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

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

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 Russian Diaries

In 1992, I made the first of what was to be fifty-nine journeys to Russia, something I could never have foreseen when I stepped off a plane in St Petersburg. Between then and 2006 I developed Firebird Russian Arts, a business specialising in Russian crafts, and became a lecturer in traditional Russian culture. Somehow, I ran this alongside my other writing projects and activities, although it did take over the course of my life for fifteen years! It also resulted in a book called Russian Magic, first printed as The Soul of Russia, drawing on my experiences in Russia and related research.

Returning to my Russian adventure stirs up plenty of memories, both joyful and sad. It was a unique experience, getting to know the country just after the Iron Curtain had been lifted. And in particular, for me, learning directly from its artists and discovering the charms of Russian rural life had a huge significance. This month, for the next four posts, I’m celebrating that quest through posts based on articles I’ve written, extracts from my book, and diary entries. All have been adapted as necessary for this new output. I hope you enjoy them.

Garlanded with wild hops, on a Russian picnic, of which there were many.

The next-but-one post will explain the art of the Russian lacquer miniature, which was at the core of my visits.

An example of a Russian lacquer miniature: ‘Wedding Day’
The ‘izba’ which I bought in the village of Kholui in 1995

The Russian Izba

In 1995, I bought a wooden village house in Russia, known as an ‘izba’. It was situated in the village of Kholui in the Ivanovo province, east of Moscow by some 200 miles. I’d started buying and selling Russian lacquer miniatures which are an acclaimed art form in their own right. Kholui is one of the four artists’ villages where these are painted. Although there are about 300 artists in the village, along with an art school, a painting workshop and a museum, it is still very much an unpretentious country village. It sits on the river Teza, and was once a place of annual trading fairs and passing river traffic. I was won over by its charm, the friendliness of the people, and the chance to immerse myself in the life and work of the artists. A later article this month on Cherry’s Cache will say more about this art, but this one is a memoir of that first idyllic summer, when my former husband and I took over a wooden village house, and immersed ourselves in local life.

Even on the threshold of the twenty-first century, the wooden cottage or izba, remains deeply rooted in the Russian psyche as a symbol of simplicity and comfort that also represents an aesthetic, even spiritual, perception of the world. These cottages served to diminish and humanize the vast scale of the Russian landscape, offering a place of comfort in an alien universe.

Russian Houses – E. Gaynor, K Haavisto (D. Goldstein 1994)

Many of the the houses in the village are brightly painted, with delicately carved fretwork windows

I should explain that I had to buy the house through one of my business partners, Ludmilla, as it needed a Russian signature on the deeds. She and her husband Valodya were close friends and colleagues, and Ludmilla helped us in every way with the Kafka-esque process of trying to buy a modest village cottage for about $4000 (American dollars, the unofficial Russian currency).

Extracts from the Russian diaries: What follows are extracts from my diary of our first stay in the house that summer of 1995 in Kholui. We arrived in late May, having travelled there on the overnight bus from Moscow, an experience in itself, and the first major journey that we’d made in Russia by ourselves.

Friday May 26th 1995 – Arrival

Yesterday we arrived at our dacha for the first time since the ten minutes it took to choose and agree to buying it last September.

In Moscow, Vladimir had found out that the arrival time in Uja, the nearest stop to Kholui, was supposed to be at 8am. He told us that the arrival times had been scratched off the notice boards, so that you had to go to the bureau inside and pay 1000 roubles to get the information you needed.

We actually arrived in Uja at about 6.45am. It was a lovely day. My primitive Russian began to seem even more primitive as a few friendly travellers and women travelling with their produce to market questioned us. Finally, our Natasha arrived from Kholui with a car and a driver, and it was lovely to see a familiar face. Her family, the Malkovs have agreed to be our caretakers, and they are going to look after us as well as the house.

We just about got all our cumbersome, hard-shelled suitcases and bulging holdalls into the car. Packing had been a nightmare; I accumulated what I thought were small but essential items for the house, and some useful food, as we didn’t know what provisions might be available. We packed; I weighed. We were 30 kilograms overweight. We unpacked. We repacked. Chris threw out the candles, and I put them back in again. (Wisely, as it turned out, as there were a number of power cuts during the next couple of years.) In the event, when we got to the airport, all the computers were down, and the poor airline staff had enough to do, writing out boarding passes by hand, without worrying about overweight baggage.

Driving into Kholui from Uja, we both felt a surge of euphoria. Till then, we had been full of joy and confidence in our undertaking one day, the next struck by insecurity and panic. The village looked wonderful in the brilliant sunshine, with dandelions and buttercups in bloom, the grass already rich and deep, and the dignified green and white onion domes of its ancient church crowning the scene. Already men were fishing in the river, women were washing clothes from the banks, and children were splashing in the water. Over the bridge, along the road to the right, a turn to the left, and we were there.

The church at Kholui, which stayed open all through the Soviet era, unlike many others
The house itself, that I bought, is built in a typical pattern with just ground-floor living, a summer room (on the right) and wooden steps up to the front door. Sometimes there is a proper attic room, and/or a cellar but not in this case.

Our house

The house is painted in gentle, kindly, faded, blue and brown colours. Like other Russian country houses, it has elegantly carved window frames and looks bigger than it is. Most houses have been constructed to accommodate cows, goats, potatoes, boats, tools and hay as well as people, and plenty of space is given over to this. It has two main rooms: one a large, regularly shaped front room with a traditional Russian stove built up to ceiling height, and the other an L-shape, with the kitchen built into the missing section. It’s sunny, and feels peaceful and settled. The previous owners have left two primitive tables, two wooden benches, two rickety stools, one bed base with old-fashioned metal bed-ends (useful for hanging towels on), a stove that runs off bottled gas, a free standing corner shelf, a small kitchen cupboard, and lots of rusty paint cans and empty beer bottles in the numerous gloomy wooden storage rooms that cluster around the main living space. The toilet is a wooden throne emptying onto an abyss below, with only two ancient and grubby curtains hanging across the entrance to dignify one’s privacy. (We replaced these with a door as soon as we possibly could!)

As with most country village houses, there is no running water. The local well is just around the corner at the bottom of the lane, roofed in a quaint, fairy tale style. A sort of upturned painted biscuit tin over the sink acts as a temporary water tank; we fill it with a bucket and then it comes out of the tap below. This might seem rather pointless, but does mean that you can turn the tap on and get a quick trickle if you need to rinse something or wash your hands. I have instituted a graded water programme, with bowls of good water for rinsing dishes, and less good water for first washes. An ancient fridge rumbles self-importantly, and thank God that we’ve got it, as it’s so hot, and the lovely fresh milk, butter and eggs that we have would go off in no time otherwise. Natasha has kindly filled the cupboard with basics, mainly potatoes, pasta and more pasta, which is a curious grey-brown colour.

The kitchen, much as we inherited it, although we added the cupboard on the right. Bowls and pails for everything! Plus a small milk canteen.

Settling in – We have unpacked as best as we can, but until Ludmilla comes on Monday, we will be a bit limited with cupboards and storage space. Then we hope to go to Uja and buy some cheap Russian furniture. Natasha sent her son over with one of her own soft mattresses for the bed, and she had managed to buy us a folding bed too – just as well, as we wouldn’t have been able to cram two of us into the ancient, indigenous bed.

The old iron-framed bed, plus some of the furniture we managed to acquire

Not long after we arrived that morning, I lay down on it to test it out, and was soon fast asleep after three nights of little rest. The sound of hammers ringing all around became a kind of lullaby. At this time of year, everyone is outside, planting potatoes in the garden, or improving their houses and outhouses. The growing season doesn’t begin until May, and will be over by the end of September. There is an air of ominous necessity about the frenzied activity and industriousness too; it’s been explained to us that if country people didn’t grow their own vegetables and potatoes, they probably wouldn’t eat, since some of the factories in the nearby small towns, which used to provide them with employment, have lain idle for two years.

This morning, Natasha sent round three of her brood in the blistering heat to finish the potato planting. (They’ll be using our back garden to grow vegetables, and they are more than welcome.) The eldest, Misha, knocked at the door, and asked if he could use the electricity socket. I thought he had some kind of a rotavator that he wanted to plug in, but instead he had an enormous ghetto blaster, for very loud music while they worked. The children lined up along the rows: one to open up the trench with a spade, the next to drop the potatoes in, and the third to cover them over with earth.

Enjoying tea – using an electric samovar, as traditional ones require a special technique to light and keep them going! In Russia, ‘chai pit-y’ means not just drinking a cup of tea but eating a cold collation too, plus cake and biscuits

Shopping – a challenge Today we have sorted out the house as best we could, and in the early afternoon, we went for a walk around the village, partly to admire it, and partly to find the food shops. Kholui is peaceful, yet fully alive. It is not noisy in the way that cities full of traffic are, but it is certainly not quiet either. As well as the hammers, you can hear cockerels crowing, goats butting up against the side of the house, wood being chopped, geese honking, the roar of an antiquated motor bike, the voices of neighbours loudly calling out their news to each other. And, as we discovered later, in the evening, you may also hear the plaintive sounds of the garmon, a kind of small accordion, which is often played as people gather on the riverbank, or a party is struck up in someone’s parlour.

We watched hens and cows meandering around contentedly, saw boats being pulled up on the riverbank, and old people sitting on benches outside their homes. When we got to the shops, however, my Russian began to seem useless as we were drawn into conversations and began to make our needs known. I kept asking for sugar, sakher, and was met with incomprehension until someone finally said, ‘Oh, sakher!’ Which sounded to me exactly the same as what I had already been saying.

I also got the words for butter (maslo) and meat (myaso) muddled up, when we were trying to buy groceries. One shop on the far side of the river, the church side, was a mystery to me as it appeared to have nothing in its rather impressive chilled cabinets except for a few biscuits, but was still presided over by several ladies in white overalls and head coverings. In the other establishment on our side of the river, we managed to buy margarine, and a tin of steamed Chinese cow.

Often shopping would take place wherever someone had set up a stall, or parked up a van

Across the dirt road, a man was selling provisions from his porch. At his miniature Upstart’s Emporium, we got butter; a large cardboard box was produced, which contained a gigantic block of butter. He carved some off for us, which wasn’t easy in the heat, as it threatened to slide everywhere. And we got the famous sugar at last, where the request for half a kilo mysteriously turned into a kilo’s worth, but never mind. It’s lovely sugar, only partially refined. Tomorrow I must find out where the bread comes, as it’s Saturday, and we shall need plenty for the weekend. Little quests like that take on a pleasing importance, and present an adventure in themselves.

An unwelcome visitor When we came back from our walk, we had a sleep, as we are still catching up, but our siesta was disturbed just now by a young man with blond hair, sporting an elaborate gold cross on his tanned bare chest. He marched in practically uninvited carrying two very heavy rusty tin cans. We didn’t know whether he had been sent by Natasha our caretaker, so we were cautiously welcoming. He wanted us to guess what was in the tins. He claimed they contained a kind of preservative oil for painting on the house, and he wanted three dollars for them. Since he was trying to have a good look round, and was commenting on our nice big angliski suitcases, (you can see one under the bed in the photo above) I began to feel rather uncomfortable, and decided that I no longer spoke or understood much Russian, so that he would feel he was wasting his time. (This was the only – and rather strange- occurrence – where someone was pushy and out-of-keeping with usual neighbourliness in the village)

Saturday May 27th 1995
Life at the riverside The weekend begins in earnest. Once again, it is very hot, and quite humid too, with some strange cumulus clouds appearing at intervals. It’s a family day, and motorbikes with sidecars have bumped their way into the village complete with husbands, wives and children on board. Some arrived in their faithful Lada cars, and one family was even towed in on a trailer at the back of a tractor. Everyone made for the river, and the bathing area in the centre of the village was soon full of splashing children. The whole scene reminded me of the 1950s: little girls clad only in cotton knickers, women in loose flowered shifts, metal pails, bicycles, and picnics.

You can see the hordes of happy picnickers and bathers in the background, while the goat munches on, unconcerned.
The river Teza, on a quieter day: one of the many washing platforms built along its banks

At our swimming place further down the river, there were fewer families, perhaps because the water is deeper there. You have to wade out, acclimatising slowly in my case, then strike off in a diagonal direction, though this only just about counteracts the effects of the current. Eventually, the current cuts back in with a vengeance, and I drift back downstream again. I usually end up bumping my knees against the rocks under the water where it becomes shallower again.

A younger generation of artists, probably students from the Kholui art school

I love the life of the river. This is what I observed: Terns swooping down, catching the fish out of the water from right under your nose. Swallows and martins flying over the water. Fishermen using round nets, like large shrimping nets, which they allow to rest on the bottom until the shoals of tiddlers are just above them, and then they can draw up a catch. Frogs, croaking and warbling. Water lilies and waterweed. A large herd of cows and calves which come down at about 4pm every day, and stay until they are called by their owner at about 5.30pm. Dogs which stride purposefully into the water to cool themselves down. Boats – plenty of them – narrow, pointed, elegant, and used with paddles or poles. Women washing at the edge of the river on little wooden platforms built out over the water, so that they can rinse the clothes and sheets that they haul out of the tubs, brought on little trolleys to make the load easier. Mosquitoes and more mosquitoes, worse in places where the water is still.

The riverside, with a willow tree and a rather dilapidated washing platform. As I discovered, it’s easy to lose a sock or two downriver if you’re not careful while rinsing!

The bread queue I was truly initiated into Russian life today by joining the bread queue. I decided to try the Co-op shop which we spotted last night, and found myself in line behind fourteen or fifteen women all buying their bread for the weekend – four loaves of chorni khleb (black bread), seemed to be the norm. The girl serving was dressed up in a white overall and a sort of starched white baker’s cap made of material pressed around some cardboard. She was efficient, and the wait wasn’t that long.

In the meantime, the man behind me in the queue found out I was English, and said excitedly to the ladies in front of me, ‘Did you hear that? She’s English!’

They nodded sagely and said, ‘Oh yes, we know. We know all about her.’

So, although the people we meet along the road may only give us a brief formal greeting, most of them probably know exactly who we are and are full of curiosity about these mad foreigners who have taken up residence in Kholui.

We tried to buy matches today, and at last managed to get a cigarette lighter in the Upstart’s Emporium. He has put up a little hand-written notice which says: Kino –ie cinema – and offering showings of Karate Kid for a modest entrance fee. I suppose it’s a video played on his television. We found some Djam in the Sweet Shop, along with two Mars Bars and some cherry soda. The woman who works there wears her hair nicely waved, and watches a portable TV as she works. It’s quite fun seeing what you can get hold of on any given day, but then we’re not struggling to feed a family here on a tiny budget.

The film poster, announcing ‘Karate Kid – Price 400 Roubles – Starts at 9pm’

The Kholui workshop When we went into the workshop yesterday, (the official studio, where a number of mainly female artists painted lacquer miniature boxes) we tried to find Kamorin, (the director) but he was nowhere around. However, we called in on the ‘Brigada’, and the women artists were very welcoming. They downed their paintbrushes, and soon had an impromptu lunch party in full swing. We ate macaroni, as all pasta is called in Russia, and drank to Anglo-Russian friendship with the famous cranberry vodka that I enjoy so much. (If you manage to read to the end of this blog, your reward will be a recipe for making ‘Cranberry Vodka’ – very easy and delicious!)

The ‘Brigada’ – the team of women artists in the Kohlui studio during the 1990s
Choosing lacquer miniatures to order for Firebird Russian Arts. I’m at the front, with my business colleague Ludmilla next to me, and Kamorin, the director, at the far end. What you ordered was not what you eventually got! But anything done with a good will in Russia usually works out in some way at the end.

Partying, village style Today after lunch, Chris went off to do something useful outside, and I lay down today for yet another afternoon snooze (must be the Kholui air), at about 2.30pm. Then I heard some music playing. First of all, I thought it was a recording of some accordion music playing popular Russian tunes. Then a song began, and I realised that the cracked voices raised in joyful unison were in fact coming live from the house over the road, and that a party had started up. I fell asleep while listening to them, and dreamed that they were all singing, ‘Down the Old Kent Road,’ and in my dream marvelled at how well they knew the words in English. When I woke up, the party had moved outside onto the grass verge. The men and women began dancing, doing some old Russian country dances as far as I could tell, then started on some kind of a waltz. Later, when we came back from our swim at about 6pm, the music and dancing had stopped, but quarrels were breaking out, the drink having presumably flowed freely. Now, at 9.30pm, a serious fight has broken out between two men, but a group of women have just sorted them out, and sent them on their separate ways.

Sunday May 28th
At about 10am, eruptions were still happening out of the smouldering ashes of yesterday’s volcano of a party. A young man rushed out of the house pursued by a middle-aged woman, who was dressed only in an elastic girdle and an armour-plated bra. She was holding a frying pan with which she was taking a swipe at the young man’s head every time she got near him. He put his hands over his head to protect himself, as he raced towards his motorbike, which he got to just in time, leaping on it and accelerating up the lane. The dust was billowing up behind, as she ran after him screaming, and waving her frying pan. After that, everything went quiet. They must have all exhausted themselves.

In the late afternoon, I made a cup of tea, took it down to the bottom of the lane, and sat with my book under a willow tree on the riverbank. I thought to myself: I am sitting in a Russian village, by a Russian river, drinking tea and reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. What could be better?

Below are scenes of Kholui village life. Goats, cows, chickens and geese wander where they will, and return home at the end of the day.

Tuesday June 6th
Farewell to Kholui Today was our last full day in Kholui. In the morning, I went back to the studio to see if the ladies of the Brigada had any more lacquer boxes to offer me. They didn’t, and I was glad in a way, as I now have a lot of lacquer miniatures to take home, and my budget is getting tight. So we had a kind of farewell party instead, and although it was only 11am, they began preparing a feast for me. I was given a copy of a magazine to look at called Droog, or ‘Friend’, which was all about pedigree dogs, while they began scurrying around gathering the ingredients together. ‘Big Olga’ leapt up and went to purchase six little fish from one of the other factory women, and made boiled fish and soup on the spot. The soup was called Uxa, pronounced ‘Oo-kha,’ with a kind of owlish hoot. One woman opened her mouth so wide to demonstrate how to say it that I could see every bit of fish currently lodged within.

We had a merry conversation, as best as I could manage. They are curious to know about England – what kind of home do I have? Is it a flat? How many floors has it got? How many rooms? Does it have a garden? Do we have servants? Our Georgian house in Bristol is in fact very large by Russian standards, and I tried to play this down. I promised to bring some photos next time.

Ladies of the Brigada joining together for a Khorovod, a traditional circle dance. Parties in the studio were frequent!

In the afternoon, Chris and I went for a wonderful walk, our final one for this visit. The sky had cleared to a cloudless blue, and it was warm but fresh. We started to walk along in the direction of the weir, but on the opposite bank of the river to our house. Soon we had to make a detour, as one often does here, to avoid boggy patches. We’ve learnt that it usually pays to follow the path, which circumnavigates the numerous ditches, dikes, quagmires and swamps that dissect this area.

Walks and picnics from other occasions, with the Mityashin family

Reflections on the landscape Past the weir, we eventually arrived on a bank-side path which ran through a beautiful sandy, heath-like stretch of ground. Here the flowers were in full bloom, and even more gorgeous than those we saw the other day. There were magenta flowers like single pinks, buttercups, a kind of mauve campanula like a Canterbury bell, a type of yellow cowslip, scabious, wild flowering chives (good to eat with the loaf of fresh bread we’d just bought), vetches, wild pansies, and an extraordinary yellow and purple flower, the exact colour of heartsease – the flowers themselves are yellow with what seem to be purple bracts. The effect is rather like an exotic bird’s crest. There is also lacy cow parsley, a type of ladies’ bedstraw, occasional orchids, and various other blue and purple flowers, so that the whole ground is carpeted with a delicate mixture of tall grasses and flowers, and full of butterflies. It will probably be short-lived, because the heat and the rain have brought the flowers on rapidly, and during the summer, the profusion will dwindle.

Silver birches, the favourite tree of the Russians. For centuries they have provided sap for birch wine, bark for kindling, or for fashioning into baskets and storage tubs, and wood for carving.

The heathland was dotted with bracken and silver birches, one of my favourite types of landscape. There were large oaks in full leaf too. Eventually, we came to where the wood ended and the ground opened out into a large meadow ahead of us, with a village set above it on a little hill. We tried to get there, then realised that the river lay between. In the meadow on our side of the river was a herd of cows, with two male cowherds in attendance. They carry what I call long whips, and Chris, with his Scottish ancestry, calls ‘knouts’. When I looked up the Russian for whip, it is in fact knoot, so there is obviously some common origin there. Although we think of Russian as an alien language, there are lots of words which are similar to ours, not only those from Latin roots, but some which must relate to old Norse or dialect words in our language. Bruki for trousers, and ‘breeches’, barsuk the badger, and ‘Brock’ as an old nickname for badger, buk and ‘beech’, holm and hill, kot and cat, are just some of the examples that come to mind.

We passed a cemetery; I’ve noticed now that Russians often place their cemeteries in woodlands and forests. I like the idea of being planted among the trees. Finally we came out, as we guessed we would, right by the Detski Dom (children’s home) in the old monastery, and from thence our path back to Kholui lay straight and clear.

Finally…Now it’s 10.30pm, the sun is setting, and tomorrow we leave for Moscow. We’re talking about coming back for three or even four weeks next summer. The river, the walks, the studio, the artists, the museum – it’s a unique combination. We went to the museum once again today, and after ringing the bell and waiting for a long time, one of the young curators appeared.

‘Mozhna?’ I asked. ‘May we?’
‘Mozhna,’ she replied, smiling, and opened the door wide for us.

It only costs about ten pence to get in, and houses as fine a collection of lacquer miniatures as you could see anywhere. The museum employs about four female staff, but what do they do all day? I don’t think they spend their time cleaning, because the dirty footprint on the carpet today was the same as it was last week when we paid a visit. Perhaps they catalogue a bit, and read professional journals; I don’t know. Although they can’t have more than one or two visitors a day, when we looked at the Visitors’ Book today, we were astonished to find that an American from Texas had visited the museum since we came in last week. Who could he be? How did he reach these parts? Where might he be going? I’m beginning to react like a Kholui local!

Later visits included arriving in autumn, or in winter (see below)
This is very popular with friends and family at Christmas!

And afterwards – Posting these diary records tugs at my heart strings…I kept the house until the early 2000s, and visited it about three times a year. It was a colourful time, but over the course of the years became textured with challenges and even tragedy. Accidents, both serious and fatal, occurred to people we knew; wintertime in the village could be beautiful but harsh, and the old innocence of country life began to shift under the rapidly changing influence of unstable economics and the increasing sophistication of the Russian cities. But I’ve never forgotten the beauty and fulfilment of those first few visits to Kholui, or the kindness of the people there. The countryside in Russia still holds the essence of its old traditions and wisdom.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

Finding Brummagem

Full twenty years and more are passed Since I left Brummagem. But I set out for home at last To good old Brummagem.

But ev’ry place is altered so Now there’s hardly a place I know Which fills my heart with grief and woe For I can’t find Brummagem.

As I was walking down the street As used to be in Brummagem, I knowed nobody I did meet For they’ve changed their face in Brummagem

I am here in Birmingham, as bewildered as the poet James Dobbs when he penned this song in the late 18th century. I’ve arrived at New Street Station, and need to find my hotel, which should be only five minutes’ walk from here. But where are the landmarks to guide me? There’s a 1967 map emblazoned in my brain, and in November 2017, this doesn’t serve me well. The station itself has gone through at least two major changes in my time: the first transformation was from the imposing Victorian Temple of the Train, to the brutalist concrete sprawl of the 1960s. And now it is a Temple of Shopping and Bling, titled Grand Central. I emerge from the dingy, low-ceilinged platforms, much as they were in the ‘60s, to acres of glass and chrome, hosting fancy shop fronts and eateries. Here, swarms of cool young people are giving the place a lively vibe. I exit blindly, choosing a way out at random, and emerge into the hustle of rush hour streets and roads.

Birmingham New Street, then and now

So, the Canalside Premier Inn is about quarter of a mile away, but I don’t know how I’m going to get there on foot. I’ve done my homework. I have a printout of the area, a 79p app map of Birmingham, and the phone’s satnav to help me. But I’d be better off with a 3D model as the route involves negotiating underpasses, several floors of the Mailbox shopping development, a pedestrian footway and a couple of canals. It has a weird, dream-like quality. I come unstuck quite early on, and find myself heading the wrong way up the inner Ring Road. A cheerful Brummie lady rescues me (most Brummies are cheerful). ‘You want to go back the way you came,’ she tells me firmly. She knows how to decipher the path through the jungle.

When I get to the sign for Navigation Street, there’s a flash of recognition.

“Oh yes, this is where I used to get off the bus from school.”

A few more steps, though, and the recognition dissolves as I face a meaningless stretch of roadway, shops and buildings. I try to re-impose my original map onto the unknown landscape ahead of me – I want to blot out the acres of chrome and concrete and find the turning that once led to the scruffy Greyhound pub, famous for its dubious cider. I remember small children sitting disconsolately on the pavement, waiting for their parents to emerge.  It would help to orientate me, perhaps? But the new Navigation Street refuses to budge. Then another memory swims to the surface, mythic and incongruous. Here, one hot afternoon after school, I witnessed a man ride down Navigation Street on a small white pony and hitch it up to a newly-installed parking meter, as though this was the most normal thing in the world to do. I never saw a horse in the centre of Birmingham before or since.

The stately heart of Birmingham, where Queen Victoria presides. She used to be surrounded by swirling traffic.

Eventually, I get to the hotel. My room is on the fourth floor, with small windows which squint down onto the tow path of the canal for which the hotel is named. Lights are twinkling in the early evening dusk, as people stroll and jog along the water’s edge.  It looks so inviting. I want to join them. But how do I get from the front door of the hotel onto the tow path at the back? It’s not a simple matter. Water, paths, roads and railways combine in a multi-imensional labyrinth. Wandering lost, I at last solve the mystery when I realise that the road I’m using is actually running under the canal. Oh! Of course, now I remember. The majestic, rather gloomy, iron bridge that stretches above me, carries the waterway itself.

The vibrant mix of old and new around Birmingham city centre canals, which even includes a country pub feel.

When I do manage to access the tow path, it is a delight. Birmingham has reclaimed its city centre canals and they form a charming network of locks, warehouses, pubs, and iron bridges that sometimes lead onto strange little islands. One even has a signpost, as if for a junction of country lanes. There are colourful narrow boats, tubs of flowers and a country feel to some of the old pubs on the waterside. In the 1960s, by contrast, the canals were neglected, having sunk to their nadir after the glory days of commercial water transport. Back then, the Gas Street Canal Basin where I am now walking, was inhabited mostly by a few beatniks living on dilapidated barges. Most of the canals were either drained hollow, or filled with sludge-green, stagnant water. Once, as an over-confident schoolgirl trying to explore alone, I found myself walking through a long, silent tunnel that seemed like the entrance to Hades. I knew that one of the main city streets was passing above, but I could hear or see absolutely nothing of it. Eerie!

Gas Street Basin as it was in 1968. Photos by Martin Tester (Creative Commons)
Martin Tester, who collated these photos, writes: ‘Stepping through the door of the high wall on Gas Street took one into a private & totally different world, completely cut off from the hustle & bustle of Broad Street.’

During the next couple of days, which were interspersed with a school reunion and meet-ups with friends, I explored the new Brummagem. I sifted older memories too. My family arrived in the Birmingham area in the late 1950s. But I was too young to head into town on my own, and had very little experience of being in the centre until 1960, when I had to trek across the city every day to my new school. As I got older, I roamed quite freely with my friends around the city centre –it was our territory, and I prided myself on being at ease there.

A glimpse of a building familiar to me from earlier days – the Birmingham and Midland Institute, originally founded by Act of Parliament in 1854 for the ‘Diffusion and Advancement of Science, Literature and Art amongst all Classes of Persons resident in Birmingham and Midland Counties’
Redevelopment was already starting in the city in the 1960s

Already the city was undergoing major redevelopment. The craze for modernising meant demolishing splendid old municipal buildings, pubs of character and independent shops with ornate tiled frontages. Many Victorian houses and back-to-back terraces also came in for demolition. From the top of the double-decker bus, as I travelled to and from school, I could see newly-razed areas, zones where houses had stood perhaps as recently as the day before, perhaps even that very morning. Half-broken walls thrust up from piles of rubble, whole streets gone in the blink of an eye, the crash of a wrecking ball. Children quickly took over these abandoned sites, turning them into playgrounds with skipping ropes, footballs and home-made go-carts.

Our bus was often diverted down narrow back streets, where houses were still awaiting the moment of execution.  One image imprinted in my memory is the end wall of a house, painted black with the slogan “God Bless Our Boys” in giant white letters. (This, according to internet posts, was in Guildford Street.) It seemed historic to me even then, before my lifetime. For the post-war generation, the war was another country, and we didn’t intend to let it impinge now, when the tide was rising towards the Beatles and miniskirts. We were preparing to surf the wave.

The area around the old Bull Ring Market in the early 1960s (above) and the redevelopment of the old Market Hall below. The sign is just visible above the central archway on the long wall.
The very last day of trading at the old Bull Ring market, Sep 12th 1959. These colour slides were taken on that day by Phyllis Nicklin, a geography lecturer at the University of Birmingham

Change was also taking place in the very heart of the city. When we first arrived in 1957, the Bull Ring market was just about still in use. I vaguely recall an old-fashioned outdoor market with a wide and sometimes weird variety of stalls. A classmate bought a grass snake there as a pet. The market survived longer than the snake, until about 1962, when it was cleared away for the Bull Ring shopping centre. This brave new world included the most famous Birmingham landmark of the day: the Rotunda, completed in 1965. It was always controversial as a building; some thought its concrete cylinder a marvel of construction, stretching up to giddy heights, whereas others derided it. However, opposition was fierce when the council proposed to demolish it in the 1980s, and it has since been refurbished. The Bull Ring itself was never an exciting destination; drab tunnels, over-priced cafes and mediocre shops held little of interest for my friends and I as teenagers on limited pocket money. One exception was the recording booth.  You sang, spoke or shrieked into the microphone and a few minutes later a 45rpm disk popped out. Was it worth the money? Worth a try – your talent might be ‘discovered’ this way, we thought naively.

The Rotunda takes shape, and the new shopping centre is already in action in July, 1963. It was officially opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in May 1964. I remember trying out the Witzy Doo restaurant – the name made me shudder – and only being able to afford a badly-cooked fried egg on toast!

The last courtyard of back-to-backs in central Birmingham has survived thanks to a Jamaican tailor, who didn’t give up his workshop there, and is now restored, and one of the most popular National Trust visitor attractions in the country. On my second day in the city, I took the tour there with a small group of friends. We learned how people had lived in these tiny houses with no indoor toilets or proper washing facilities. Sometimes they slept crammed top-to-toe in beds to save room for a few lodgers, whose rent helped to eke out the tiny family income. Child mortality was high, and general health was poor. But many residents tried to make their homes cosy, and the courtyard at the back was the place for children to play, women to chat, and for neighbours to help each other out.

I briefly saw something of back-to-back life, when I took a job on the Christmas post during my last year at school. My route took me to an area of back-to-back houses where an envelope would be addressed, say, to Mr Dermot O’Leary, care of Mrs Ethel Brown, back of no 15, in something-or-other Court. I would go through the entry, often known as a ‘jitty’ in Birmingham, and try to find the door in question amid a row of unnumbered front doors facing into the courtyard. Often I had to knock and ask. The courtyards had a romantic feel to me, I have to admit. There was an atmosphere of the cottage, of an old way of life that had made its way into the city.

Back-to-back houses, Hurst Street, now restored and run by the National Trust

After leaving school, I lost my sense of orientation during visits to Birmingham. Usually, I didn’t have to figure out where I was going as I was meeting a local friend who shepherded me, or heading to a fixed rendezvous point. But this time, in October 2017, I was spending time on my own during my visit, and my relationship with the city had to be reinvented. And this gave me a chance to see with new eyes.

“What,” I asked one of my old friends, “is that extraordinary building with the golden turban?”

“That,” she said, “is the new library.”

The new library, with its golden ‘turban’

So I visited it later that day. To locals, it’s now a familiar sight, but to me, an uninitiated visitor, the library resembled a Central Asian-style tiered building, covered in patterns of blue and white, enmeshed in a kind of filigree, and topped off with what I will continue to call a golden turban. I found it glorious. Inside, it is still curiously evocative though of the original Birmingham Reference Library, which was much lamented when it was demolished in the late ‘60s. Today’s building is open plan, with gently sloping travellators, but it maintains the quality of a ringed dome, with huge bookcases encircling you as you glide up through the floors through a forest of gently twinkling lights.

The old Birmingham ‘Ref’. A number of us girls from King Edward VI High School hung out in there, ostensibly to revise, but in reality more to look at the ‘talent’. One friend recalls that she acquired a boyfriend with a sports car from her ‘study’ periods there.

On Level 3 there is a spacious roof garden, planted with fruit bushes and herbs, where you can step out and admire the city centre from on high. Below me, I saw another huge demolition-and-reconstruction project in progress. It had greedily devoured the area where the Hall of Memory, a small, circular, neoclassical building, was still just about standing, and its perimeter stretched to the nearby Town Hall, with its fluted pillars.  Of course these landmarks are preserved – the city is much more careful now about its heritage – but they will now be minor monuments amidst vast edifices.

More reconstruction work in 2017, which I photographed from the roof garden of the new library
The Hall of Memory standing among another onslaught of building work

Coming away from the city and sifting my impressions, I realised that although I recoiled from this large-scale demolition, the energy of the place had grabbed me. To quote from the guide at the back-to-backs, Birmingham has always been a “chuck it up” kind of city. Pile it high, and make it shiny and colourful. It is the city where everyone can have a go, from the kind of trade you follow, to the way you drive your car (‘cowboy country’ as I’ve always called it, trying to navigate through Spaghetti Junction) to the way you – or the city council on your behalf – has a crack at shaping your surroundings. Birmingham, I’d say, is all for individualism.

And something of the ‘chuck it up’ mood still prevails even in the most prestigious new developments, where buildings are thrown up to look like handfuls of coloured dice, and adorned with crazy mirror work, and strangely angled walls. I’m not usually a fan of new cities, but during my three days, I admired what’s going on here. I felt that Birmingham was and is being true to itself. Big, bold, and still full of bling. It gives you new vistas, and unexpected humour too. ‘How come that man is walking upside down halfway up a building?’ It took a few seconds before I realised that I was seeing a reflection in a distorting wall of mirrors, high up above the pavement.

And there is sensitivity too, among the wholescale changes. One example is the little stream that cascades down the hill from the Bull Ring to St Martin’s Church below. It is a rivulet from a river that is now paved-over, but this little flow of water has been brought up to the surface, and a polished granite wall erected beside it, engraved with a poem about the city. And so history is not completely submerged.

A tribute to Birmingham, its people, its history and its waterways

Birmingham is multicultural too on a phenomenal scale. The first wave of immigrants from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan had not long arrived when I came to Birmingham in the late 50s. My parents steered me across the Bull Ring as I marvelled at Indian ladies in gorgeous saris and bare midriffs, shivering in the damp winter air. Now of course there are second and third generations who have been born in Birmingham, and who have made the city their own. It is a youthful place: 40% of Birmingham’s population is under twenty-five, boasts a poster in the city centre.

The new Rag Market in operation
Piccadilly shopping arcade running down from New Street towards the station, still much as I remember it. There was a delicatessen in the 1960s (a rare phenomenon) where you could buy chocolate ants. I never tried them.

Shopping remains a Brummie preoccupation, but the old premier shopping streets have been eclipsed by the smart new complexes such as Mailbox and Grand Central. Though I was happy to see the Rag Market still in full swing, on the far side of the Bull Ring. I recalled Corporation Street in its smarter days, where Marshall and Snelgrove’s department store still used bags and hatboxes patterned in a 1940s style (shown below).

Corporation Street as it is today

Even posher was Rackham’s, where I had a holiday job selling girls’ school knickers. I also had one at Neatawear, where I had to put a hand-written bill and the money into a brass canister that shot up to the cashier’s office in a pneumatic tube. Now Corporation Street and New Street are almost backwaters, and in a way I’m not sorry, because they always seemed stuffy and self-righteous to younger customers. But oh – what happened to the Kardomah, with its chocolate-and-coffee cake? And Yates Wine Lodge, where old ladies tippled their port? (How come I went in there?…memory is blank…)

I ended my astonishing but head-splitting tour of Birmingham back at New Street Station. I had begun there, clutching my luggage in a panic-stricken way, lost in Brummagem just like James Dobbs in the late 18th century. It’s extraordinary to think that I echoed his sentiments nearly 200 years later. But then, perhaps it indicates that Birmingham is still the same. It is still in a state of flux, and ever-expanding to meet the needs of the day. I detect a growing maturity, though, in terms of what is saved and what is lost. The best of the old is now preserved, and the city’s identity celebrated with various sophisticated artistic touches, like the modern sculptures which inhabit Victoria Square, alongside the po-faced statue of Queen Victoria herself, as in the earlier photo. (I once stuck a poster onto her advertising a concert by Ravi Shankar, but that’s another story.) On my journey this time, I couldn’t find exactly what I once knew, but after three days of walking the city, I felt that, yes, I had found Brummagem.

Photos of Birmingham today by Cherry Gilchrist

A version of the song ‘I can’t find Brummagem’ performed by John Wilks can be heard here

Photos of Gas Street Basin in 1968 by Martin Tester.

Photos of the last day of trading in the Bull Ring market by Phyllis Nicklin (1913-1969), who was a University of Birmingham geography teacher. ‘She made these colour slides as lecture aids for her lectures on the geography of Birmingham.’

Photo of Kardomah Café (1965) posted on ‘This is Birmingham’ Facebook page, 20th June 2016

All other 1960s photos of Birmingham from the Birmingham Mail feature ‘This is what Birmingham was like in the 1960s’

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

Contacts and Comments – I’m delighted to have comments – it may take a little time for these to be checked out and appear on the page. And if you’d like to get in touch with me directly, there is a ‘contact’ link right at the bottom of the page, which will get an email to me promptly. You can also contact me via my author’s website at http://www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk. (This is more reliable than finding me via Messenger).

A Tale of Two Samplers

I am always curious about people’s lives from earlier times. While other people buy vintage postcards for their pictures, I buy them to read what’s written on the back. And if I come across old books or objects which have names or clues attached to them, I’m tempted to follow the lead further, since with a little research and a dose of luck, it may be possible to bring their stories back to life. When I was writing my book Growing Your Family Tree, I decided I’d like to test this out by taking on a project to illustrate the way that these kinds of inanimate objects can connect us with past lives. I chose two items which I’ve had for years, but which never investigated before.

My mother passed on to me two antique needlework samplers, made by little girls of eight and nine years old. Previously, I had simply admired their neat stitching – the letters of the alphabet, flowers, birds and trees set out in tidy symmetry. But now, perhaps I could learn more: who were these children? What kind of a life did they lead?

The account that follows here is a version of what I included in my book (Chapter Eight – Other Lives, Other Stories) but re-written for Cherry’s Cache, with a little extra research added, and of course the chance to add images.

A sampler from 1733, reproduced in ‘Samplers’ by Rebecca Scott

The background to the samplers

From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, very young girls often created decorative samplers as a way of practising their stitching and embroidery. These were usually cloth panels sewn in silks or wools, often with a mixture of flowers and birds, letters and numbers, and even houses and human figures. Sometimes poems, proverbs and prayers were embroidered too, and the girl’s name and age stitched too, along with a date and place. Sewing this type of sampler, with personal details included, was practised mainly in Britain and America. The samplers were often made at school, as part of the curriculum. They were mostly colourful, but those stitched in orphanages, or by Quakers, for instance, tend to be more sober in appearance.

Samplers worked by orphans. The one on the right by Susannah Carter, 1800, opens with: ‘We are ophans and fatherless/ We have no paretns, but our God’ (Also from Scott’s book ‘Samplers’)

Rebecca Wensor

My first sampler was stitched by Rebecca Wensor, aged eight years, in 1828. To show how I went about tracing her, I’ll include here a few details of the path that I took. Rebecca was born before the start of official registration of births in 1837, but as she would only have been twenty-one at the time of the first census record available (1841), I thought that there would be a good chance that she was still unmarried, and that I might catch her under the same surname. Wensor is an unusual name, which could have given me a head start. But I quickly realised that it could be an alternate spelling of Winsor, a more common name. However, I reckoned that the little girl would most likely have spelled her name in the sampler in the way that the family usually did, as opposed to the census enumerator who might have simply jotted it down as he heard it. A child who spent months labouring over a sampler would want it to be her best work, and would take care to get her name right. But neither version of her surname – Wensor or Winsor – came up with viable results to start with.

Rebecca Wensor’s sampler bought by my mother, which I inherited. As my two samplers are behind glass, they are hard to photograph!

However, by checking the name Wensor on its own, I found a few entries for Lincolnshire, including the Bourne area. My parents had lived for a while in the little town of Bourne after they got married, and that my mother had told me that this was where she had bought the sampler. So, with a sense of the path opening up in front of me, I pursued the Wensors of Lincolnshire. One couple, Samuel and Mary Wensor, farmers of Deeping Fen, looked about the right age to be Rebecca’s parents. Although farmers were not necessarily wealthy in those days, it struck me that a farmer’s daughter might be sent to a modest kind of school, where she would learn her letters and arithmetic, and embroider a sampler. Indeed, in nearby New Sleaford in 1841, a pupil called Eliza Wensor is listed as boarding at a little school run by one Mary Smith; at age twelve, she could perhaps have been a younger sister or cousin of Rebecca.

But then came an unwelcome discovery. I couldn’t find any records in the official registry for the marriage or a death of a Rebecca Wensor or Winsor, born around 1820. But in a collection of parish records posted on the internet, I did find the death of a Rebecca Winsor, aged 11 in 1831. She was buried at Deeping St James in Lincolnshire.

A historic photo of Deeping St James, probably late 19th century.

The age and the location fitted, and judging by the scarcity of anyone else bearing the same name, I think my little embroiderer probably died three years after sewing her sampler. So although the trail didn’t lead far, I now surmise that Rebecca was most probably the daughter of a Lincolnshire farming family, living in the flat fenland country, and that she received some sort of basic education. I have also found a Wensor Farm on the map, (listed too as Wensor Castle Farm) close to Deeping St James, which could well be that of her family or her relatives. This is a poignant conclusion to her story, but she is not forgotten, and her sampler is still treasured nearly two hundred years later.

The town of Deeping St James, the area in which Rebecca Wensor is thought to have lived.
Amey Ross left us a useful clue as to her identity by including the place she lived in

Amey Ross

My second sampler announces proudly that it was stitched by Amey Ross, Boston, aged nine years, in 1833. Amey made her sampler square and bold, with two handsome trees flanking flowers and baskets of fruit, setting out her letters and numbers at the top, and her name carefully stitched in a slightly wobbly octagonal frame at the bottom. It’s fortunate for my search that she left such a valuable clue by including the name of the place in which she lived. Boston, Lincolnshire is also within the area where my mother bought some of her first antiques, so probably both samplers found their way on to the local market stalls after house clearances.

Once again, the issues of trying to photograph through glass for Amey Ross’s sampler!

Amey was born a little later than Rebecca, in 1824, and the closer dates creep towards 1837 and the first official BMD records, and towards 1841 for the first full census, the more likely we are to find results. Again, it might have seemed at first that she didn’t know how to spell the name Amy correctly but, for the same reasons that I researched Wensor rather than Winsor, I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. Although neither the 1841 nor the 1851census gave any sign of an Amey or an Amy Ross of the right age, both showed an Amey Ross who was born in about 1801. Obviously, this was not Amey herself, but the unusual spelling suggested that it could be a family name, perhaps Amey’s mother or aunt. And this Amey, a widow, is recorded as living in Skirbeck with her daughter Hannah in the Boston area of Lincolnshire, which is the right location for ‘my’ Amey. In 1851, she is described as a laundress, and her birthplace as Ely in Cambridgeshire.

Boston was an important port from medieval times onwards. It lent its name to what is now the city of Boston in the USA. The famous Boston ‘Stump’ is the tower of the church on the banks of the River Witham, which can be seen for miles around in the flat Lincolnshire landscape.

As for young Amey in 1841, the most likely entry which I found, was for an Anne or Anna Ross, working as a servant in the rectory at Wyberton, close to Boston. But in 1848 there was a fully accurate name for the marriage record of an Amey Ross in Boston. I sent off for it and waited eagerly to see what it would say.

The search was at a crossroads; without travelling to Lincolnshire to look at old parish registers for myself, which weren’t at that time on line, it would have been difficult to go further.

But the certificate arrived, and the information it contained launched my little embroiderer into the next stage of her life. On 9 November 1848, Amey Ross married Allen Reynolds in the parish church of Skirbeck, Lincolnshire. Witnesses were Hannah Ross and Daniel Lote, thus making it even more likely that the Hannah from the census is Amey’s sister. Amey’s father was cited as William Ross, a gardener. Allen’s father was named as Charles Reynolds, farmer.

This made things a little spooky: Charles Reynolds was also the name of my 2 x great-grandfather who came from East Yorkshire, just across the mouth of the Humber from Lincolnshire. I experienced a strange sense of connection, though logically I knew it was very unlikely that they were one and the same. Better, I decided, not to get too side-tracked by the Reynolds issue.

Broad Street, Spalding, probably about 60 years after Allen and Amey set up home there.

Allen Reynolds was born about 1820 in Frithville, Lincolnshire, and his occupation was that of a miller. He and Amey set up home in Spalding, where they lived for the whole of their married life. I traced them through the census from 1851 to 1881, as they moved only from Deeping Road to Holbeach Road. Spalding is known as ‘the Heart of the Fens’, and is in the South Holland district which is famous for its flowers and produce, grown in its flat, silty soil. There were also plenty of windmills, which would have provided the power to grind the grain, as was Allen’s trade.

Locks Mill, Spalding. It looks as though the horse and cart are bringing sacks of grain to be ground into flour there.

Over time, Allen became a master baker too, and took on apprentices. In 1871, Amey’s mother, the older Amey Ross, came to live with them, but had almost certainly died by 1881, by which time there was a niece called Amy Rogers (no ‘e’ in her name) living with them as ‘servant to uncle’! What is significant is that there are no signs on any of the census records of children born to Amey and Allen.

Then came one of those extraordinary moments when the view shifts from official listings to a first-hand, eye-witness account of the Reynolds couple. Through an internet search I found an extract taken from a nineteenth-century memoir called The Jottings of Isaac Elsom, which says:

On July, 1856, death first entered the family of the Elsoms of Spalding, for on that day, Eliza, the eldest child, who was eighteen days short of eight years of age, passed into the Spirit World like a ripe old Christian! Her body was carried in its coffin to the cemetery in the spring cart of Mr. Allen Reynolds, miller and baker of Holbeach Road, Spalding, a dear friend of the family; in whose cart, one time or another, all the members of the Elsom family had many a happy ride! Mr. & Mrs. Reynolds had no children of their own, but seemed to find pleasure in numerous and various acts to members of our family, as long as they lived. The writer has much satisfaction in recording this fact.

This caused my heart to leap! Here is Amey Reynolds as a real person, as a neighbourly woman, friendly to children, and happy to offer them rides in her husband’s delivery cart. Perhaps she loved children all the more, having none of her own. And we can imagine her grief at seeing the cart take away the sad little coffin holding the almost eight-year-old Eliza, whom she may have known since birth. A family history website adds the detail about Eliza that ‘Her mother believed that her death was hastened by having been allowed to walk home from Surfleet during a downpour of rain.’

Allen died in 1886, aged sixty-six, and Amey in 1890, at the same age. I wonder if she had kept her childhood sampler, or if it had already strayed into someone else’s possession? At any rate, I will pass on her story to my own children and grandchildren, and hope that they will keep it with her sampler.

Spalding has been famous for its tulip fields

I did my research in 2010, a little ahead of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which in 2017 put on a special exhibition of ‘Sampled Lives’, showing samplers and the history of the girls who made them.

‘Showcasing over 100 samplers from the Museum’s excellent but often unseen collection, this display highlights the importance of samplers as documentary evidence of past lives (and)…the individuality of each sampler, which in some cases is the only surviving document to record the existence of an ordinary young woman.’

A sampler from the Fitzilliam Museum, Cambridge

Other objects awaiting the same story-telling are my christening mugs, a collection I picked up cheaply at an auction house, plus one that has come down through my father’s family. I’ve discovered a fair amount already – one little boy became a highly respectable, philanthropic brewer – but there’s work still to be done, finding out who they were.

My collection of Christening mugs; finding their stories is a work in progress

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

You may also be interested in a previous blog

Suzani from the Silk Road

Other references:

Samplers, Rebecca Scott (Shire Publications 2009) – An illustrated history and description of embroidered samplers

Hidden Topsham – Part Two

This is the second part of my search for obscure nooks and crannies of Topsham, and its hidden stories.

White Street

Dare you walk down White Street? The crooked entrance to the street looks inviting, but also a little spooky.

Head around the corner, however, and you’ll see charming rows of cottages, with little stirring except perhaps a neighbourhood cat. But in the 19th and early 20th century, this was the Red Light district of Topsham – crowded, noisy and disreputable.  Even as late as the 1950s, young girls from other parts of town were forbidden to go there on their own. Fishing families had grown poor, and a mix of sailors of different nationalities coming ashore helped to fuel the frequent drunken fights, especially on Saturday nights.

You can still see the remains of the sign for the Malt Scoop pub, which finally closed in 1982 after complaints of rowdy motorbike gangs. It was also famous for its late night drinking sessions, since in about 1800 a secret door was installed leading into the neighbouring cottage. If the pub was raided, after-hours customers could then make their escape, and this seems to have continued as a very successful ruse for nearly 200 years.

All is changed now: today White Street is calm and quaint, and offers a very pleasant stroll through the historic heart of the town.

Topsham residents avoided walking up White Street, unless they had to pay their gas bill at the offices there, now a quiet residential enclave.
A current resident, enjoying the peaceful street.

Topsham Pubs

As a port, Topsham was naturally renowned for its pubs, and there were once over forty in the town. Only seven pubs remain now. Route Two Cafe was The Steam Packet pub within recent memory, which in earlier days was nicknamed ‘The Bucket of Blood’, since it had a reputation for fights and rowdiness! Trouble often broke out between sailors from different parts of the world and the locals – even those from Wales were considered ‘foreign’.

The memory of lost pubs sometimes lingers on in the house names, as here, with the King’s Head in Higher Shapter Street

But the Bridge, below, is still very much up and running today.

The Bridge is Topsham’s best-known and most historic pub. No one is exactly sure of its age; the current building incorporates 16th century elements, but an Inn has stood here since at least early medieval times, close to the important bridge over the Clyst River. This may have been where cargo loads of Beer Stone were landed by boat, for onward transport into Exeter, for the building of the Cathedral.

Did the stone for the fireplace in our house ‘fall off the back of a boat’ at The Bridge? The house is in Fore Street and was once the central section of a medieval hall house. It has one of only two Beer stone hearths in Topsham, according to the archaeologists, and dates probably from the late 16th century. Here it’s decked for Christmas.

The Bridge’s exterior hides a warren of charming snugs and a delightful old Malthouse, where folk concerts and story-telling sessions are often held.

A Royal Visit

Perhaps its proudest story in modern times is that of the Queen’s visit in 1998. It’s reputed to be the only pub HRH has ever stepped inside.

As this news report tells us: ‘Landlady Caroline Cheffers-Heard received a very confidential phone call from Buckingham Palace… “We were asked not to change anything so that was lovely because she wanted to see the inn as it was. Why she chose here will be a mystery forever…” The Queen was pictured at the 16th century Bridge Inn holding a bottle of special anniversary ale with Caroline and her father, Norman, in the background.

“She didn’t have a drink, but she did take away a case of out 101 celebratory ale.”’ I am proud to say that beer produced by my daughter and son-in-law’s brewery Powderkeg has also been on the Bridge bar list in recent times.

Come back, your Majesty, and sample it!

The hidden closet at the Salutation

Some Topsham pubs have particular features which only the keen-eyed may spot. The Salutation, for instance, which is now an upmarket hotel and restaurant, was once a coaching inn, hence the superb wooden doors which were big enough to throw open and admit the coach and its passengers. This in itself is not a surprise; however, the little white grill on the left may pose a puzzle. In fact, this was ventilation for a small mortuary, at the side of the coaching entrance. A body could be stored here in its coffin, and loaded discreetly onto a departing coach for burial elsewhere.

The Town Fields

After this time spent in pubs, it’s time for a breather in the beautiful community fields, six acres purchased in 2015 on behalf of the town by the Goat Walk Land Trust. These two fields, at the corner where the Goat Walk meets Bowling Green Lane, provide a secluded sanctuary for wildlife and indeed for visitors. Great care is going into the land management, which includes creating two seasonal ‘scrapes’ to help ‘improve drainage and habitat diversity’, as you can see here. Do consider supporting this excellent scheme!

It’s what I hope is the happy final chapter in the efforts to forestall unnecessary development in that area of Topsham. This tussle was around even when the Goat Walk was built in 1909 (see The Tidal Town of Topsham). Topsham developer Richard Cridland opposed its construction as he wanted to build over the whole foreshore of the river. In a pompous letter to the Board of Trade, he claimed that it was a ‘pettyfogging scheme’ which would be ‘a laughing stock for all visitors to the town’. Really?

I will have more to say about the Cridland family in a later blog, as they were also responsible for dividing up the house we live in, and for building Samoa Terrace.

During lockdown walks, I’ve sat in the Trust’s fields listening to birdsong, and marvelling at the early morning light on tall grasses, young trees freshly planted, and emerging wild flowers in the hedges.

Reka Dom

Take a walk back into town along the Strand, and marvel at Reka Dom, the white house with its intriguing towers (one of them built for water storage by an eccentric wine importer), and which at the end of May is adorned with elegant white wisteria. What are its other secrets?

Possibly, Peter the Great, who founded St Petersburg, stayed here when he came over to Britain from Russia to study boatbuilding from 1697-8. (He and his pals trashed their lodgings in Greenwich, so I pity their landlord in Topsham if he did park himself and his entourage on the Strand.) ‘Reka’ means river in Russian, and ‘Dom’ means house. As a somewhat lapsed Russian speaker, I checked with a Russian friend to see if the words did work this way to signify ‘River House’. (The language has complicated rules regarding adjectives placed with nouns.) She assured me that it’s fine.

So we are in with a chance for Peter the Great’s lodgings, and although this is an unproven story, the current owner told me that documents relating to Russian tenants in the house have been unearthed, although she doesn’t have the details. The house has been in her family for 80 years, and it was purchased when derelict in 1939 by her late father-in-law, architect Rex Gardner. As the war swiftly followed, he had to make do with whatever materials were to hand, in the fine old Topsham tradition of ‘making do’, including getting sand from the ’beach’ at the end of the Strand.

The Old Gaol, seen end on, with the former Steam Packet pub on the left. The quayside lies just to the right.

The Old Gaol
At the town end of the Strand, there is an attractive wedge-shaped building made of brick, now a home decor showroom. This has a hidden past however – it was once the town Gaol. One of its functions was to house prisoners who had been sentenced to transportation, keeping them locked up until they boarded the steamer which would take them to the convict ships that would then transport them to Australia or Tasmania.

The Seven Women Convicts – In a newspaper report of 1837, I found the story of seven women who were sentenced at the Devon Assizes to be transported from Topsham to Tasmania. They would probably have been lodged in the town gaol until the ship was ready to sail.

On Saturday last, Mary Dolbear, and Sarah Bartlett, each transported for 14 years; Elizabeth Ware, Jane Duffy, Susan Featherstone, Ann Rawlings, and Elizabeth Jones, transported for 7 years each, were removed from the Devon County Gaol to the Zephyr steamer at Topsham, order to be conveyed to the Platina, in the Thames, bound for Van Diemen’s Land. (The Western Times, Saturday 15 April,1837)

What were the shocking crimes of these women, that they should be sent into exile? Another newspaper reports further on three of them:
Susan Featherstone stole a shawl from Henry Liscombe of Stoke Damarel
Mary Dolbear stole a pair of boots from Peggy Hawkins
Jane Duffy (sic) a blanket and coverlet from John Greve at East Stonehouse
(North Devon Journal, Thursday 12 January 1837)

The Zephyr steam ship, pictured off Topsham by local artist Edward Henry Hurdle, from around the same period as the transportation of the seven women

It is shocking indeed that these women, aged 18 – 56, who were perhaps living in poverty, should be transported for such petty offences. The first part of their journey was by the regular steamer to London: ‘The Zephyr steam packet sailed every Saturday from Topsham to London, a journey that took three days, with stops in Cowes and Portsmouth’, according to Route Two Café, which was formerly the Steam Packet Inn which stood just across the street from the gaol.

Then the women were moved to the Platina convict ship . The ship’s records do indeed list the names of our seven women, among 113 female convicts, whose journey lasted from 22nd April, 1837, to 22nd October, 1837 when they arrived at Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania.

We know a little more about them from the medical records kept by the ship’s doctor on the Platina.
Jane Duffy (18) accidentally swallowed a pin which lodged in her gullet, and later suffered from dysentery.
Mary Dolbear (56) had dysentery twice, and also complained of rheumatism Elizabeth Rawlings (47) was another victim of dysentery

At least the doctor was conscientious and took trouble to write detailed case notes for some of the afflictions. On arrival, ‘female convicts arriving in Tasmania were housed at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart where conditions were grim to say the least’. (note from Gill McLean of Topsham Museum)

The Old Gaol must hide many tragic and largely forgotten stories, ranging from drunken brawls to the last shivering hours spent before being sent away to the other side of the world.

Hidden Gardens

But I’d like to end on a more pleasant note. Topsham is a town of surprises, with hidden gardens and even small fields concealed behind town houses and up small lanes. Check out Topsham on Google Earth, and you will see how green it is. There are tempting gardens to be spied through gateways too as you walk around the town. Some lie directly by the river, often across the Strand from the houses they belong to.

Gardens along the Strand, often across the road from the houses.

And every two years, the Topsham Museum puts on a ‘Secret Gardens’ event, which is hugely popular as generous residents open up their plots for visitors to admire. Everyone wants to see what lies behind those garden doors, gates and archways! The next one will be in 2021.

Admiring the wildflower meadow at Eleanor’s Bower, during the 2018 Secret Gardens event. My granddaughter Martha wonders what she might find in the pond.

Below: Glimpses of the magical gardens at Wixels, a former coal store and now a beautifully styled home which extends into the river. (Visits courtesy of Mary Lambert). The mirrored view is from another ‘Secret Garden’

References: Topsham Inns Past and Present, Colin Piper (Topsham Museum publications, 2010) The Story of the Manor and Port of Topsham, D. M. Bradbeer, (Town & Country Press 1968) Topsham Past and Present, Chips Barber, (Obelisk, 2004)

A note from Cherry: I’m planning a ‘Hidden Topsham – Part Three’ for later in the summer. I hope that these intermittent blogs about Topsham will be of interest for our townspeople, for our sister town across the sea in Topsham Maine (who’ve expressed enthusiasm!) and for anyone else with a fondness for this unique place. Please subscribe to the blog, to receive notifications about the upcoming posts.

You might also be interested in:

Hidden Topsham – Part One

The Tidal Town of Topsham

The Cosmic Zero – ‘Getting Something from Nothing’

I am not known for my skill in mathematics. Although my father was a maths teacher, it seems I didn’t inherit the gene. I struggled as far as O Level Maths (with remedial input from Dad) and then abandoned it with relief. Later, however, when I came into contact with the idea of sacred geometry, I did make my reluctant brain face up to certain mathematical challenges. The effort made me realise that grappling with number can help to stimulate deep layers of thinking, and has come in useful both for my own understanding, and for some of the books that I’ve written.

But the story here is more light-hearted – my own experience of encountering the powers of zero. Although zero itself is not such a light-hearted topic, I discovered, when looking into its history: ‘Within zero there is the power to shatter the framework of logic.’ More on that shortly, but I’ll start the memoir first.

The road in Bath which became the scene of the crime

There are no zeros in the world of the gods. That’s what I’ve been told, anyway. Vida, a friend of mine with a strong interest in the supernatural, pointed out that the number nought doesn’t register on the psychic plane.

‘It just doesn’t work,’ she said. ‘I proved it, with the Premium Bonds. I asked for £50,000, and visualised the number as powerfully as I could. I know that I shouldn’t really ask for money. But my daughter needed things for the baby. Thought I’d give it a go.’

‘And? What happened? Like the rest of us, you didn’t win, I suppose?’

‘Oh, I did. In the very next draw. But I only got £50. The powers-that-be didn’t recognise the noughts, you see.’

‘There’s a zero in fifty,’ I pointed out.

‘Well, they don’t do £5 wins any more,’ she said tartly.

However, as I discovered, it works both ways. The way in which the gods may disregard zeros can sometimes work in our favour. This is the tale of how I lost £200 through no fault of my own, but gained justice through the casual handling of these cosmic zeros. Or maybe it was deliberate? I’ve done my research, and have learnt that the gods sometimes take zeros into their own hands, not so much to retain their jealous power over them, but out of love, to soften the blows of fate, or to allow a little bit of cosmic luck to come our way. Although whatever the outcome, there’s usually a lesson in that too, for us mortals concerned.

Zero may be a relatively modern toy of the gods. The number zero is an invention, not an obvious concept from day one of human civilisation. ‘The origin of the symbol zero has long been one of the world’s greatest mathematical mysteries’, as the Bodleian library states boldly.

The manuscript carbon-dated to prove that this Indian text including the symbol for zero comes from the 3rd-4thc AD. (Bodleian Library)

Although it is primarily a mathematical tool, it most definitely has a magical side too, and many cultures have considered it as having ‘darkly magical connotations’, as one reputable article proclaimed. Zero’s history is one ‘of the paradoxes posed by an innocent-looking number, rattling even this century’s brightest minds and threatening to unravel the whole framework of scientific thought…The clashes over zero were the battles that shook the foundations of philosophy, of science, of mathematics, and of religion.’ (Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife).


Zero arose independently in different parts of the world, but the version we have today probably began in Babylonia around 300BC, as part of the system for notating numbers. It was developed further in India from the 3rd or 4th century AD, as recent carbon dating of a manuscript proves.
It then spread both East and West – the Silk Road must have played a part in its transmission – and finally arrived in Europe in about 1200 AD, championed by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci.

Leonardo Fibonacci, champion of the zero

As for the symbol we use today, it began as a dot, and then a hollow centre was added, turning it into the 0 symbol that we have today. Perhaps someone thought that a dot is a ‘something’ and that we really need some empty space in it to fulfil the underlying concept. (Could the creation of doughnuts, bagels and Polo mints have followed a similar philosophical evolution, I wonder?)


You can watch a delightful video by the Royal Institution about the origins of Zero: What is Zero? Getting Something from Nothing.

Image from Royal Institution’s video: ‘What is Zero?’

But back to the story – I’ll tell you what happened to me one summer, and you can decide for yourself whether zeros have a cosmic significance.

It was an August Bank holiday weekend, in the city of Bath. I’d been at a lunch party in the country on the Sunday, and drove home to a deserted street. I lived on a short Victorian terrace running up a hill. As you can see in the photo at the start of this post, the houses are set up high, and the road running below is bounded by a high retaining wall. It was conveniently close to the city centre, and thus usually choc-a-bloc with commuter cars on weekdays, and with residents, shoppers and visitors at weekends. But today it looked as if almost everyone had gone on holiday, so I had the luxury of gliding, rather than squeezing, into a parking space.

On that Bank Holiday Monday, my friend Erica came over from Bristol for the day, and when she left, I walked with her to her car. I could see immediately that something was up. Her car was parked safely at the top of the hill, but my red Golf was now skewed sideways along the wall, with a grimy white Toyota sitting too close to its bonnet. It didn’t take long to figure out that the Toyota had reversed with considerable force into the Golf, shunting it back into the wall, then rebounding a few inches forwards. The tow bar on the rear of Toyota showed traces of paint, and it had clearly left a corresponding dent on the front end of the Golf. I was flabbergasted.

‘Why on earth did someone do this? There was plenty of room to park.’

‘Looks as if he was drunk,’ said Erica. ‘You’ll have to report it. Would you like me to be a witness?’

I was grateful. Over the next few days I contacted the insurance company, and waited to hear from the owner. I even put a letter on the windscreen of the offending vehicle, inviting the driver to contact me. At once. Forthwith. Politely, so far – after all, it could have been stolen and returned after a joy ride.

One morning later that week, I drew open my bedroom curtains to see someone taking my letter off the windscreen. I recognised him as the man who lived further down the terracey: fiftyish, with a beaky nose and a loose-fitting fawn mac. A widower, someone had said. Ah, well if it was a neighbour, he would be round, once he’d had a chance to read the note.

I waited for another day, but nothing happened. Was he the type to get drunk, then crash his car? I’d heard he was fond of the cricket club bar, but he didn’t look quite that irresponsible. But you never know, do you?

By the end of the week, I’d put a note through his door, and contacted the police. Why didn’t I go round to see him? Why indeed – I ask myself that now, and the only answer – or excuse – I’ve come up with is that I had recently begun to live on my own, and that divorce can make you timid, and want to avoid further confrontations for a while.

‘How could he have done that and walked away?’ I fumed, as time slipped by, with no word from him. ‘He couldn’t have done it without noticing.’

The policeman who called at my house was sympathetic, but he’d seen evidence in the form of train tickets, proving that the widower had been in Cornwall at the time. The said widower also denied both lending his car to anyone, or having it stolen. Nothing to do with him, or his car, he maintained. This was plainly nonsense, but the same pleasant police officer said that without initiating a private forensic test to prove that the paint on the front of my car came from the back of his, there was no firm proof. 

By now, my ex had heard of the mishap and offered to pay a visit to the perpetrator along with a friend. They planned to wear black balaclavas and brandish baseball bats. Just to frighten him, he said. Just to get an admission of guilt. It wasn’t his normal style at all, and I can only assume he and the friend had had a fun time the evening before, fuelled with a bottle of wine, planning this heroic rescue mission.

‘What if it gives him a heart attack?’ I said, declining the offer.

For a long and tedious time, it seemed as though my insurance company would triumph over his. Then they said as Erica was a friend, her witness statement was not evidence. Huh? Since therefore I couldn’t prove the other party’s guilt, they would charge me the £200 excess. I was left with a hole in my bank balance, and also in my understanding of this event. My best guess was that he’d offered a mate the use of his car while he was away – there was no disproving his story of visiting the son in Cornwall – and that the mate had gone on a binge, rammed the car, and left it without a backwards glance. The owner had probably thus invalidated his insurance, and in order to escape trouble was prepared to alienate a close neighbour. It was a bitter result, but I had to swallow it, unless I was to launch an independent court case. But there was more to come.

Scene of The Encounter:
The allotments in Bath, surely one of the most beautifully-situated plots in the country. Mine is just visible at the forefront of the picture, with the apple tree on the right

Sometimes cosmic justice takes a while to pan out. The following summer, I bumped into the widower on the allotments which ran behind my garden. By the time I spotted him, we were so close that acknowledging each other was inevitable.  

‘I’ve lost my cat,’ he said. ‘She might have gone away to die.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said. ‘I’ll look out for her.’

Why were we being polite, as if nothing had happened? Why was I being such a coward? The moment had come to change that.

‘I was very upset,’ I said, ‘when you didn’t respond to my letter. I think you’re aware that your car hit mine, but you wouldn’t own up to it.’

He looked sheepish. ‘I was going through a lot at the time. My wife had died.’

‘And I had just been divorced. I didn’t need the stress either. I lost my no claims bonus, £200.’

He played another hard luck card. ‘Well, maybe it was stolen. When I came to get the MOT, they found that the chassis was completely bent. Had to scrap the car. It was worth £2000 and I had to write it off.’

Hah! I knew then for sure that there was no thief. ‘If there had been, he’d have told the police. He lent or illegally hired out the car, and couldn’t claim on the insurance,’ I triumphed, inwardly.

And so the gods had been kind with their cosmic zeros, at least in terms of the overall balance sheet. The widower had paid three noughts for his misdemeanour. I had lost only two, and perhaps learned a lesson about cowardice.   

References

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife (Souvenir Press – new edition 2019) ‘The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshipped it, and the Christian Church used it to fend off heretics. Today it’s a timebomb ticking in the heart of astrophysics. For zero, infinity’s twin, is not like other numbers. It is both nothing and everything.’

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist