I’ve written this brief overview of meditation as a prelude to introducing a more specific and defined kind of practice. This is the Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin: a combination of meditation and visualisation. I suggest though that rather than using it a core meditation practice, it’s perhaps best attempted occasionally, or for short periods. It does not need a teacher as such, and is something that might be rewarding to try, whether you’re already a regular meditator or not. As I’ll outline, it focuses on a female figure – archetype, goddess, spirit of the feminine as you will – that of Kuan Yin.

Spirit of the feminine in meditation

Meditation generally aspires to reach a level of consciousness which transcends male and female differences. But it could be argued that some practices are at least more outwardly orientated to a masculine or feminine approach. So how do you approach a more feminine form of meditation? A few years ago, I was delighted to come across a tradition of meditation which does just that, and is associated with the archetypal figure of Kuan Yin, also known as ‘the universal goddess of compassion’. Since then, I have often practised Kuan Yin Moon Meditation at times when I wish to strengthen my contact with the feminine spirit, perhaps when life has been particularly bruising. ‘She Who Hears the Cries of the World’ is a calming and helpful presence.

The temple of Kuan Yin, Georgetown, Penang

Discovering Kuan Yin
I first discovered Kuan Yin’s temples when visiting Hong Kong, Penang and Singapore on different occasions. Each one was a feast for the senses, decked in rich, red and gold colours, imbued with the heavy scent of incense, and enlivened by the constant clatter of divination sticks shaken in brass cylinders. The temple is also an oracle, and so it’s possible to ask Kuan Yin personal questions through the 100-stick divination system, each of which has its own interpretation. Here, I watched worshippers young and old, male and female, as they piled fruit and flowers on Kuan Yin’s shrines, and sought her guidance. Later, looking into the mythology of her origins, I found that she is one of the most widely prevalent forms of the divine feminine spirit, who cannot be pinned down to one religion or culture. She slips from Buddhism to Taoism and Shintoism. She has connections both with Christianity, and the ancient religion of Egypt. And, strictly speaking, she is neither a goddess, immortal spirit, nor Madonna, but embraces all these definitions. Her predominant qualities are that of mercy and benevolence.

The temple of Kuan Yin, Georgetown, Penang

Kuan Yin’s Meditation
The meditation that I share here is a traditional one, based on her long association with the moon and the ocean. (She has other attributes, but these are the most relevant here.) In her Moon form, she represents the waters of compassion, and the gentle light of healing.

This Moon Meditation can be practised without having a particular religious or cultural affiliation. The version that I use comes from the account of an old Chinese nun, who had practised it constantly during her lifetime.* Here, Kuan Yin is seen robed in white, a lady of the seas, who rises above the waves to unite sky and sea, moon and earth. This is the theme of the meditation, where she is invited to shine forth, and – if we’re lucky – bring comfort and wisdom to our hearts.

Practising Kuan Yin meditation may be particularly appropriate at certain times in our lives. For women, it may be when we long to re-connect with a tender, intimate version of the feminine spirit. For men, the practice of opening the heart via the feminine spirit can help to awaken subtle emotions. For both, the practice can be consoling in times of need. And beyond the personal level, the aim of this meditation is to help generate compassion for the good of all our fellow human beings.

A blanc-de-chine porcelain statue of Kuan Yin, in my possession, which has been made in the same way, and in the same location in China, for several hundred years. There is a water reservoir inside, so the figure of the goddess can pour little drops of water from her flask into the lotus pool below.

The Practice

Here is how I’ve formulated this ancient practice, and taught it to others in accordance with modern needs:

The meditation can be practised for between ten minutes and half an hour, but I suggest you aim for something shorter to begin with. It’s suitable for practising either within a group, with someone who can lead it from stage to stage, or else as a personal contemplation, where you go at your own pace. It’s necessary to conduct it in a quiet place, which is likely to be in a room indoors, although the traditional instructions suggest it can also be done on a hilltop, or under an open sky. Do everything gently: no forcing, just allowing. You are activating this sequence, and envisaging images as needed, but in a spirit of gentle calmness.

To begin:

Sit quietly, with your eyes closed, and let your mind go still. Release any thoughts or images, and gradually glide into neutral. Relax the breathing, until it finds a natural, unhurried level.

Now let your internal gaze rest on an empty expanse, as if on a dark, empty sky, or as if you are looking into darkness before your eyes adjust to what is there. This might sound difficult, but is quite easy in practice, and you only need to hold this for a few seconds. 

Then, something comes into view. You can now see the sea in front of you, and you witness the moon rising above in the night sky. The moon bathes the sea with a soft brightness, rippling with little silver-topped waves. Allow yourself to gaze now at the moon, and to feel calm and happy. Give this a few minutes to develop.

Then observe how the moon is getting smaller, but brighter. It becomes so bright and so small that it reduces to a dazzling pinprick of light, a radiant tiny pearl in the night sky. Then this seed of light begins to grow, and, as it does so, it becomes the figure of Kuan Yin herself. She stands tall against the sky, robed in gleaming white. Around her head is a halo of light. Her feet float on the crest of the waves.

Kuan Yin smiles, and you feel her affection, love and compassion. Allow yourself to rest in her presence. You can allow emotions to arise and fade away again, like the lapping of the water. Let the meditation take its course: Kuan Yin may stay with you for a long time, or just for a brief spell. As she leaves, your image of her gets smaller and smaller until she vanishes, along with the sea and the sky. All that is left is space. Relish this space; become a part of it, and know that you are not separate from it.

As with all meditation practices, it’s advisable to make a definite ending, but to do so calmly and slowly. Now return gently to sensing your body; observe your posture, and allow sensation in your limbs. Then open your eyes, and collect yourself, body and mind. If it seems appropriate, offer thanks for the experience.

*The original description of this meditation is contained in Bodhisattva of Compassion: the Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin, John Blofeld  (p.124 in my edition).

You may come across Kuan Yin figures in unexpected places. This one sits on a resplendent mantlepiece in Saltram House, a National Trust stately home.

Other References
The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion, by Stephen Karcher
Kuan Yin: Myths and Revelations of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion, by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay & Kwok Man-Ho
The Meditator’s Guidebook: Pathways to Greater Awareness & Creativity, by Lucy Oliver; see also her website ‘Meaning by Design’

Samatha meditation classes can be accessed through https://www.samatha.org/

Related Books by Cherry Gilchrist

The Circle of Nine: An Archetypal Journey to Awaken the Divine Feminine Within, by Cherry Gilchrist is published by Weiser Books. See also http://www.circleofnine.org

Related Blogs by Cherry Gilchrist

Articles I’ve posted on the Oracle of Kuan Yin elsewhere, in my previous blog, can be found at:
‘The Oracle of Kuan Yin’ and ‘The Kuan Yin Oracle’

The Unusual Exhibition

‘Vines and olives groves, Fressac’ – All paintings on this page are by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA

Robert is sweeping out the dust and straw from the long, covered alley where the horses come to be groomed and fed. Bill, the chief horseman around here, removes the last saddles and bridles from their pegs, while the dogs sniff around eagerly, aware that something unusual is happening. It’s the day of the art exhibition. My husband, Robert Lee-Wade, is a painter in the impressionist style, a member of the Royal Ulster Academy and widely exhibited in various countries abroad. But never before in a stable block in the South of France.

Robert cleaning the alleyway ready for the exhibition.

Robert and I have been at Mas la Chevalerie for several weeks now. We’re staying in a gite on a ranch owned by retired actors Bill Homewood and Estelle Kohler on an extended stay to paint (Robert), write (Cherry) and enjoy the landscape of the Languedoc and the Camargue. It’s September in the South of France, and the grape harvest is coming along, in this idyllic spot. And so is Robert’s art – Bill has helped him to set up a makeshift studio in his capacious office, where he (Bill) also records audio books for Naxos.

Estelle, I should say, was my heroine when I was sixteen and she was a very young actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford. At that time, newly arrived from South Africa, she was playing Ophelia to David Warner’s Hamlet. The innovative production by Peter Hall captured my teenage imagination, and with friends from school in Birmingham, we saw the play several times, usually on cheap stand-by tickets. I never imagined that I might become friends with Estelle so many years later.

Robert Lee-Wade, Estelle Kohler and Bill Homewood
Bill organising the logistics. Camargue pony arrived for schooling. Interested bystanders.

‘Let’s have an exhibition!’ said Bill, after Robert had been painting for several weeks. He and Estelle have been here for decades, and know practically everyone in the Fressac area. They count up who they might invite – the mayor (of course), the baker, the restaurant owner, the dressage specialist, the Danish sculptor, the ex-rock drummer and a whole long list of others. We are to provide the refreshments; being France this must be wine, and being near the Camargue, this must include brandade, a paste made of salted cod. And definitely some baguettes. So be it.

The alleyway is nearly clear now, except that another friend of Bill’s has chosen to bring his exquisite white Camargue stallion for some extra training in Bill’s manège. We’ve had our own exciting encounter with Camargue horses on this trip, taking a three day break down in the marshes to ‘ride the white horses to the sea’.

‘The White Horses of the Carmargue’

The pictures are up, the guests arrive. ‘Everyone will come,’ we’re told. ‘They love a chance to socialise and have an apéro.’ They do, and they mingle, looking carefully at the paintings first– some sales are made – and then it’s time to get down to the serious business of eating and drinking. The party grows merry – why not let the horses join in the fun?

The horses on the lawn, in art and real life

Several hours later, it’s quiet again. Bill and Estelle choose a painting as a gift for their help – it’s ‘Where the Nightingales Sing’, which captures the essence of this magical place. We have also seen golden orioles here, and once, a bee-eater in technicolour glory.

We’ll soon be packing our hatchback car and making the long drive back to the UK. We all talk of doing the same thing another year, but although Robert and I will come back for shorter visits, this exhibition is one of those delightful comings-together that can only happen once. And it’s probably all the more memorable for that reason.

The castle from the horse manege at Mas La Chevalerie

Paintings from the Camargue, by Robert Lee-Wade RUA

You can see more of Robert’s artwork here

‘Just Ordinary Girls’ – Noel Leadbeater and the Secret Army

This post is being published a couple of days earlier than the usual Sunday morning slot, to celebrate VE Day. I’m proud to be sharing Noel’s story with you to mark the occasion.

Many ordinary lives conceal extraordinary stories. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to some of these stories, sometimes when researching for a book, sometimes just out of a strong personal interest. This is the first of an occasional series of posts about such lives, Noel Leadbeater’s story of what she did in World War Two. In the current state of the coronavirus crisis, many of us may be thinking about how the challenges and restrictions compare with wartime, and wondering about the efforts that people made to try and keep their country safe. Some of these were never revealed until many years later.

Noel Leadbeater (née Davies) would never tell us what she did in the war. Her daughter Helen was one of my closest friends, since after my parents moved house as I was about to go into the Sixth Form, I lived with the Leadbeater family in term time. Noel was one of the liveliest, most amusing and kind-hearted people I have ever met. She was also a natural raconteur. However, ask her about wartime, and she clammed up. She might mention the Land Army and the ATS in passing. ‘My lips are sealed. I signed the Official Secrets Act,’ she’d say dramatically, when pressed for more detail.

Finally, the secrecy around the operations evaporated, and she was free to tell her story. She had become a member of a hidden army of Morse Code operators, trained to record German signals. The coded messages they took down were then sent to be deciphered at Bletchley Park. Which, as you may be aware, was the place that broke the highly-encrypted messages sent by the Germans via the Enigma Machine.

I visited Noel in 2010, just before her 90th birthday, so that I could record this story in full, and preserve it not just for her family but for a wider audience too. It’s presented here in a slightly shortened narrative version. On my visit, she was full of life and fun as usual, and as bright and sharp as ever. But it was the last time I was to see her, since she died just over a year later.

A treasured, and somewhat battered photo of Noel in her ATS uniform

Noel at the start of World War Two
Noel, née Davies, was born and brought up in Birmingham, where she was one of a large working-class family. Although intelligent and keen to learn, any proper education was out of the question as she was expected to to help at home with her siblings, and to go out to work as soon as legally possible. Nevertheless, as the story will show, her abilities were clearly recognised in wartime, and in later life she educated herself in literature, worked as a teaching assistant, and completed an Open University degree.

Early on in the War, Noel joined the Land Army: ‘Not because I loved the land, or anything else, but I just loved the uniform!’ However, she became ill after the very strenuous work, and switched to factory work instead, working with a company called Avery’s who made weighing scales. There was quite a lot of bombing in Birmingham, so I never knew when I went into work whether the office would be still standing, but it was all right.’ Luckily for Noel, she didn’t stay there too long, since a history of W. & T. Avery records: ‘During the second world war the company also produced various types of heavy guns. At that time the site underwent severe damage from parachute mines and incendiary bombs.’

Call-Up, and the ATS
Then came the compulsory call-up for women, and Noel joined the ATS (Auxilliary Territorial Services) :
‘I had to report to a little town called Droitwich which is near Birmingham, in Worcestershire, and I went on the train with several other girls from Birmingham. We were met at the station by a corporal and a sergeant.’ There, they were put into threes, and told to march into the town. ‘But one unfortunate girl called Janice, her mother had insisted on coming with her! And this woman, she couldn’t march in the road because the sergeant wouldn’t let her, so she was hopping on and off the pavement, into the road and back again. And the poor girl was saying, “Our Mum, our Mum! Do go ‘ome again, our Mum!” But the mother said, “I promised your Dad I’m going to see you into those barracks, and that’s what I’m going to do.”’

At their destination, a hotel that had been commandeered, Janice’s mother was speedily sent home, and the girls were kitted out. ‘We had to go into what must have been the garage earlier on, and we were issued with our kit. Well, we lined up and marched into the garage, and there was a sergeant there – she didn’t bother with things like measuring tapes, she just looked us up and down and said, “Tall – thin – skinny – number three!” Or, “Short -fat – number one!” And we processed along a counter where we were issued clothing. Two skirts, two tunics, shirts and collars and blue stripe pyjamas, and then it came to the greatcoats. The girl behind the counter looked me up and down and said, “Haven’t got your size.” She spoke to the sergeant who said, “There’s some men’s greatcoats in there. Give her one of those!” So I was issued with a man’s six-foot greatcoat.’

ATS recruits struggling to fit into their uniforms (National Army Museum)

In their allocated huts, the new recruits got ready to transform their status: “We all proceeded to put on our uniform, because we were very proud of it. But we were all different sizes, and some of the skirts came nearly down to the ground, and some were – oh, we did look a mess! And when I put my great coat on there were hoots of laughter, because it was nearly on the floor, and the sleeves covered my hands. But when I grumbled to the sergeant about it she said, “Oh you don’t have to wear it dear! As long as you’ve got it. When you get to your next posting, just go to the stores, and they’ll change it for you.” Which really was very typical of the army, I thought.’

First training with ‘Ack, ack’ or anti-aircraft guns. Officially, women were not allowed to actually fire these guns. (National Army Museum)

The first day ended with the ‘Lights Out’ bugle call at 9pm. ‘Which to me was wonderful because I thought, “Well, now you know you’re in the army!”’ Their training was general to start with – learning about the ranks of the army and taking various tests. Then they were asked what section they would like to be in. Noel’s first choice was to be a driver, but as she couldn’t drive already, that was refused. ‘So then I said I would try “Ack-Ack”, which was anti-aircraft guns. We had to do various tests for that, lying on our backs and looking through binoculars – all sorts of things. And I thought, “Oh well, I shall enjoy this.” But then one day, one of the officers called me in to speak to her, and we had quite a long conversation. And she said, “I think I’ve got a job which would be better for you, and that you’d like, but you mustn’t tell anybody about it. It’s very hush hush, and you’ll have to go up to London for some more tests.”’

This was the start of her transition into the Signallers, and her Morse Code training. To begin with, she was posted to London, staying in a hostel in Gower Street which had previously been accommodation for shop workers – it was usual at the time for the bigger London stores like Heal’s or Gorringe’s to house their female workers ‘safely’ in hostels. ‘The main test was to see if we would be suitable to take down Morse. They didn’t send Morse as such, but they sent sounds.’ She recited a string of ‘da-dee-da’ syllables in varied pitch and rhythm. ‘You had to put a tick or a cross whether it was the same sound or not. Then we had to write an essay – there were all sorts of tests, and in the end, some people went back to their unit. But some of us were then held in Gower Street until there was a place for us at the training centre, which was at Trowbridge in Wiltshire. There were thirty girls, and we were going to be known as 37 Squad.’

ATS wireless operators learning Morse code at Trowbridge in Wiltshire, 1941 (Imperial War Museum)

ATS in the Film Studio

One day, as they lined up to be assigned their daily chores, like washing the windows or cleaning the dining room, the officer in charge said, ‘I want six girls who can play table tennis.’  Noel hesitated: ‘I couldn’t play table tennis, and my father, who had been in the First World War, had said to me, “Never volunteer for anything! Keep your head down.” But I thought, “Oo- table tennis – that’ll be nice!”’

She stepped forward, and she and five others were then given travel warrants. Much to their astonishment, they were sent off to a film studio. ‘And for that day, we were ATS in a film called The Gentle Sex.’ The film was made as propaganda, showing a somewhat romanticised but detailed version of life in the ATS. The set for Noel’s scene was designed to look like an ATS recreation room in an ATS centre. ‘Then a chap called Lesley Howard, who was a film star and also a director, came in and said, “Now, you are supposed to be playing table tennis in this scene, so come along to the table.” I’m afraid that not one of us could actually play table tennis! And he was really, really cross. So in the end, they got one of the cameramen to play at one end, and one of the stars at the other. But of course you only saw his hand, and the bat – you never saw him. And we were all in disgrace. So we stood there, and he suddenly pointed at me, and said, “You!” I almost fainted and just managed to say “Ye-es?” Then he said, “You’re too tall! Stoop down or something.” I did what he told me, and made like Quasimodo, and crouched there. And this went on practically all morning – this poor cameraman, sending the ball, and the film star sending it back.’

She and her ATS comrades were told to stand around, admire the game and clap. But they were just a backdrop to the ATS actresses. ‘They didn’t wear the same uniforms as we did. Their uniforms were all carefully tailored, in a different material, and they looked super in them! And there was us in our rough tweed and serge, looking terrible.’

But it wasn’t all bad news. They dined in the canteen with the stars: ‘We sat where we could observe them. Oh, and they all smelt lovely! Their lovely perfume…and our Lifebuoy and Wright’s Coal Tar soap faded into the background.’ And after a further brief stint of filming after lunch, they were actually paid – a welcome surprise: ‘I think we were given something like seven shillings, or eight shillings. I’ve seen the film, of course, many times, and honestly – that day’s work is condensed into about three minutes. You just see my head bobbing up and down! But we did enjoy it, and of course when we got back the other girls were furious.’ The next day, when the officers asked for seven recruits, plenty of the girls who’d missed out stepped forward eagerly, but they were only signed up for domestic tasks rather than the glamour of a film studio!

Images for The Gentle Sex, a propaganda film, showing a factual though somewhat romanticised version of life in the ATS.

The next stage
‘Well, then, as I said, thirty of us formed this 37 Squad and went down to Trowbridge in Wiltshire.’ This is where the Morse training began, going at a very slow pace. It was a long process to accustom fresh ears to distinguish the different Morse signals, some nine months in all. ‘Longer than an air crew, because it had got to be perfect. We were told we could not make mistakes’ If they weren’t sure of a letter, then they had to leave a blank and not put it down. Otherwise: ‘It could cause such a lot of trouble. This was dinned into us, and of course the need for secrecy. We had to sign the Official Secrets Act.’

‘We did our training in Nissen huts in a sea of mud.’ That was a disaster for Noel’s new shoes. ‘They couldn’t fit me with two pairs of shoes, so I had one ordinary pair and one officer’s pair. Oh, the lovely pair! I used to polish them every day. But of course with this mud, they didn’t look so good.’ (On reading this transcript, Noel’s daughter Helen said: ‘She was still talking about those officers’ shoes, years later. I don’t think she ever had a pair of shoes she liked as much.’)

The huts and the sea of mud caused other problems too. Once, Noel was sent off to see a major in his hut for a review, and when she left, she couldn’t work out which direction she’d come from! ‘I stood in the mud and thought: “Which hut did I come out of?” I hadn’t got a clue, because they all looked the same! So I went across to the nearest hut and opened the door, and they were all men, signallers, and they wolf whistled and shouted, and their sergeant said, “Shut up!” I backed out quickly, and went to another hut. These were girls, but not any girls that I knew. So after visiting about four huts, I said to the sergeant in charge, “I’m in 37 Squad, and I don’t know where it is!” She said, “Try that one.” Much to Noel’s horror, when she entered the door pointed out, she found herself back in the major’s hut again. ‘I could have died! And he said, “You’ve just been in here! And your shoes are dirty.” And I, forgetting where I was, said, “Yours would be dirty if you’d just walked through all this mud!” So that wasn’t very successful. I’ve never made up into corporal or anything, and I think it was that interview that did it.’

Noelene Muriel Davies married Raymond Leadbeater in 1943. The wedding dress was apparently a communal dress to be shared amongst the ATS brides! We think it may have had an adjustable hemline, as Noel was very tall but nevertheless, it hangs rather well.

Marriage and the Isle of Man
The training began in the autumn 1942, and the following January Noel was given an extra week off, known as Marriage Leave, for her wedding with Raymond Leadbeater. In her absence, the rest of the squad was told that they were leaving Trowbridge, to finish their training in Douglas on the Isle of Man. ‘It was very hush hush.’ Noel had to follow later, after her honeymoon, catching a boat alone and suffering terrible sea sickness en route.

‘I kept thinking, “Oh please let a submarine come and shoot us down, and we can go to the bottom of the sea!” But the minute my feet were on the ground, I was OK.’ OK enough to go off with her friends who were waiting on the quayside, for a free meal of egg and chips.

Squad 37 was billeted in boarding houses, where apparently Italian internees had been living. ‘I didn’t understand what they’d written on the walls, but the powers-that-be sent soldiers with whitewash to cover it up!’ Every day, the squad members marched up the hill to ‘quite a nice hotel’ for their Morse sessions. The two male drill instructors, one short and squat, the other tall and thin, sent the girls into fits of uncontrollable giggles when they gave out orders for the drill. ‘They used to get so mad, and scream at us, “Stop that!”’ Although the girls liked their instructors, they couldn’t curb those giggles. ‘We just couldn’t – we just couldn’t.’

But it was becoming a serious business. ‘We now became aware that we were going to listen in on German messages.’ They were trained to get used to background noise, and to pick out the individual ‘voice’ of their operator. ‘And this was quite difficult. But in the end, we all passed, and we then really became Signallers.’

The return crossing to England was smooth, and Noel travelled back to her home town of Birmingham by train on April 30th, 1943. She remembers what a delight it was to see the countryside again. ‘There are not many trees in Douglas – it was so lovely to see all the trees, so green and fresh. And I had a week’s leave at home – of course I was married by then.’

Beaumanor Hall, Woodford Eaves, Leicestershire. A secret intercept centre in World War Two

Final training
After this, the ‘girls’ were sent to Loughborough, in Leicestershire. ‘There we did the final training for the job we were going to do. It really was quite traumatic because we had all this noise and interference, and you had to learn – in the way that you recognise a friend’s writing on an envelope – we had to learn our Jo’s method of sending the Morse. They were all different – it was amazing!’

The skill was not just in notating the Morse, but in finding their individual ‘Jo’ (probably a term for a Jerry or a German) on the wavebands. The transmitters often changed frequency. ‘So we had to carefully track them down and be sure that it was ‘our’ chap.’ Noel thought it was likely that each ‘Jo’ they followed was also being followed by another trained operator in the UK, as a double-check.

Beaumanor – a ‘Y’ Intercept Listening Centre
In Leicestershire, the squad was stationed in the village of Woodhouse Eaves, once again in huts in a field. However, the actual work was carried out at Beaumanor house, a grand stately home, to which they were transported by troop carriers. As a recent article about the centre says:

Beaumanor was a highly strategic “Intercept Station”, concerned with monitoring the enemy’s main channels of wireless traffic and communications. The “Y” Intercept Listening Service operated from 1941 to 1945 and its wartime activities were as top secret as those at the Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. By the end of the war, there were more than 1,200 ATS women operators and 300 male civilians working at Beaumanor.
Much of the monitoring took place in specially built huts in the grounds of Beaumanor, many disguised as cricket pavilions and greenhouses to confuse spies and nosey neighbours. Civilians and girls of the Auxiliary Training Service were the main members of staff, each having their own allocated part of a radio waveband to monitor for Morse-coded messages.
Leicester Mercury, 7 Feb 2020

Morse code operators at Beaumanor (Imperial War Museum)

Despite the seriousness of the work, the recruits learned to unwind and enjoy each other’s company.

‘Oh, it was quite fun really! We did have a lot of fun, in spite of the work. I mean, we all knew it was absolutely vital, but at the same time, we were only girls. And we did have our fun.’

The job itself was so strenuous, requiring such extended concentration, that they weren’t asked to do any extra chores. Once they were qualified to join these ‘ops’, they worked in four watches throughout the 24 hours. ‘So the Set Room, as they called it, where all the wireless sets were, was never ever empty.’ Transitions from one shift to another went as seamlessly as possible. The other girl would just get up and say, “He’s here,” and show us where on the dial.’ But even that didn’t hold, since the frequency could move, and the signal would have to be tracked down all over again. ‘We really, really did work so hard. But, as I say, we did have a lot of fun. Sometimes the girls would get a tin of condensed milk, and we’d make toffee over the stove in our hut. We got to know the girls we were with very well, of course, and I was friendly with so many of them. It was a lovely, lovely time – I mean, it wasn’t a lovely time! It was terrible with everything that was going on – but the companionship was so wonderful. I’ve never really found that since. And we all felt that we were really doing a very good job in the work that we did.’

More Morse operators at Beaumanor. Could Noel be the one on the right?
(Source Leicester Mercury)

‘All our messages went to Bletchley, either by motorbike or on the tele-printer. The work we were doing was monitoring the German army. Sometimes it was Gestapo.’ (The operators could tell this by the way the letters were sent.) ‘And oh God, it really upset us, that did.’

The messages were taken down in ordinary English letters in blocks of five, which in themselves were strings of meaningless letters. ‘But it was interesting in as much as we knew that we’d got to get it right. As I say, if we weren’t sure, we didn’t guess, we put a blank. And then these were sent to Bletchley, who then had to decode them. They were so clever, those people, really, really clever.’

A filled-in W/T Red Form, similar to the one Noel and her colleagues would send to Bletchley Park for de-encrypting

By the time Noel was a qualified operator, the team at Bletchley Park had cracked the Enigma Code. She recalls the Enigma machine: ‘It was like a typewriter. But in addition to the Qwerty things, there was above that another keyboard with lights. At the beginning of the war, the Poles got hold of an Enigma Machine and passed it to our people. Otherwise I don’t think we could have done it. Also, one of our ships intercepted a submarine, and they were able to lift an Enigma machine, and a code book from the submarine’

Just Ordinary Girls…
‘We were so keen, and just ordinary girls. And yet, this secret never got out. It was wonderful. I’m really proud of the fact that we did that work, and that we kept the secret. And all through the years, I’ve kept in touch with people that were with me then, and there are still a few of us left. You really felt you had done something towards the war effort. What you had done, mattered.’

Noel Leadbeater, just before her 90th birthday in 2010

Further information:

Links to other accounts by other women who trained as WW2 Morse operators

Linda Battle and Margaret Crook

‘The Gentle Sex’ (1943) can be viewed on Amazon Prime Video. It’s surprisingly interesting and entertaining, following the fictional progress of seven recruits, but showing different sides of genuine training in the ATS. The table tennis clip comes about 21m 30s into the film – and lasts for about 3 seconds!

Other links to aspects of women’s war work:

Trowbridge Training Centre

Women’s place in the War -ATS

Women in the work force WW2

Female conscription WW2

Related Books by Cherry Gilchrist

Anna Zinkeisen and the Zodiac Calendar

Many years ago, I bought a calendar at a jumble sale: the Whitbread Zodiac Calendar for 1957. It was already well out of date by some twenty years, so no use in the conventional sense. But it chimed in with my interest in astrology, and I could see that it was a little work of art in its own right. On every page there was a rich, complex painting representing a zodiac sign, prefaced by a printed tissue leaf detailing the characteristics of the sign in question. I hung it on our wall at home, and enjoyed turning over a page per month, ignoring the discrepancy between dates and days of the week.

But I thought no more about the calendar’s origins until I studied an MA course on ‘Cultural Astronomy and Astrology’ in the early 2000s. I needed a research project for one of the modules, and it suddenly dawned on me that the calendar would be ideal. But where was it? Had it survived several house moves? Eventually, I discovered it safely stowed away in a box of papers in the attic. Apart from the tissue page description for Scorpio, now missing, it was intact.

Using the listings on the frontispiece, I began by checking out the artist, Anna Zinkeisen, followed by the author of the commentary, Peter Fleming, and ‘adviser’ Jacintha Buddicom. Soon I was uncovering the fascinating story of this remarkable artist, and the role she and her sister Doris had played in war-time, along with tantalising titbits for the other two individuals. My findings served the project well, but now, researching for this post, still more has come to light. I can now put all these pieces together.

The Whitbread Calendars
First, some background to the calendar itself, published in 1957. The twelve zodiac images it contains are reproduced from specially commissioned large-scale oil paintings. At that time, Whitbread was a leading brewery (it’s now a large hospitality company), which had a tradition of both philanthropy and patronage of the arts. In 1935 they took rather bold step of commissioning four paintings by well-known artists, including Stanhope Forbes and Alfred Munnings. After exhibiting the works in the Royal Academy and the Burlington Galleries, prints of these appealing scenes – of hop picking, oast houses, brewing and an old Inn – were hung on the walls of Whitbread’s own pubs. This is said to have been the first time that licensed premises showed works of art! Whitbread also made its mark on literature, offering prizes now known as the Costa Book Awards (Costa being one of their subsidiaries).

Two of the paintings commissioned by Whitbread’s Brewery: On the left is Woolpack Inn by Stanhope Forbes’, and on the right what is believed to be ‘Hop Picking’ by T. C. Dugdale,

The first Whitbread Calendar followed in 1938, with four paintings of scenes from the company’s history by the Belgian artist, Mark Severin. (A quick look-up for this artist shows that his speciality was producing erotic book plates! I will leave readers to do their own research.) Gradually more calendars followed, especially after the war when the brewery published a series of calendars on different themes, such as, ‘Little Ships’, ‘The Brewer’s Art’, and the ‘Calendar of Flowers’, all with original artwork by different living artists. These calendars are now collectors’ items, and the Zodiac calendar rarely comes up for sale.

The Zinkeisen family
But who was Anna Zinkeisen? I quickly discovered that there were two sisters from the Zinkeisen family working as artists – sisters Anna and Doris. They were brought up in Scotland, but the family on her father’s side was a mix of Eastern European, Prussian and Russian ancestry. Anna, the younger of the two, was born in 1901, and lived until 1976. She and Doris attended Harrow Art School, and both then won scholarships to the Royal Academy. In those days, it was much harder for women to get into the Academy , and when they began to exhibit, some newspapers railed at them for being female upstarts. However, this blew over, since Anna had significant all-round talent as an artist, not just as a painter of note, but as a ceramicist, sculptor, and graphic artist. Commissions began to come in, and as well as the Whitbread Calendar she painted murals for the Queen Mary cruise liner, and posters for the London Underground. Her illustrations for children’s books can be seen in works by Noel Streitfeild and Enid Blyton. She was also a very fine portrait painter, completing over one hundred portraits in her lifetime. Probably her most illustrious commission was to paint the the Duke of Edinburgh in his flying kit, in 1955, surrounded by much royal protocol. ‘I think it is a simply splendid picture of the Duke,’ wrote the Air Chief Marshall in a letter of thanks. Anna’s self-portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Anna Zinkeisen: Self Portrait – National Portrait Gallery, London

War artists
Perhaps her most challenging brief came during the war. In the mornings she worked as a volunteer nurse on the wards of St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington , and in the afternoons as their official war artist, drawing and painting what she saw in the operating theatre. Her sister Doris, equally accomplished as a portrait artist and best-known as a theatre designer, had an even more gruelling wartime commission: she was sent to the concentration camp of Belsen just after it was liberated, to record the scenes there. Apparently, Doris never completely recovered from the experience, and had nightmares for the rest of her life.

Archibald McIndoe, a Royal Air Force plastic surgeon, operating at the Queen Victoria Centre, East Grinstead. One of the scenes painted by Anna Zinkeisen during World War Two

A female line of artists
The Zinkeisens are a stunningly talented family, mostly it seems through the female line. I spoke to Julia Heseltine, Anna’s daughter, who is also a professional illustrator, and she told me that her female cousins, Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone, the daughters of Doris Zinkeisen, are illustrators too. Julia also helped to shed light on some of the other details about the Whitbread Calendar.

Astrology
Was Anna herself an astrologer? I asked her. Not exactly, she answered; Anna was interested in astrology, but wasn’t knowledgeable about it. Jacintha (also known as Jacinthe) Buddicom was the specialist, brought in to verify the astrological information, and in the process, she also drew up Anna’s horoscope for her, startling Anna with its accuracy.

The calendar is based on a Zodiac sign for each month, also known as ‘birth signs’ or ‘sun signs’. Sun signs do not exactly overlap with each calendar month, so there’s compromise in lining them up this way. However, the write-up for each sign does make it clear that, for instance, Aries runs between 21st March and 21st April (though even this can vary slightly from year to year).

Capricorn leading in the Whitbread Calendar for January 1957; Aries is the usual start of the zodiac at the Spring Equinox

‘Sun sign’ astrology
I’m going to briefly explain the difference between ‘sun sign’ astrology, as on the Whitbread Calendar, and the tradition of the astrological horoscope. This means compressing 2500 years of astrological history into a small nutshell, so I hope I’ll be able to give some clarity. If you’re already familiar with this, or want to focus on the calendar itself, just skip to the next section.

Sun sign astrology became popular in magazines and newspapers during the second half of the 20th century, precisely because you can identify your sign out of the twelve, simply by your date of birth, without any complicated calculations. Editors soon realised that an astrology column was good for readership, and began to hire astrologers to produce a popularised version of this old and complex art.

The twelve sun signs may indeed have validity in the way that they are characterised, but in a full horoscope, the position of the sun is just one factor in what constitutes a unique ‘map’ for each individual. The complete astrological chart depicts the positions of the whole solar system – sun, moon and planets – according to the signs they were in and the precise relationship between them for that exact moment and place of birth. This is precise astronomically too, the difference being that astrology interprets this chart through an ancient system of symbolic correspondences. Each person is thus considered as a kind of imprint of the universe for that unique combination of time and place, and their nature can be deciphered through the language of astrology. And using this system, that imprint can be ‘read’ in considerable depth in terms of character and circumstances. Atrology was only divorced from astronomy in the 18th century, and to anyone who finds its premise strange, I’d suggest asking a reputable astrologer to draw up your chart, and then decide by the results. It is not a religion, and no one has to ‘believe’ in it, but it is a remarkable tool for understanding ourselves and our place in the universe.

Jacintha Buddicom
Jacintha was ‘a tiny person’ living in a ‘tiny house’ in Pond Place, London, according to Julia, Anna’s daughter. Other sources reveal that she was one of a pair of spinster sisters, a childhood friend of George Orwell, and an astrological assistant to Margaret Hone in adult life. Hone wrote practical and much-acclaimed manuals of astrology, which helped to pave the way for those who wanted to learn astrology during its 20th century revival.

Jacintha as a young girl, a childhood friend and sweetheart of George Orwell

And in a different era, with Lollipop the cat and her guitar.
Photo from inside back cover of her ‘Cat Poems’.

On a tangent – because this calendar has several fascinating side tracks! – Jacintha also wrote rather touching poems about cats. ‘Angel Cat’ is still a popular choice for people to post as a tribute after the loss of their own beloved feline. We know a little more about Jacintha’s own cats too: writer Kathryn Hughes had personal encounters as a child with the Buddicom sisters. Each summer, she and her family camped in close proximity to them. She recalls how the sisters ‘shared their temporary home with two cats which were able to come and go as they pleased thanks to a special step-ladder with tiny paw-sized rungs propped against the open window of their caravan’s cab.’

Peter Fleming, author and adventurer, seen on the right in Brazil, 1932

Peter Fleming
What about Peter Fleming? He had the distinction of being the brother of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. He too was a writer, best known for News from Tartary, a study of Central Asia. Less well-known is that both he and Ian were interested in the occult – Ian was drawn to astrology, and Peter to spirit communication. Ian and Peter worked together on special missions during the war. There may be more to this than meets the eye, since it’s known that Ian was tasked with trying to lure Rudolf Hess to Britain on the basis of astrological predictions.

It’s not clear exactly what his connection was to Anna Zinkeisen, but Julia Heseltine thinks the two may have met at a friend’s house. Or through the famous Whitbread family, to which both the Flemings and the Zinkeisens had a connection. Indeed, Doris Zinkeisen painted a traditional-style family portrait of the Whitbreads, taking tea at their home in Southill Park, Biggleswade. For Peter, writing and editing the Whitbread Calendar may have been a way of earning much-needed cash, as it’s known that he also worked on a Midland Bank calendar during the same period for the sake of his finances. It sounds as though he was hired to jazz up Jacintha’s solid, cautious textbook astrology into something more flamboyant for the Whitbread Calendar. As a ‘British adventurer, journalist, soldier and travel writer’, he could do the job.

Whitbread Astrology
How valid is the astrology in the Zodiac Calendar, in terms of accepted astrological principles? Well, I would say – it’s not bad! Although it does contain some rather odd and over-precise attributions, such as: ‘One of your habits, unfortunately, is that of catching colds’ for Pisces, or ‘You have a musical but sometimes rather listless voice’ for Libra. Though I cannot deny, for my sign Aquarius: ‘Your handwriting has an untamed, individual air and is not distinguished for its legibility or grace.’ There’s also a surprising reliance on classical mythology to delineate the signs, which doesn’t chime in with the usual astrological tradition. ‘Cancer is the crab. It owes its position in the Zodiac to Juno, who persuaded Jupiter to put it there.’ Really? But in general, the temperaments of each sign are well captured. Here are some of the salient points from the calendar which do accord with traditional astrological teaching. They’re listed in the order found on the calendar, which is the prescribed Roman view of the year, starting in January, rather than the Zodiac sequence which begins with Aries at the spring equinox.

The description for Taurus, with the painting for the sign showing through the tissue leaf which covers it

The Twelve Signs
Capricorn is serious-minded, organising and reliable, with occasional fits of recklessness
Aquarius is detached, sensitive, secretive and humanitarian
Pisces is imaginative, patient, intuitive and can be sentimental.
Aries is ardent, shows leadership, ambitious but also explosive
Taurus is constructive, stubborn, and practical, with an artistic flair
Gemini is quick-witted, wide-ranging, alert and restless
Cancer is shy, self-contained and protective, and something of a gambler
Leo is bold, frank, cheerful and loyal, but unsubtle
Virgo is an intellectual, capable, good at detail, but a worrier
Libra is fair-minded, considerate and affectionate, but tends to be indecisive.
Scorpio is secretive…. which is why my sheet for Scorpio must have gone missing!
Sagittarius is liberal-minded, cheerful and tolerant, if boastful.

Lovely Libra! Artistic and kind – but making decisions is not their thing…

Sources

Hart-Davis, Duff, Peter Fleming: A Biography (London: Jonathan Cape 1974)

McCormick, Donald, The Life of Ian Fleming (London: Peter Owen, 1993)

Julia Heseltine (personal communication)

Nicholas Barritt Redman, Company Archivist The Story of Whitbread plc – 1742-1990 – Uplodaded as PDFby the University of Glasgow

Other sources

At the time of my initial research in the early 2000s, there was surprisingly little information about these talented artists. In 2008, however, Highly Desirable: The Zinkeisen sisters and their Legacy by Philip Kelleway was published, which helped to establish their reputation as painters of note. There was also an earlier tribute to Anna Zinkeisen published after her death: Anna: Memorial Tribute to Anna Zinkeisen, by Josephine Walpole (1978)

You can also read about Anna Zinkeisen’s war work and association with the Order of St John (better known as St John’s Ambulance Service), for whom she painted recruitment posters and portraits.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

Summer is a-coming today! May Day in Padstow

Unite and unite and let us all unite,
For summer is a-coming today,
And whither we are going we will all unite,
In the merry morning of May

It’s nearly May 1st, and this year we were planning to welcome the coming of summer in Padstow. This joyous celebration of May Day is renowned for the prancing of hobby horses, attended by costumed followers and garlanded musicians, processing through the streets of Padstow the whole day long. In normal times, the town is decked with greenery and flowers, and thronged with visitors, all keen to embrace the spectacle. We were two in the crowd a few years ago, but sadly we can’t return this year as the festival has been cancelled due to the coronavirus. So let me re-create something of the wonderful occasion we experienced, and perhaps we’ll all be inspired to find our own personal ways of welcoming the May this year. You’ll find a link to the famous song at the end of the post.

The Old ‘Oss

There are different ways of honouring May Day in the British Isles, including crowning a May Queen, but the Padstow May Day ceremony is focused on the hobby horses. There are two chief ‘osses in the town – the ‘original’ Old Oss, whose team wear red ribbons, and The Blue Ribbon ‘Oss, who was created, so it is said, by a Temperance organisation concerned about the free-drinking of the other team. Each ‘Obby ‘Oss consists of a round frame which is covered in a kind of black oilskin cloth that hangs down around the perimeter. A freakish horse’s head sticks through the top, with snapping jaws. The man inside the horse swings and dips and prances along the street, encouraged by another character, the ‘Teaser’. Their aim is to capture a young woman under the flapping black skirt of the horse, and thereby impregnate her – symbolically! – with the spirit of summer fertility. Drums beat with a rhythm sometimes steady, sometimes frenzied.

Girls and young women were the traditional prey of the hobby horse – but in practice only those old enough to join in willingly are trapped under the ‘oss’s tent!

Everyone joins in the May Day songs which sometimes pause for the slow, solemn interlude:

O! where is St. George,
O!, where is he O,
He is out in his long boat on the salt sea O.
Up flies the kite and down tails the lark O.
Aunt Ursula Birdhood she had an old ewe
And she died in her own Park O.

Who is Ursula Birdwood? No one knows, although there are some intriguing suggestions, such as: ‘Aunt Ursula Birdhood was a disguised reference to St. Mary – a safe way for the Cornish recusant Catholics to “hail Mary” without getting caught’, as was posted on the genealogy forum Roots Web.

On and on go the processions throughout the day – up to the higher part of the town and a quick parade through the Metropole Hotel where no doubt a welcome pint speeds the troupe on its way – over to Prideaux Place, the stately house of Padstow – and round back down to the harbour side. The red team and the blue team weave their time-honoured routes.

The ‘Oss approaches Prideaux Place

The drum beat becomes a kind of constant throbbing heartbeat of the town. It will carry on resonating through you for days afterwards. As one who dislikes loud music or rock music, I found this particular beat magnetic and mesmerising. It seemed to harness and maintain the energy. Certainly this is a real community event, despite the huge numbers of visitors – some of those visitors are exiles of Padstow, who may return from the far corners of the world to spend this one special day in their home town. And although yes, the drink flows, drunkenness is not encouraged. a young woman berating her boyfriend on the street for getting drunk. ‘This is May Day!’ she said. ‘You just don’t do that.’ There is still an element of the sacred in this ritual.

Are we red team or blue team? Old Oss or Blue Ribbon Oss? One of each seems safest!

And we experienced something of this hushed reverence the evening before. A friend of ours, a veteran of Padstow May day for decades, called us over just before closing time at the Golden Lion. ‘Just wait here,’ he said, ‘until everyone’s come out. Then we’ll go night singing.’ This lovely custom consisted of about a dozen of us heading through quiet streets to sing the May Song – albeit gently – under the windows of certain houses. People came to bedroom windows to listen, and sometimes trays of drinks and ginger fairings were brought out to refresh us. The atmosphere was magical.

Gathering for the night singing in the town on May Eve

One day I hope we’ll return to Padstow for May Day. This year though, we’ve had to give up our room at a guest house, reserved many months in advance, and live on our memories.

The Old ‘Oss team of musicians approaching the Metropole Hotel, perhaps in the hope of a quick pint
Listen to the May Day song

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist:

Russian Magic: Living Folk Traditions of an Enchanted Landscape is a study of seasonal customs, including the Russian equivalents of British May Day – Maslnitsa and the Feast of Ivan Kupala.

The Circle of Nine includes a description and interpretation of Padstow May Day in the chapter ‘The Queen of the Earth’.

All photos copyright by Cherry Gilchrist

Alchemy and Cooking

Having acquired White Lead, do the work of women, that is: COOK

An emblem from Michael Maier’s book ‘Atlanta Fugiens‘, 1617. The reference to cooking being ‘women’s work’ should probably be taken symbolically – however, women did play a strong role historically in alchemy.

‘Do you cook supper sometimes? If so, you’re an alchemist.’ This usually produces a response of surprised delight, when I open a talk on alchemy this way. Many people are drawn to old alchemical imagery, as the psychologist Carl Jung pointed out, but the process and practice of alchemy through history can seem very obscure and mysterious. The aim of my first book on alchemy, Alchemy: The Great Work was to clarify its history and significance, and it has been in print now in one form or another for over thirty years.  My second book Everyday Alchemy took a different approach and asked the question:  how we can ‘make gold’ in our own lives? For this, I took a sequence of alchemical emblems from Michael Maier’s book Atlanta Fugiens, published in 1617, and suggested ways in which we can use alchemical knowledge to enrich and transform our personal experience. Cookery turned out to be a very useful way of doing this!

Like alchemy, it is both art and science – it requires attention and ingenuity, as well as knowledge and skill. Cookery is magical, creative and indeed unpredictable process as it endeavours to turn raw ingredients into an appealing and attractive finished dish. Who, after all, hasn’t lamented a culinary failure, or rejoiced over a stylish and delicious success?

So what I’ll do here is to weave some pictures into edited extracts from the book, along with an easy and delicious recipe to finish. In the current days of lockdown in Britain, many more people have turned to baking. It’s comforting and creative, and although there’s a shortage of some ingredients, you may often find that you have what you need in the cupboard if you pick a recipe that’s not too complex.

Cherry in the kitchen – the apron gives a fair idea of some favourite dishes!
An alchemist’s ‘kitchen’ at Prague Castle

From Chapter Three of Everyday Alchemy

Cooking – Is it really Alchemy?

Strangely enough, cooking is a very good way to appreciate how alchemy works. It is one of the best examples of transformation that we have in everyday life. But it is not just a mechanical process – remember that no alchemy is complete without conscious participation. We need to give it attention, even when the work is repetitive. This way, the transformation can proceed at every level, not just in the saucepan.

But what is transformation itself? The word comes up again and again in alchemy, so I need to take a deep breath and try to penetrate its meaning. Here is an example; it is simple, and comes from the humble kitchen, but it is true alchemy.

A few weeks ago, I decided to make some bramble jelly. It was late summer, and the days were sunny and mellow. There is a patch of wild blackberries just over my garden wall, and I picked and ate them practically every day, often just stewing them up with apples. Then I wanted to do something different, to keep the flavour of summer berries in my store cupboard through the cold months of winter ahead. I followed the recipe by cooking the blackberries in water, then straining them overnight through a canvas jelly bag. The slow drip resulted in a litre or so of a clear, dark liquid, to which I added sugar and then boiled it up. The temperature of the heat is crucial; first it must be gentle, to dissolve the sugar without burning it, and then brought up so that it is high enough to reach the ‘setting point’, the temperature at which the jelly will set. Some jellies and jams will be ready in a few minutes, while others take up to three quarters of an hour. Recipes are only a guide: the cook must be very watchful, because it’s impossible to predict exactly how long it will take.

Quince jelly, made with fruit from our garden. The jelly is being left to set before sealing the jars

You must also pour it into warmed glass jars before it sets completely. If the jars are not warmed, they may crack. If the jelly is taken off the stove too soon, you’ll have a runny mixture, and if you leave it too long it will become too rubbery and the flavour will alter. Fortunately, in my case the result was a translucent jelly, of a beautiful dark ruby colour.  The pots stand in my cupboard; the berry has been transformed into a new substance, but the jelly nevertheless retains the beauty of the blackberry, and the delicacy and tang of its taste. And this jelly can be kept for months, unlike the berry that rots so quickly on the bush.

Bramble jelly became my triumph of domestic alchemy, the ‘gold’ achieved from three simple ingredients – berries, water and sugar – and transformed through the agency of fire. The jelly contains the essence of blackberry. The berry has lost its original form, but through this sacrifice, its essence is released and is embodied in a new and purer form. In alchemy, the death of the ‘body’ must occur, which then liberates the soul and spirit; these in turn find a home in a new ‘glorified’ body.

It is extraordinary to think that the humble blackberry and jelly making can be seen in such mystical terms, but true transformation has taken place. Transformation is a change of state, a process by which the whole person or substance is changed.

A modern version of ‘cooking the trout’ mentioned in the emblem above – although such instructions were usually deeply symbolic, rather than literal. In fact I think this was a sea bream we were about to eat here.

True cookery is a creative process. Cooking transforms the ingredients, whereas food fixing, or assembling, on the other hand, simply combines them into – let’s say – a tuna mayo sandwich, or a prettily presented raw salad. With cooking, there is always an element of risk that something will go wrong – the mayonnaise will curdle or the cake sag. Science may say that results can be replicated if you start with exactly the same ingredients and work in exactly the same conditions. But when is this ever possible? Who can fully predict the final taste of wine that is being made? The variables, such as the weather conditions, the state of the soil and so on, can be assessed to some extent. But perhaps there is more to it than that. After all, no one grape is ever exactly the same as any other grape. No two people are identical. The very fact of existing at a different meeting point of time and space creates differences between people, plants, or raw materials. And this is not perceived as a simple causal effect, but is tied into the alchemical view that the cosmos itself has a conscious life.

 ‘This whole Cosmos…is full of Life. And there is nothing therein, through all Eternity, neither of the whole nor of its parts, which doth not live. For not a single thing that is, or has been, or shall be in this Cosmos, is dead.’

The Divine Pymander of Hermes Trismegistus

( From Chapter Three of Everyday Alchemy)

A home-made loaf – bread is surely one of the greatest examples of how raw ingredients are transformed through cookery.

So, get to it, and enjoy your cooking forays! Here is an easy and super-delicious recipe from the Queen of Baking, Mary Berry, along with some notes I’ve made when cooking this. It’s comforting and simple. Remember – cooking is flexible and even though we might need to start off with exact recipes, there’s often scope for improvising. Bara Brith is a kind of Welsh tea-bread. But there are many versions of this recipe across the British Isles– in Ireland it’s known as Barm Brack. Bringing this even closer to alchemy, you might like to try an Irish Halloween Barm Brack, ‘complete with ring for love and a coin for wealth’. https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/food-and-drink/recipes/the-perfect-traditional-irish-barmbrack-1.2842588.The essential part of the process for all these recipes seems to be soaking the dried fruit in tea for a few hours beforehand, or overnight. But the Irish twist in this recipe is to add a drop or two of whisky!

Here’s our Bara Brith, made according to the recipe below. I’m afraid it’s being eaten up rather quickly!

From ‘Mary Berry’s Baking Bible’

With notes by Cherry Gilchrist

Bara Brith (Speckled bread)

175g (6 oz) currants

175 g (6 oz) sultanas (Fruit could be varied – cranberries and raisins should work too)

225 g (8 oz) light muscovado sugar (Dark should be fine)

300 ml ( ½ pt) strong hot tea

275 g (10oz) self-raising flour (or add baking powder – soda in the USA – if you only have plain flour. I calculate this at scant 2 tsp)

1 large egg, beaten

(Option to add a little spice – eg 1 tsp mixed spice, or 2 tsp cinnamon and/or a little powdered ginger)

  1. Measure the fruit and sugar into a bowl, pour over the hot tea, cover and leave overnight. (If you make a big enough pot, this will give you an excuse to sit down with a strong cuppa afterwards.)
  2. Pre-heat the oven to 150 degrees C/ Fan 130C. Lightly grease a 900 g (2lb) loaf tin then line the base with baking parchment
  3. Stir the flour and egg into the fruit mixture, mix thoroughly, then turn into the prepared tin and level the surface.
  4. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 1 ½ hours or until well risen and firm to the touch. (Don’t skimp on the timing. It will be moist whatever you do, just about, but if it comes out too early it may be ‘sad’ and a little heavy in the middle). A skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean. Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out, peel off the parchment and finish cooling on a wire rack. Serve sliced and buttered.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist:

Alchemy: The Great Work (also published as The Elements of Alchemy and Explore Alchemy) This is a concise and accessible history of alchemy, and explains how alchemists attempted the process of transforming base matter into gold.

Everyday Alchemy (also published as The Alchemist’s Path) is a personal guide to using the process of alchemical change in everyday life. It is currently out of print, but used copies are normally available from internet sellers like Amazon or Abe Books. We hope to organise a reprint and/or e-book edition in due course.

The Tidal Town of Topsham

The first of a series of walks through my home town of Topsham

Topsham and the River Exe

I live in the tidal town of Topsham in Devon. It’s an ancient trading port on the River Exe, lying in a strategic position between the open sea at Exmouth some five miles away, and the city of Exeter further inland. When the tide is in, the widest stretch of water you can see downriver is about one mile across. At low tide, it’s little more than a channel winding through vast acres of mud.

During the lockdown, I’ve been taking a daily walk around a two mile circuit, past the quayside, up the Strand where the merchants once lived, along the narrow riverside path known as the Goat Walk, around by the bird reserve at Bowling Green Marsh, then back down historic Monmouth St and home via the town centre. At this quiet hour of the very early morning, in the springtime, it has been a truly magical experience.

Let me confess something. I love passing on what I know, and what I have discovered. I also love local history and have read and studied enough to become one of the Town Guides, one of a team offering public walks throughout the summer months. Sadly, we can’t do so this year because of the pandemic. But perhaps on this blog I can show you a few walks around the town, and the stories that go with them. 

This is the first therefore in a series of posts dedicated to Topsham, the town and its history. The photos will mostly come from my morning walks, but I’ll pick a few that I’ve taken previously, to fill in any gaps.

‘Topsham-on-the-Mud’ is the town’s nickname, although the mud can be very beautiful too, in its own way. Mud football matches were once held here, and you can even see a Blue Peter video about it.

The Topsham ferry plies a summer and weekend trade to take walkers and cyclists across the river, to follow the path up to the pub Turf locks. In living memory, though, it was still a key means of transport for nurses to get over to Exminster for their shifts at the mental hospital there, and for Exminster residents to come to work in Topsham.

The stretch of river where the ferry crosses, and the Lock Keeper’s cottage on the other side. A canal runs parallel to the river here.
Presentation of a commemorative carving to Mike, the retiring Ferryman. It used to be a paid post but is now run by volunteers.

Many ships were built in Topsham over the centuries, and there’s still one boatyard left today, run by the appositely named Trout family. The old hull of the ship is said to be a relic, abandoned after the boat builder died tragically.

The abandoned boat

The Lighter Inn was once the Customs House on the quayside. Nowadays it’s a popular pub with plenty of outside tables, a good vantage point for watching morris-dancing displays, music bands and other outdoor festivals over the summer months. To one side is an aged Thames barge, of the kind that used to sail upriver to Topsham. It’s now being lovingly – and very slowly! – restored.

Sailors came to and from Topsham from countries across the globe, especially Holland, Spain, and Portugal – at some periods, you could apparently hear more Portuguese than English spoken in the town! From the end of the 17th century, Topsham fishermen sailed to Newfoundland, where they had a summer colony. They fished for cod, salted it, and often came home via the Mediterranean to sell it en route. Rewards could be high, but the risks were great.

Morris outside The Lighter, and a close-up of The King’s Beam, a rare example of this old Customs weighing device.

The Strand is worthy of a future post, when we walk this way again, but for now I’ll just point out the beautiful merchants’ houses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. The Dutch-style gables were inspired by their frequent trips to Holland, and plenty of narrow Dutch-made bricks were used in the buildings. The town Museum is housed here in a merchant’s house.

When you reach the end of the Strand, you can be faced with either an eternity of water or a huge expanse of mud – the town is nicknamed ‘Topsham-on-the-Mud’. Where does water end and sky begin? Alternatively, how could a boat possibly still navigate the channel at low tide? The answer is: only until a certain point in the ebbing tide. The other town ferry which runs up to Turf Locks has a very strict timetable, and if you miss your boat back from the pub there, you could be in for several more rounds before it returns. Turf pub was where sea captains used to wait up until the tide was right for them to put to sea, and it’s said that upstairs, you can still see the graffiti which they idly scratched into the 18th century windowpanes.

High tide on the river. Where does the water end and the sky begin? The sea is a distant line on the horizon, with Exmouth on the left. The river is a mile across at its widest point.

For a while, we rented a flat along the Strand, and amused ourselves on summer evenings listening to the screech of brakes as visiting drivers suddenly realised that they were approaching a dead end, leading straight into the river!

Some road users only see how the road ends rather late…

Pedestrians have it a little easier, since there is a narrow path, built up the side of the river in 1911. It’s a useful route, since you can get around to the other side of the town this way. Previously, there was only a path along the shore at low tide. However, rather than being grateful for the new walkway, the locals complained it was ‘only wide enough for a bleddy goat’. Hence it’s known today as The Goat Walk. It’s still the scene of contested space as joggers try to overtake pedestrians, and cyclists defy the ban to ride down there. But it’s now a much-loved feature of the town.

The Goat Walk, famous for its narrowness. If you’re on the path itself, care is needed as it’s a perilous drop into mud or water below. At low tide, as here, you can walk along the shore.

Bowling Green Marsh is now a Nature Reserve, with a renowned and popular bird hide. In winter you can see large flocks of avocets (very elegant, like small black and white flamingos), hundreds of curlews and godwits, Brent geese, redshanks, wigeon and teal. Rarities appear, such as a spoonbill or a long-billed dowitcher. Little snipe like furry humbugs hide in the long grass; herons stalk the water, rows of egrets stand and contemplate life, and sometimes a marsh harrier or even a migrating osprey visits. This wonderful reserve has been created out of old marshland which lies along the banks of the River Clyst, which flows to meet the Exe at the top of the Goat Walk. Previously, it plainly had something to do with bowling, and definitely once contained the local football pitch. Less amusingly, it was also a hunting ground for those shooting ducks and wildfowl.  

Some of the pools at the Bowling Green Nature reserve, awakening in the early morning light.

The lane is bursting with song from the smaller birds – wrens, a chiff chaff, robins, doves and pigeons, a magpie, tits of all kinds, with percussion supplied by a woodpecker industriously pecking away at an old oak tree every morning. It’s time to go home for breakfast.

If you’re interested in tidal rivers, you might also like to read Ebb & Flow: Notes on the Tidal Thames

Local sites of interest include Topsham Museum ; Love Topsham ; and the Topsham Society

Suzani from the Silk Road

On this website, you’ll see decorative images acting as headers for the pages, which change as you revisit the site. What are they? Take a closer look, and you’ll see that they are embroideries. They are taken from a group of textiles known as ‘suzani’, mostly made in and around Uzbekistan.

Suzani were originally embroidered by nomads from countries in and around Uzbekistan, and used as bed covers, wrapping cloths and even as prayer mats. All their textiles and soft furnishings had to be easy to roll up and transport, which didn’t deter the nomads of Central Asia from making them as beautiful as possible, whether as weavings, felt applique or embroideries, as we have here. The word ‘suzan’ comes from the Persian, meaning ‘needle’.

In more settled modern communities, suzani are made now as hangings or bedspreads, as part of the bride’s dowry. Museums and palaces in Uzbekistan have beautiful examples of these, and you can buy a newly-made one if you’re lucky, as I was, though maybe not as exquisite as the antique pieces. (My cat Cassie believes it was brought back especially for her.)

Cassie on the coverlet – Homage to Mr Pussy and Schrodinger of Spitalfields Life.
See links below.

Most suzani are made out of cotton, which is a major crop in Uzbekistan. The motifs are mostly stars, fruits, leaves and flowers, and each has its own symbolic meaning, such as fertility, happiness and wealth. Even a snake can bring good fortune to the newly-married couple as a protector, the guide at Tashkent Museum told us. Solar images may be symbols passed down from the ancient Zoroastrian religion, where the sun stands for truth and wisdom.

On my journeys down the Silk Road, I caught wonderful glimpses of crafts like these, which whetted my curiosity to learn more about them and their history. And also the temptation to buy – my luggage was bulging after each trip! I plan to write about a few more of these Silk Road treasures as the blog develops.

And in the meantime, you can read an excellent short article on Suzani on the art dealers Christie’s website here .

If you enjoy seeing cats on coverlets, I recommend reading about the Gentle Author’s cats at the renowned Spitalfields Life website – see blogs about the inimitable Mr Pussy and his successor Shrodinger.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist:

Stories from the Silk Road

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth An Ancestor’s Scandal

The historic village of Hemyock, in the Blackdown Hills

I was idly browsing the online newspaper archive one evening, looking for entries about my respectable great-grandmother, Mary Masey Walker and her staunchly Baptist family from the Devon village of Hemyock. They may have been pious, but they were also entrepreneurs. Mary’s mother Catherine had begun making butter, and soon expanded the business into a sizeable and successful dairy. Becoming ultra-respectable and prosperous, they then moved over the Blackdown Hills into the nearby town of Wellington, becoming pillars of the community there. The last thing I was expecting was scandal – until I hit upon a startling court case from 1869 headed:

Walker versus Salter – An action for seduction

The defendant, one Edwin Masey Walker (and as it happens, my 2 x great uncle), was accused of deflowering a young girl called Jane Salter, getting her pregnant, trying to persuade her to have an abortion, and eventually abandoning her. Jane had kept the baby, and now her own mother was suing Edwin for ‘loss of her daughter’s services’.

I’m probably the first member of the family since that generation to come across these newspaper reports – I’m sure that it was swiftly hushed up after the event. There are several accounts of the two trials, delivering the sordid details with gleeful relish. Edwin was the son of Catherine nee Masey and Thomas Walker. Both the Maseys and the Walkers had been in Hemyock since at least as early as the 17th century, two of prominent and close-knit tribes of the village.

Hemyock lying at the foot of the Blackdown Hills; dairy herds do well in this area

At the time of the scandal, the dairy was doing well. My formidable 2 x gt grandmother Catherine had twelve children, and she and her husband roped many of them in to help out both with the dairy and their local shop. Catherine’s reputation lived on after her; according to family memory, certain visiting reps would always try to make an appointment to visit on a day when she was not in charge! The dairy certainly took off as a business, and Catherine and Thomas decided to expand it by moving to Wellington. Here they also acquired a comfortable new brick-built villa, something now more suited to dairy owners, the Walkers of Wellington.  And Edwin was told to change his ideas – his father had found a new candidate for him to marry, someone more suitable than a country cousin such as Jane.

The formidable Catherine Walker, nee Masey, who sales representatives feared to deal with.

But Jane Salter, back in the village of Hemyock, now wrote to him Edwin to tell him she was pregnant. The statements read out in court declared that not only had he reneged on his promise to marry her, but he had instead committed the unpardonable sin of offering her money to go to Sidmouth for an abortion. (From the tone of the report, it seems that in those days, Sidmouth had a reputation as the Devonian den of vice.) And at that point, Mrs Salter decided to bring the whole matter to court.

‘Up the Steps’ – probably a former shop run by the Walker family in Hemyock

Now the counter accusations flared up. Edwin had primed his defence, Mr Prideaux QC, to interrogate Mrs Salter about the nature of the house she kept in Hemyock. Was it not, in fact, a bawdy house? Was young Jane no better than she ought to be, coming from such a home? He had a witness: John Pursey, confirmed that he and another friend had had sexual relations many times with both Jane and her sister Sarah – and while the girls slept in one bed. Was Jane then really an innocent deflowered maiden? According to Pursey, she shared her favours generously around the neighbourhood.

The judge hovered, almost ready to throw the case out, but Mr Collins, Mrs Salter’s attorney, leapt heatedly to Jane’s defence, and protested that the ‘abominable insinuations’ would be refuted by the ‘minister of the parish’ who would testify to the family’s ‘irreproachable characters’. If this was the Baptist minister, then the temperature was getting hot indeed, with Edwin’s family also prominent in Baptist circles. The Baptist Church abhorred any sex outside marriage at the time; people were often excluded from the church for less.

And so the jury found in favour of Mrs Salter, with Edwin ordered to pay £50 damages, just over £2000 by today’s values.

Wellington High Street, a grander place to live than Hemyock for the ambitious Walker family
The solid villa in Waterloo Road which Thomas and Catherine Walker moved to

But that was not the end of the matter. John Pursey was brought back to court on Wed August 3rd, 1870, accused of perjury. The ‘friend’, Robert Wright, who said he had slept with both girls, hastened to back off from his testimony. John now maintained that he had plainly fallen into a kind of trance, and that he had found himself by the girls’ bedside one day with no idea of how he had got there. Of one thing he was no sure – there had been no intimacy. Edith Salter likewise denied that her house ‘was frequented by young men who played cards and drank to a late hour.’ The colourful accusations were hurled backwards and forwards in court that day, which finally resulted in a bemused verdict by the jury that ‘there was a doubt in the case’, and so Pursey was released.

After I’d investigated this scandal, I was contacted by two new descendants. One was descended from Edwin’s legitimate heirs – his father Thomas Walker had indeed persuaded Edwin to marry into a better family – and the other was the grandson of the illegitimate daughter with Jane Salter. Jane had defiantly named her daughter Emily Masey Walker Salter, and sadly, my new contact confirmed that Emily had carried a sense of betrayal and resentment all her life. Both of these men, who didn’t know each other, were curious to know anything I could tell them about their ancestor Edwin. I pondered this – one of the ethical dilemmas of family history can be whether to tell the whole truth. My solution was this: to both of them I replied that I could certainly do so, but I should warn them that nobody came out of this very well. Did they still want me to go ahead? Oh yes, they each replied enthusiastically – please dish the dirt!

A rather faded but telling photo of Edwin Masey Walker – note the rather flashy tie pin. The census reveals that he was born with a club foot.

There was some rough justice, as Edwin didn’t make a success of his life. He became a failed and bankrupt businessman several times over, and his socially desirable marriage ended in separation. Meanwhile, others in the family prospered. Two other sons, Clifford and Eustace Walker took over the dairy business and became pillars of society. Eustace served as a Justice of the Peace and Portreeve of Wellington, while Clifford built a classy mansion known as the Gables, where the cream of the town gathered for tennis parties on the lawn. They died well-established and wealthy, and the dairy was not forgotten even after various take-overs and its final demolition in the 1980s. ‘Walkers Gate’, a small development of executive-style houses, is built on the site. I think formidable Catherine would have approved.

The housing development standing on the site of the old Walker’s Dairy, run very successfully by Eustace and Clifford Walker, Edwin’s brothers
The dairy as it used to be in its closing days of business. It was the principal employer in the town. The Walker family had sold it on some decades beforehand.
A more flattering newspaper story than the reports of Edwin’s court case

As for my great grandmother Mary, family memory relates that she resented acting as a nursemaid to her six younger brothers and sisters, and was only too pleased to an offer of marriage from the Rev David Owen. Great-grandfather David arrived in his first pastorate in Hemyock as a newly-qualified Baptist Minister from mid-Wales. The story also relates how he found the Devon mindset too closed for his liking, (he was a highly-educated scholar of Hebrew and Greek, even though he came from humble beginnings), which is why he whisked his bride off to a new life in Ohio, USA. They returned later to England, but never a word was breathed about the scandal of the wicked great uncle Edwin.

In the 1980s, I used to live on Exmoor and would drive over to Wellington to buy feed for my horse and chickens. The dairy was still operating then as a sizeable factory, and under a different name. I had no idea that it had a family connection. Since then, I’ve moved away, and then back again to Exeter, from where I’ve explored Hemyock and Wellington more thoroughly, seeking out the family stories. What has struck me is the comparative remoteness of Hemyock as a historic but quiet village, reached by a maze of lanes, whereas Wellington has what must once have been Victorian sophistication, and was well-connected to places further afield. Although there are only five miles between them, they are two different worlds. I have pity for the girl that Edwin abandoned, but am also proud of the 2 x great grandmother who set the scene for family success. Family history can certainly be a cause of conflicting emotions.

Moving over the hill, from Hemyock to Wellington, certainly brought about a new era of family life for the Walker family, but was also the cause of a scandal long hidden out of sight.

If you’re interested in viewing another blog which focuses on discovering lost ancestors, try:

A London Family

Huguenot Jo

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist: