When the Egg Cracks Open

The Alchemical Egg

The egg is a universal symbol of life. It appears in various creation myths, representing the start of the universe itself. In ancient Greek cosmology, the ‘Orphic egg’ is considered to be the source of life, and is often depicted with a serpent wound around it. From the egg hatches the primordial deity, the golden-winged Phanes, who in turn creates a pantheon of gods.

As one account says: The Cosmic Egg is one of the most prominent icons in world mythology. It can be found in Egyptian, Babylonian, Polynesian and many other creation stories. In almost all cases, this embryonic motif emerges out of darkness, floating upon the waters of chaos. Within this egg typically resides a divine being who literally creates himself from nothing… This creator then goes on to form the material universe.


In Russian folklore, eggs also represent time itself. One traditional custom celebrates the turning of the year by visualising the coming year as twelve nests, representing the twelve months, all sitting in the branches of a mighty oak tree. Each nest has four eggs in it, and each egg will hatch seven chicks, thus creating the weeks in the month, and the days in the week. (This doesn’t quite add up to the full number of days in the year, but never mind!) Decorated eggs, both natural and crafted, are particularly popular in Russia and also in the Ukraine, not only for Easter, but all year round.

I have always had a personal attachment to eggs. I have kept hens, and nothing beats the pleasure of reaching your hand into a nest of straw and gently clasping the warm egg laid there that morning. I love eating them – though they have to be ‘just right’ – no sloppy whites! Perhaps there’s something powerful about the potential of an egg to be perfect, fresh and tasty to eat, or to be repellent through its undercooked sliminess, let alone when it’s gone bad and stinks. Even those home laid hen’s eggs could sometimes deliver a nasty shock if they’d been hidden away in the nest for too long!

I’ve also kept Russian decorative eggs from the period when I was importing Russian crafts. I prefer the simple shapes, rather than the elaborate, Faberge-style ones, because the primordial shape of the egg is perfection itself.

The Story to Come

In my occasional alchemy blogs I draw from my book Everyday Alchemy, but I also like to introduce stories that haven’t been told before, as I did in the previous one (Alchemy and the Trickster), recounting how I met a current-day Hermes in Amsterdam.The next extract I’m adapting from the book already contains a personal story, however, which also dates from my student years, and which precedes that meeting in Amsterdam.

When I post these passages from my book, I aim to refresh them with new observations and experiences, so they may be somewhat different here to the form in which they first appeared, and perhaps appeal to a wider range of readers. For those who would like to follow this further, the book contains practical suggestions as a guide to working with alchemical principles in everyday life (but not in a laboratory!). Although Everyday Alchemy is currently out of print, copies can still be found, and I hope that it will be republished at some point.

This extract is adapted from: ‘Cracking the Egg’, Chapter One, Everyday Alchemy
(Please note: all copyright retained by Cherry Gilchrist, author.)

Emblem 8: Take the egg and pierce it with a fiery sword
(from Michael Maier’s ‘Atlanta Fugiens’)

This is the moment. You hold the sword in your hand, ready to pierce the egg that stands before you. It is the perfect egg, and the perfect moment to do the deed. Now is your chance to strike.


But it is terrifying to commit yourself to this moment. It is much easier to linger in the past or dream of the future. And the egg is beautiful as it is. If the sword doesn’t strike cleanly, you might shatter the shell and damage the precious embryo of life inside it. Wouldn’t it be better to leave it be?


It is your choice, of course. The sword carries your intention, and you must decide whether you will use it to break open the alchemical egg and initiate the process of transformation. The egg may look perfect, but it is as yet undeveloped. From the moment of opening the egg, you must begin the work of developing the raw material it contains through every stage of change until it becomes alchemical gold. The egg will certainly perish if its potential is not released, so the choice cannot be postponed indefinitely. The gold you aspire to, on the other hand, is incorruptible. It is a symbol for enlightenment, the Elixir of Life, the realisation of Life beyond life, the Sun behind the sun. It is a place of safety for the human spirit, and an entry point into the divine world.


The moment of impending change is frightening. The act of splitting the egg open will catapult the alchemist into an unknown world; from this moment on, he will be changed. He will have to leave his old life behind. On his face we can read apprehension, and even a hint of terror. But he knows that even though he trembles on the brink, he has to go forward. This chance may only come once in a lifetime. (The emblem depicts a male alchemist; traditionally, there were also many female alchemists, although it was a difficult activity for a woman with children and household responsibilities to take up, as it required many hours or days of solitude.)


There is also intense concentration in his expression. The perfect egg could be ruined by one careless slip with the sword. So his act of bravery must be carried out as precisely and skilfully as possible.

Setting out on the Path

Alchemy is about change. Each of us changes – life itself does that to us. Age, environment and experience affect us, altering our appearance and our outlook. Hopefully, we all finish our lives a little wiser than we started. But the work of alchemy makes different demands. It is for those who consciously seek change on a bigger scale – not change for change’s sake, but for the growth of the spirit.


Alchemists have always said that there is a right moment to start the ‘great work’, and to initiate the alchemical process, sometimes according to astrology, or the lunar cycle. But perhaps more critical is the time that precedes that, the moment of choice, which is shown here. This can be triggered by a key event. In the 16th century, a young man called Jakob Boehme had a mysterious encounter. One day, he was at work as a humble apprentice in a shoe shop, when a stranger appeared in the doorway. His eyes were burning with an unearthly light, and he said: ‘Jakob, thou art little, but shalt be great, and become another man, such a one as at whom the world shall wonder.’ From that day, Boehme became aware of his destiny, and went on to become a famous alchemist and mystic.

Below: Jacob Boehme and his own version of the ‘cosmic egg’ – ‘The Philosophical Sphere, or the Wonder Eye of Eternity’


Even though such a dramatic revelation may happen rarely, perhaps on this occasion from an angelic messenger, similar experiences can happen even in ordinary meetings with normal people. Someone may speak a few words that strike us with great power, and which become our imperative, spurring us to take a different direction. Or a seemingly unrelated event may also bring us to that moment of change.

A Road Trip in Mexico

In 1968, when I was student of nineteen, my boyfriend and I headed off to America for the summer. We reached the West Coast, hung out in San Francisco (as you did, the year after the Summer of Love), and decided to drive down through Mexico in an old camper van. One morning, after a showery night, we were heading through the hills in central Mexico towards a little town called Zacatecas. Chris was driving, as I hadn’t passed my test at that time. The surface was slippery and suddenly, as we were rounding a bend, the car skidded and veered towards the edge of the road. Below us was an almost sheer drop down a high earth cliff. I watched the whole process happen with great clarity – there was no room for fear – and I remember thinking quite calmly: ‘This is the last thought that I shall ever have. What a shame.’ Then the van plunged over the edge, and I fell with it into a kind of grey limbo. I ‘woke up’ after it had rolled over and over and came to rest at the bottom of the cliff. Miraculously, the two of us in it were almost unhurt, apart from bruises and minor cuts, and a bristling mass of cactus spines in my legs. But nothing was ever the same again.


For several weeks prior to the accident, I had sensed that something very frightening was about to happen, though I had no idea what. I felt that my world – my egg – was about to burst open. I would wake up at night in distress from nightmares, and yet I couldn’t say what they were about. And after the accident, there was no blissful state of relief that I was still alive. In fact, we lived through a horrible period; to begin with, when we climbed back up to the road, no one would stop to help us although we were visibly bleeding. When kind strangers finally took us to hospital, we were treated and released within a few days, but then we had to live in the little mountain town for weeks while they sorted out our insurance claim. It turned out that the drunken official who’d issued them at the border hadn’t actually signed our papers. The police who’d eventually attended the scene of the accident had stolen not only a camera but also our travellers’ cheques. Thus, while this was being sorted – they eventually handed the camera back, but the travellers’ cheques involved a lengthy replacement process – our money ran out, and we had to sleep in a hut where rats ran across the floor. At night, I began to indulge in a fantasy that we had really died, and that now we were trapped in some kind of curious and unpleasant otherworld.

Here I am, sitting in the car repair yard, wondering if they’re going to be able to fix our VW camper van. Zacatecas, Mexico, 1968

By day, everything began to polarise into the good and the bad. There were kind people who helped us, fed us, and acted like Good Samaritans. There were also corrupt officials and those too callous to help. And the terror of the accident haunted me, as it did for months to come.

The VW van in the repair yard, with my boyfriend examining the rear door. Would you trust any of these guys standing around? We had little choice, though.

But – and here is the promise of gold among the dross – this event brought me to the most important choice of my life. I had come close to death, and I had to face up to this. It had haunted me, as it probably did many of my generation, with the threat of nuclear war in our early teens. The threat was indeed very real, and my sense of a dark, terrifying void beyond life wouldn’t go away. Now I couldn’t shelve the ‘big questions’ any more, about life and death and my own place on this planet. Back in the UK, I began attending a meditation class (you can find details of this here), and soon afterwards I found the line of study that I have followed since, based in the Western Hermetic and Cabbalistic tradition. The accident had shattered my world, but it brought new hope and a new way forward.

The Egg Breaks Open

When the moment is seized, and the egg broken open – either by your own agency, or by powers seemingly from outside – there is a real shift in life. It is like becoming a driver instead of a passenger. Your range of options increases – where to go, what speed to travel at, and what to see along the way. Of course, there are different dangers and responsibilities too, when you take charge of a fast and potentially lethal vehicle.


Alchemy itself is often described as the speeding up of a natural process. Alchemy accelerates the work of nature, and traditional alchemists often put themselves at serious risk in their laboratories, where explosions and escape of poisonous gases were common. You may be relieved to hear that I’m not recommending any dangerous laboratory experiments! (Which are, in any case, entirely outside my area of expertise.) However, even as an ‘everyday alchemist’, working on the material of your own life, you may discover highly charged areas of energy in your own being. This is still work that has to be handled with care and skill. And as the alchemists themselves have said, it also needs discipline, hard work and patience. Meditation, for instance, requires a regular habit of taking time out and dropping immediate concerns.


If you choose to take such a path, the alchemical view is that you’re speeding up the process of spiritual evolution and perhaps taking it further than would normally happen over a lifetime. In terms of gold itself, the alchemists believed that all matter is slowly evolving into gold, and that the chosen ‘work’, whether in a spiritual or material sense, is to do with conscious acceleration of that development.

The Story of the King’s Son


This sense of purpose and destiny is embodied in an ancient and beautiful Gnostic poem called The Hymn of the Robe of Glory. (It is sometimes also known as Hymn of the Pearl.) It tells the story of a king’s son, whose parents send him on a quest to find a precious pearl hidden in the depths of the earth.
The King’s son leaves his heavenly palace, and descends to this world. Here, he forgets his true origins and the task which he has to perform. He goes to live in the land of Egypt, which is a symbol for the dark land of sleep, and indulging of base desires. (Egypt is also, incidentally, a metaphor for the ‘black earth’, the primal material of alchemy, and alchemy itself may have originated in Egypt.)


His royal parents wait for him, but he doesn’t return. So they compose a letter to him, and send it in the form of an eagle, the ‘king-bird’ and divine messenger.


It flew and alighted beside me
And turned into speech altogether
At its voice and at the sound of its wings
I awoke and arose from my deep sleep.
The eagle speaks the message to the drowsy prince:
‘Up and arise from thy sleep…
Remember that thou art a King’s son…
Think of the Pearl
For which thou didst journey to Egypt.’


So the son remembers who he is, and what he has to do. He finds the pearl, and begins the journey home. As he finally approaches his parents’ palace, he sees the Robe of Glory spread out before him, the garment of light that he is destined to wear. He accepts his true birthright.


This allegory declares that we are all royal sons and daughters, who have forgotten our heritage. Every one of us has a chance to awaken to the message of the eagle, and remember the mission we are on. Such a message is not found exclusively in ancient texts, but also closer to our time, for instance in ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’ by Wordsworth:


Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come…


But we become so immersed in both the cares and the delights of everyday life that we lose sight of our real destiny, and it takes a conscious choice to fulfil it. We are given fresh chances; the message comes, often in an unexpected form, but we have to awaken to it, and choose to act. The pearl will lie forgotten in the depths of the earth, unless we remember to look for it.

(End of extract from Everyday Alchemy. )

To round off this post, I’ll include the exercise which immediately follows this extract in the chapter. You never know, you might like to try it!

Following the Thread
What turning points can you identify in your own life? Review a crucial event in your life. Remember, as clearly as you can, what happened in terms of the outer sequence of action. You may feel emotional about this, but although you should acknowledge your emotions, it’s important that they don’t cloud the story.


Put the event in context: what led up to it? Follow the thread back from the event itself. Try not to judge the reasons and causes, but rather see what comes to mind.


Then follow the thread forward. What changed as a result? Try and see it as a story, almost as though somebody else was telling it.


Write down what you have discovered. Repeat this exercise over the next few days, and see if any of your perceptions change.

You may also be interested in:

Alchemy and the Trickster

Alchemy and Cooking

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Dartmoor Ponies

Who doesn’t love to see a pony in the wild? Each time I visit Dartmoor I keep an eye out for these ponies which roam the moorland freely, often in small herds. All the photos here are ones that I’ve taken over the years, as opportunities arise. The ponies are very hardy, and like all British native ponies, know how to seek shelter and where to find a windbreak by an old wall or line of trees. Although they appear completely wild, all of them do in fact have owners. Each year, ‘drifts’ take place, a gathering process involving horse riders, vehicles and helpers on foot, who round up the ponies from the moor and drive them into holding pens. Here they are checked over to make sure they are in good health, and some are selected to be sold off. They are sure-footed, make reliable riding ponies, and have been used by farmers, children, shepherds and even postmen for generations.

Here the ponies find shelter and better grazing in Grimspound, the prehistoric settlement dating from the late Bronze Age. Most likely the stone wall enclosure, in which dwelling huts once stood, originally contained livestock too.

Ponies have in fact roamed on Dartmoor since prehistoric times, and probably the breed standard as laid down today is akin to the type which was originally found on the moor, as is the case with Exmoor ponies. The main difference between Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies is that the Exmoor breed is sturdier, and has a characteristic ‘mealy’, ie pale or white, muzzle. Dartmoor ponies are commonly thought of as brown or bay, but other colours are ‘permitted’ – black, grey, chestnut or roan.

Groups of ponies, sleek in their summer coats, on the village green at Widecombe-in-the-Moor. The ones above have the most traditional colouring for a Dartmoor pony

I started riding when I was eight years old, and became very keen very quickly! My parents were able to let me have a riding lesson once a week, but couldn’t afford to keep a pony, so for years I helped out at riding stables to earn myself ‘free rides’. I’ve always had a great affection for British native ponies, which are full of character, clever, and sturdy, but I quickly grew too tall to ride them any more. When I lived on Exmoor I was able to fulfil my dream of owning a horse, and we took on a half-Exmoor pony too, an old, lovable rogue called Eccles. His method of escaping from the field was simply to lean his considerable weight on the fence until it gave way. On the whole, native ponies are more wily than their elegant Thoroughbred relatives.

A typical Exmoor pony, on Anstey Common. Note the ‘mealy’ nose, a distinguishing feature of the breed.

Although the Dartmoor breed is limited to ponies of around 12.2hh (each ‘hand’ measures four inches, in old money), another, larger type is recognised as the ‘Dartmoor Hill Pony‘. ‘A Dartmoor Hill Pony is one bred on the commons of Dartmoor by a registered commoner, whose sire and dam run on the said commons. This ensures that the sire has been inspected and approved by the Dartmoor commoners council as a suitable stallion to run on the commons.’ They have their own special class at the annual Widecombe Fair.

Dartmoor Hill Ponies create their own special display at Widecombe Fair (2018)

Strictly speaking, no ‘coloured’ ponies – ie mixed colours, such as black and white (piebald), or brown and white (skewbald) – are recognised as true Dartmoor ponies. (Coloured ponies in general are especially favoured and considered lucky by Romanies and travellers.) However, quite a number can be seen on the moor.

And these tiny ponies below may be the kind which were originally bred from a Shetland pony-Dartmoor cross, as working pit ponies for the mines (tin, copper and iron). As for the Shetland pony as a breed, it may look very cuddly, but is known for its stubborn and often snappy nature. It doesn’t make an ideal child’s pony, despite its appealing appearance.

It’s always a delight to come across ponies on the moor or even ambling through a village. But it’s worth noting that although they are are not completely wild, they are not tame either, and shouldn’t be encouraged to hang around car parks and picnic spots for titbits. It’s a danger to the ponies themselves to wander on the roads, and they can become greedy and bad-tempered if given so-called ‘treats’, which may in any case do their digestions harm. Dartmoor ponies get all they need from the moorland grazing.

Some final photos follow, from the different hills and commons of Dartmoor.

Although I’ve officially given up riding now, I was delighted to take the opportunity to ride out on Dartmoor – though not on a Dartmoor pony! Thanks to Helen Newton for the chance to ride Kavi on several occasions, ambling through the village of Lustleigh, and fording the river at the ancient Hisley Bridge .

You may also be interested in:

Dartmoor 365 – a Facebook group based on the book by John Hayward which explores every square mile of the Dartmoor National Park. This is where people share their experiences and photos of visiting the individual squares. In ‘normal’ times, we have an annual cream tea meet-up as well! Pictured here is Rob Hayward, son of the Dartmoor 365 author, who along with the Facebook group’s founder Anthony Francis-Jones, keeps the book updated.

Chris Chapman, photographer has been living and filming on Dartmoor for about forty years, and his film ‘Wild River, Cold Stone’ pays homage to this unique landscape and way of life. You can watch the trailer in the clip below. He is also co-author of The Three Hares: A Curiosity worth Regarding, the only comprehensive study of the Three Hares motif which turns up along the way from the Silk Road to Dartmoor churches. (A topic which I hope to tackle in a future post!)

Lockdown Topsham

From the start of lockdown in March 2020 until the end of July, I walked a two mile circuit around Topsham very early almost every morning. I set out usually before 7.0 and sometimes as soon as 5.30am, when it was light enough to see my way. It was a spontaneous urge to be up and out before the day got busy, and the pathways too crowded for social distancing.

The images and reflections which follow are my personal experience of this, as homage to the great beauty of the area, and as keepsakes from what we will surely look back on as a very strange time. They are just what I chose to photograph on my walks, rather than a comprehensive diary, and are not arranged here in date order. I hope you will enjoy this excursion through dawn scenery and the curiosities of lockdown Topsham.

The Goat Walk, still deep in shadow at dawn over a high tide on the River Exe

My usual route took me along the River Exe from Ferry Road to the quayside, then up the Strand with its historic, Dutch-styled houses to the Goat Walk, a narrow path which runs above the river bed. At the end of this spit of land, I would turn into the two community-owned fields to have a taste of the countryside, before continuing down Bowling Green Lane, with the bird reserve in the marshes on the right.

A frieze of geese, in the nature reserve

From the end of the Lane, a sharp uphill turn led to the top of Monmouth Street, and back down to the quayside. There I often walked home past the shops on Fore Street to reach our own front door.

The images below show the emergence of spring and into early summer in the Bowling Green Lane area


Sometimes I had a change, walking first through the town and out again past the Bridge Inn, crossing the River Clyst towards Darts Farm, but turning off first on the track back to Topsham.

The road past the Bridge Inn, then Dart’s Farm fields, and a figure appearing out of the mist
This was taken at 7.06 am on April 21st. It’s the ‘Dart Fresh’ crew, getting ready to take their fresh food supplies to grateful customers all over the area. I can testify to how far afield they travel, since when we took a break on Exmoor at the beginning of August, their van was the first thing we saw arriving at the remote moorland village of Simonsbath!

All this time, I marvelled at the changing seasons, with the first green of spring, and the growth of flowers and leaves into summer. I noticed the light changing too, as dawn grew later.

Dawn over Bowling Green Marshes – and what are those strange trails in the sky? So few planes were flying then, in April, that any sign of them caught our attention.

I did not set out to keep a record of lockdown, but I always took a phone or camera with me, and snapped what was beautiful or interesting, which means I do have some images directly related to the lockdown itself, which include those taken out and about in the town later in the day.

Upended tables at the closed Passage Inn look like a strange invasion of stick insects. Below, our cat Zaq and Rupert the bear in lockdown (the town organised a ‘Bear Hunt’), and a cheerful message on the walkway over the River Clyst.
June and July – The barber’s shop re-opens at last! The Art Shop opens its doors, with a new display to tempt people in, and moving house is allowed again.


There was a camaraderie about those walks. We were a scattered band of people who loved the peace and freshness of the early morning, and who wanted to beat the risk of finding ourselves in crowded places later in the day. Some faces were familiar, others new to me. I often exchanged greetings with our friend who takes weather photos for the BBC, and with another who plays the church organ, and I also became acquainted with a lady who always walks when she comes off night duty at an emergency call centre. Although the circumstances were harsh, there was something very special about those walks, and about the changing beauty of the scene. The weather was exceptionally good during those few months; bird song was crystal clear, roads were quiet, air unpolluted.

Suddenly, it was wisteria time!


From August, everything changed, both with the easing of restrictions and my own circumstances. The early walks came to an end. Perhaps I will begin them again this spring – but this time I hope it will be on the basis of wanting to do so, rather than from the pressures of lockdown.

You may also be interested in:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham Part One

Hidden Topsham Part Two

Hidden Topsham Part Three

Hidden Topsham Part Four

Topsham Celebrates

The Ancestors of Easter Island


We may think of ancestor cults as belonging to earlier forms of society, but this isn’t entirely true. Anyone who starts researching family history knows how finding the ancestors can create what feels like a living connection with those of our blood line who passed away long ago. I should know – I’ve done it! It came as something of a shock to me, but as with other avenues I’ve explored, I eventually decided to put both my research tips and something of my experience into a book. The result is Growing Your Family Tree: Tracing your roots and discovering who you are (Piatkus 2011; e-book with Lume Books 2019)

In order to write the book, I wanted to hear how other people had experienced the family history trail, so I set up a survey. Some wonderful material came up through this, which I’ve quoted liberally in the book, and which I hope to include in a future post for Cherry’s Cache. Also on the agenda is a further post about taking up ‘The Quest’ in family history, making expeditions to explore the terrain where ancestors lived, and hunt for new information.

But for this current post, I’d like to share two experiences which I had, of witnessing what ancestors mean in cultures other than a modern Western one. These are included in my book, but I’m bringing them together here for the first time, and with photographs which tell as much of the story as the words.

At the temple complex of Goa Lawah in Bali, where funerals and special ancestor ceremonies are conducted

Sailing to the far side of the world – Bali and Easter Island

My husband Robert and I used to go on cruises as guest lecturer and artist-in-residence. We made some fascinating voyages, mostly on smaller ships, which allowed us to travel to smaller ports than is possible on giant liners. One of the most extraordinary journeys was to Easter Island, as I’ll recount shortly. First though, I’ll relate how a trip to Bali allowed us to see, quite by chance, a ceremony for drawing back the spirit of an ancestor to dwell in the family home:

From Chapter Two
In modern Western culture, it may seem odd to assert that the ancestors can make their presence felt, but in many other cultures it is a natural assumption. Ancestor veneration is, or has been, important in practically any society that we might care to study. African, South American and Aboriginal Australian cultures all have strong beliefs in the significance of the ancestors, and practise customs which acknowledge the part they play in family life. They are variously thought, for instance, to guide their descendants, govern the local landscape and assist in divining the future. In shamanic practice, still found in countries such as Mongolia and Siberia, magician healers enter a trance and depart on a journey to the spirit realms to encounter the ancestors of the villagers, who will then give them counsel for the wellbeing of the community.

Ancestors in such cultures may be seen as deities, spirits or souls of the departed – there is no one definition, and often the boundaries are hazy – but their existence at some level is taken as a given. On the whole, they are not deified in the sense of worship, and therefore scholars nowadays prefer to use the term ‘ancestor veneration’, as this reflects more accurately the broad sweep of customs associated with the ancestors.

Below: the different shrines and ceremonies of Goa Lawah, which is also celebrated for its sacred ‘bat cave’! (Photo of procession from a website showing further images of the temples; other images © Robert Lee-Wade, Cherry Gilchrist)

When my husband and I visited Bali early in 2010, by great good fortune we hired a taxi driver who was keen to show us some of these customs. He drove us to a temple built into the rocky hillside, known as Goa Lawah. It is a popular venue for funeral ceremonies, and renowned for its colony of sacred bats, which reside in a cave at the back of the temple. Situated at a place where sea and land meet (symbolising the border between the present life and the afterlife, our driver told us), the temple acts as the mediator for the soul that must take its journey from one to the other. The body is first cremated, and then the ashes are placed in a coconut shell and taken down to the shore close by, where they are thrown into the ocean. A line or rope, with up to 2500 ceremonial coins tied to it, is cast into the waters as well, and the mourners cry out for the dead person to return to them as they draw it back to shore again. Two times more, the line is cast and the call goes up for the deceased to come home.

The ceremony of drawing back the spirit of the deceased from the ocean, which we witnessed from a distance in Bali

After twelve days have passed, the family members return to the same spot, and collect some kind of object (our driver was vague on this point – perhaps a stone from the shore, or something left over from the ceremony) which they carry reverently back to their home. This object is then placed in the domestic shrine, where it is believed to embody the spirit of the relative, now an honoured ancestor. From this time on, this ancestor will watch over the family, and protect and bless its members.’

It might seem as though Western society is far removed from such practices, but we too have our graveyards, where flowers are renewed, and relatives go to remember their loved ones. On Remembrance Sunday in Britain, we honour the dead of the two World Wars, and in Russia, practically every newly married couple has a photo taken in front of the local war memorial, where the eternal flame burns to commemorate the fallen soldiers. There are traces of interaction with the departed too, in Western customs, such as the feast of Samhain or Halloween in Irish tradition, when food and drink was and perhaps still is left out for the dead. We mark roadside casualties with shrines of flowers and symbolic objects. In Russian Orthodoxy, the first forty days after the death of a person are thought to be a journey during which the soul suffers various trials and temptations before reaching a more blessed state; at the end of these forty days, families may hold a ‘remembering feast’ to honour the departed and the arrival of the soul in heaven.

‘At the Lotus Cafe, Bali’ – a painting by Robert Lee-Wade. (I’m in the pink dress!)

The mother at the centre of the world

Discovering the part that ancestors can play in human life may come about in unexpected ways. When I visited one of the remotest islands in the world, I had no idea that it would lead me into an intense experience of this kind. Here’s how it happened:

The island of the Moai – painting by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA

From Chapter Eight
It’s 2 March 2008. Mother’s Day in the UK, but we are spending it in the South Pacific, far away from gifts of flowers and chocolates, and restaurants packed with families taking Mum out to lunch. In fact, we are in a completely different civilisation altogether, visiting Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island. Robert and I have been transported here as lecturers on board a cruise ship, and today is our second and final day in this extraordinary place. We catch the tender boat from our ship and ride the fierce waves to the shore. The captain has warned us all that we might not even be able to land, after six days of sailing from the Chilean port of Valparaiso. All in the lap of the gods, he says.

And gods are what they have here. Yesterday, we watched the island emerge from the haze with growing excitement – a rounded volcanic scoop of land dressed in soft greens and greys. We began to make out cliffs and swathes of grassland, then, finally, the first of the giant statues for which the island is famous: the Moai. Nearly a thousand of these stone statues, with their huge heads and staring gaze, are placed around the island, many at the edge of the land, facing inwards towards the people they protect and command. Each face has its own character. When we landed, I made straight for the first Moai I could see, standing on the rim of the harbour, and was seized with a spine-tingling sense of awe as I gazed up at him. In fact, I felt overwhelmed. This was a place I had known of since I was a child, but had never dreamed I might be able to visit. Now we were stepping into its mythical world.

An imposing Moai or ancestor statue on Rapa Nui. Most are about three times human size.

There are still many questions and mysteries surrounding the old culture of Easter Island, but it’s known that the statues were carved between five and eight hundred years ago, and it is thought that they represent the deified male ancestors. Certainly, today’s inhabitants treat them as such, and asked us to respect the Moai by never treading upon the ahu, the sacred stone platforms upon which they are set. On the first day, then, we became acquainted with these ancestors, along with the herds of bright bay horses that roam the island freely, the green-sided volcano with its extraordinary internal lake and the exquisite beaches fringed with palm trees. The island, once stripped of its trees, is back to a better natural balance again, planted also with stately groves of eucalyptus. All through the centuries of change, the Moai have presided as immortals over the landscape.

Almost as strange as the Moai is the unexpected sight of horses roaming freely among them. They are much prized by the islanders and we saw many during our stay.

Now it’s day two of our visit, and we have barely a morning to see whatever else we can of this magical island. Something has tickled my imagination in a guidebook that I browsed on board the ship: a mention of an ancient round stone representing ‘the navel of the world’. Te Pito Te Henua is one of the other names for Easter Island and that in itself means the navel and uterus of the world, so this stone would therefore be the navel of the navel. Robert agrees: we should try to find it.

Friends on board recommended that we seek out the woman taxi driver on the quayside, probably the island’s one and only female cabbie among the ranks of beaming and burly male drivers. We spot her easily, and though they’d mentioned her simply because of her general helpfulness, hiring her cab for the morning turns out to be crucial to what we discover.

‘Ah, so you want to go to the place that we visit for energy,’ she says, when we ask her about the site, for which we have only rough directions. She takes us over to the north coast of the island, veering away from a well-frequented beach (though that, in Easter Island terms, may mean only a handful of people) to turn down an unpaved road which emerges by another small and completely empty beach. Among the rocks above the sea line, a round wall of stones and boulders has been created, about three feet high and eight feet in diameter. Within the circle it encloses, a huge and beautifully smooth ovoid stone has been placed, like a giant egg. Four similar but smaller stones are set around it at regular intervals, forming a square. It has a Celtic feel about it – we could almost be on the West Coast of Ireland or in the Hebrides – but here we are, over two thousand miles from any mainland and over eight thousand away from home.

The stone enclosure, reminiscent of Scotland or Ireland, rather than a remote island in the Pacific ocean

It is first and foremost a place for women, our driver tells us. She invites me alone to accompany her into the circle, and seats me on one of the smaller stones, encouraging me to place my hands on the great stone egg in front of me. She sits opposite and does likewise. ‘Put your hands on it gently,’ she says. ‘Relax.’

Women of the island have been coming here for hundreds of years, she explains. They come to pray for help, for safe childbirth and even for the delivery of their babies. The stone is the mother, their mother, and the island’s mother. ‘What do you feel?’ she asks me.

Sensing the energy of the stone

I feel as though the stone is not a stone at all, but an egg with the shell stripped away, and the delicate but all-powerful pulse of life moving within its membrane. I sense the women who have laid their hands here, and the ancestral mothers whose spirit is contained within the stone itself. Currents of energy seem to be running up my arms.

I tell her some of this, and she is satisfied. She then steps outside the circle and invites Robert to come and join me. Now I can suggest to him how to sit and place his hands and, rather to his surprise, he too experiences waves of energy.

We leave the enclosure. It’s time to get back to the harbour and board our ship for another six-day voyage, back to the coast of South America. Both of us are reflective after the experience, and feel privileged that one of the islanders trusted us enough to teach us about her sacred site. We first met the father of the island in the myriad forms of male ancestors, but now we have also met its mother – the one stone representing all the female ancestors.

This is a Mother’s Day that I won’t forget.

The mysterious Moai stones face inland, not out to sea. It’s as if they’ve arisen from the ocean, rather like the spirit of the deceased in Bali, and are gazing at us with news from another world.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these descriptions, and please remember that you’re welcome to add comments or recount your experiences too. If you are making a comment on the blog for the first time, this will be submitted to me first to activate it, so it could take a day or two before you see it posted.

You may also be interested in:

Following the Female Line

Sin, Seduction and Sidmouth

The Abduction of Mary Max

The Company of Nine

We, who come among the dead as far
 as to the very Goddess, nine girls,
 maidens, lovely in our dancing,
 in bright loveliness of folded
 woven-work, with fine-sawn necklaces
 of ivory, shine, brilliant
 to the dead eye as forgotten daylight
 (7th c. BCE Greek Papyrus, from Dances for Flute and Thunder, transl.Brooks Haxton)

The Nine Ladies

The idea of a group of nine women or maidens who perform healing, dancing, or magical ceremonies is very ancient – much more ancient than we might imagine. It has served as a kind of template for what we could call ‘women’s votive groups’ in both a historical and an archetypal sense. The poem above is from Greece, in the 7th century BCE, describing how nine female spirits dance their way through the realms of the dead to the Goddess. Move forward a thousand years or so to the British myth of nine sisters or priestesses who conveyed the dying King Arthur to the otherworld of Avalon, add in the classical Nine Muses along the way, and we begin to see a story here, of nine women engaged on sacred tasks.

The Nine Muses of ancient Greece: Engraving from a painting by Italian artist Baldassarre Peruzzi, of Apollo dancing with the nine Muses – (Credit: Science Source)

I knew about this template in historical terms to some extent when I first wrote The Circle of Nine, back in the 1980s. The book was conceived as a response to the groups that I and other women were involved in at the time, using a schema of nine feminine archetypes to understand the role they played in our own lives. We called it ‘Nine Ladies’, taking the name from the stone circle in Derbyshire, which we had visited on several occasions. As I wrote the book, I came across a few more historical references to ‘the circle of nine’, but with no internet resources to draw on in those days, and a deadline looming, I couldn’t investigate much further. Then, three years ago, came the opportunity to re-write the book and dig deeper into research. What I found astonished me. I learnt that ‘the Company of Nine’, as I prefer to call it in the broader context, seems to be the fundamental template for women engaged in a votive or sacred task. It’s widespread in time and space, found from Africa to Russia, and from around 10,000 BCE until the present era.

This has been an exciting discovery, and in this post my aim here is to give a brief view of this wide range of groups of nine women. (You’ll find a fuller version in my book, where I’ve dedicated the opening chapter to the Company of Nine.) Overall, there is a range both of those who had a historical reality, as well as those existing in myth, folklore, or are symbolised within the contours of the landscape. Each group seems to have a specific task or function, whether of divination or healing, serving a saint or goddess, or even simply dancing for joy. Their job is often to help others, work magic, or see into the realms of the future.

I would say that this symbolic grouping of women has a particular significance which is still relevant today. And its age-old form has a kind of life of its own. Since The Circle of Nine was first published I’ve been contacted by individual women who’ve discovered the book in a mysterious way, sometimes through dreams or omens. They, and others, have since created their own imaginative take on the Nine, ranging from organising drama courses around the nine archetypes, to making perfumes for the essence of each one. This is not, I’m convinced, just because of the book I’ve written, but because the book taps into something ancient that lives on in the female psyche. And I am just another mouthpiece for this.

The Nine Ladies stone circle of Stanton Moor, Derbyshire. (‘Visit Peak District’)

Above is the most recent edition of my book published in 2018 by Weiser. Below left, the first edition which came out in 1988 in a series called Compass of Mind which I devised for Batsford, with a cover by Gila Zur. Below right is the second edition in 1991 with Penguin Arkana. Re-writing the text for this new version, I realised that although much had changed for women, the Circle of the Nine archetypes remains a constant in our lives.

So now to some examples of the ‘Company of Nine’:

The Nine Priestesses of Sena

A very fine example of a ‘company of nine’ was recorded by the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela. He reported that a group of nine priestesses lived on an island called Sena, lying off the coast of Brittany – possibly the one known today as the Ile de Sein situated in what is known as the Bay of the Dead, and thought of as a portal to the ‘otherworld’. Here, the women tended the oracle of a Gallic god, and were ‘endowed with singular powers’. Navigators visited the priestesses seeking guidance, wanting to know their destiny, and asking to them to charm the winds and seas to give the mariners a safe passage. These women were also renowned for their ability to shape-shift into different animal forms, and to heal serious wounds and diseases.


The priestesses of Sena seem to have had a historical basis, and similar groups appear in medieval times, where accounts relate how companies of nine women travelled around Scandinavia, acting as seeresses. One such ‘volva’ or spae-queen is described in an Icelandic saga from Greenland; in the saga, a colourful description is given of her visit to a remote village, where she dresses in special robes, and utters her predictions from a throne specially erected for the occasion. Her forecasts relate to weather, health, and future marriages within the community. Legends of the nine abound too; in Brittany, nine witches or spirits are said to inhabit the mountain of Dol. Such myths spread out geographically – St Samson, a dragon-slaying saint from Wales, is said to have had an encounter there with a magical wild woman, the last survivor of a company of nine sisters living in a wood.

This drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (18128-1882) was created for Edward Moxon’s illustrated edition of Tennyson’s Poems (1857). It shows the legendary nine queens (or sorceresses) who carried King Arthur’s body across the waters of Avalon

Nine Stones in the Landscape

The British landscape too bears many traces of the nine, as with the case of the Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire, which I mentioned earlier. Nine Maidens, Nine Sisters or Nine Ladies appear many times over on UK maps as the names of stone circles, stone rows, and wells. According to one study, for example, there are at least six circles in Cornwall called Nine Maidens or Nine Stones. Many of the stone circles bearing the name of ‘nine’ carry legends about nine girls being turned into stone because they danced there at a prohibited time, such as on Sunday. But, although they may be frozen into stone, they can still come to life again. It’s said that if you enter the Nine Maidens circle at Belstone, Dartmoor, at midday, and let the world go still around you, the nine maidens will start their dance again…

The Nine Maidens stone circle of Belstone, Dartmoor – where there are clearly more than nine stones! Painted by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA

Often the name retains the number nine even when the actual number of stones is entirely different. Nine is stubbornly adhered to in the naming or folklore of such a site. Of the six Cornish circles named for the Nine Maidens, apparently only one has nine stones and it’s doubtful that this was the case originally! Arguments by scholars that ‘nine’ is a misunderstanding of the original name have fallen on deaf ears. William Bottrell, the nineteenth century Cornish folklorist, said: ‘You know everybody hereabouts uses nine in all their charms and many other matters.’


Nine does indeed have magical connotations, and it’s likely that in terms of women, the Company of Nine stems from the widespread and ancient idea of the triple goddess, a feminine trinity of cosmic forces. This has often been related to the phases of the moon, and to the phases of a woman’s life as maiden, mother and crone.

A visit to the Nine Maidens stone circle at Belstone on north Dartmoor (© Rod Thorn). I often visit this site. In the photo below, which I took recently I did arrive just before midday, and with a winter sun behind me, practised being a sundial! (© Cherry Gilchrist)

Ancient Tradition

Although the tradition of the company of nine women may be ancient, it’s important to emphasise that it was not necessarily associated with these stone alignments when they were first built, some 4000 years ago. It’s more likely, in my view, that the nine were attributed to these places later on, still in ancient times but after the original purpose of the megaliths was forgotten, at which point the stone circles and rows could well have served as ritual places for a different mythology. But perhaps this mythology itself was seeded even before the stone circles were built. There is one really early image of the nine, which could push the timeline right back to between 10,000 and 7,000 BCE. This is a cave painting from Catalonia, which depicts nine women dancing round a male with an erect phallus. Perhaps the dance of the nine maidens was one of the very earliest of rituals.

Nine young women dancing around a male figure, from a prehistoric cave painting in Catalonia

There is much more of the story still to uncover, but my guess is that the nine maidens played a part in an early magical and perhaps shamanic type of religion, allied to the elements and the spirits of nature. It probably arose in pre-historic times, spreading to different parts of the globe and remaining in folk memory. Traces of it can still be found, where these old practices are still honoured in wilder parts of the world. It remains alive, in different forms, because it does correspond well with female roles, abilities and energies. Here’s a present-day shaman’s song from Mongolia, describing the ‘Nine Sisters’ as they dance between heaven and earth:

We play on the rays of the sun
 We ride on the rays of the moon
 We rise into the heavens
 We descend onto the hills
 …Nine young ones danced
 They met a glowing mother
 Three times in the ritual
 We will dance the ancient dance
 All nine will dance together! 

And don't forget that we still have 'Nine Ladies dancing' in the traditional song, 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'! How many of us previously suspected that this might have such a deep-rooted origin?

My book The Circle of Nine is chiefly about a schema of the nine archetypes, which again has its roots in tradition but has been freshly set up and described for women in modern times. In this schema there are three Queens, three Ladies and three Mothers. Each has her own identity, hence Queen of Beauty, Queen of Night, Queen of the Earth; Lady of Light, Lady of the Hearth, Lady of the Dance; Great Mother, Just Mother and Weaving Mother. This was a schema I inherited, rather than invented, but I have interpreted each one with observations from life and from many years of working with ‘Circle of Nine’ groups.

This post is a revised and newly illustrated version of one originally published on the ‘Singinghead’ blog in July 2018.

References

The Quest for the Nine Maidens, Stuart McHardy, (Luath Press Ltd, 2003)
Siberian Shamanism: The Shanar Ritual of the Buryats, Sayan Zhambalov, Virlana Tkacz, (Inner Traditions, 2015)
“The Stone Circles of Cornwall”, B. C. Spooner, Folkore (Vol 64, Dec 1953), pp. 484-487

The Fool and his Feast

A foray into ‘The Festival of Fools’ and the Fool in the Tarot

Laughing Jester: unknown early Dutch artist, circa 1500

The Fool and the Twelve Days of Christmas

In this post I take the opportunity to continue with my exploration of the Tarot cards, by setting the Fool in the context of the Twelve Days of Christmas (see my previous post). These Twelve Days are also known as The Feast or Festival of Fools, and have been celebrated as such for hundreds of years. Although the Tarot image and the Feast are not identical, their meaning and imagery interweave. Both emerge from a long tradition of honouring ‘the Wise Fool’ and the customs and merriment which surround him. Even though we have lost much of the original tradition of the Feast of Fools, we still enjoy pantomimes, charades and jokes at this season. And there is still time to plan for a festive Twelfth Night, the celebration of the Fool himself!

So as well as the religious and domestic celebrations of the Christmas period, primarily associated with the birth of the baby Jesus and the coming of the Three Kings, this is also the domain of the Lord of Misrule. In customs found all over Europe, during the period when the sun ‘stands still’ and seems to halt in its cycle, at the period of greatest darkness, the usual hierarchy could be turned upside down. This was ‘time out’ – time out of the calendar, time out of work, and time out of the normal rules and regulations. Society could throw off its shackles and reverse the general order. Thus a servant could play master or mistress for a night; a Knave could become a King at the Twelfth Night Feast. Games normally forbidden, such as ball games in Tudor England, could now be played. Priests played practical jokes, and got tipsy, while mock sermons were preached by ‘boy bishops’ or perhaps anyone not too drunk to stand up and spout a few words.

The Boy Bishop: a custom still carried out today in some Cathedrals, as here at Hereford, though slightly earlier on the Feast of St Nichloas on December 6th. He still has to preach a sermon on his installation.

One religious justification for this overturning of the usual order lies in the parable from St Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus suggests that it’s best to take a lowly seat at a feast: ‘For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ Though the Festival of Fools has other affiliations than Christianity, and is also strongly influenced by the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which too took place at midwinter: ‘Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them. Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.
So, whereas there might be a pious Christian reason for reversing the normal rules, the custom as practised did in fact give licence for throwing off the shackles and having fun. In other words, it could keep everyone happy. Let the world be turned topsy turvy!

For Fools a mirror shall it be/ Where each his counterfeit may see./ The Glass of fools the truth may show.’ (Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools), Sebastian Brant, 1494).

‘The Ship of Fools’ by Sebastian Brant

And to play the fool was not merely to be ‘foolish’, for maybe insight or wisdom can be gained from cultivating the absurd. It was a time to be outspoken, without fear of reprisal. Poorer folk could give voice to their complaints, because they couldn’t be punished for doing so at this time. And, year round, official Fools who were employed to entertain their masters at a higher level of society, could express what no one else dared to say. At court, the fool or jester often played an important part in taking the edge off a monarch’s temper or impetuousness, and sometimes, under the guise of folly, would reveal the real meaning of a situation. Fools were therefore more than mere entertainers, and in the medieval and Renaissance periods, were sometimes important figures in diplomatic negotiations. They could warm up the temperature in frigid encounters, keep the two parties talking by throwing in a few jokes, and even stage mock fights to represent the opposing causes championed by their masters. (For more on their diplomatic role see Fools are Everywhere, Beatrice K. Otto, p63)

Various kinds of ‘mumming’ and ‘guising’ were a part of the Fool’s tradition at this period of winter. The image below comes from the 14th century manuscript, The Romance of Alexander (Bodleian Library, Oxford)

The cult of the Fool was prominent at the time Tarot cards emerged, and perhaps has a connection with ‘sotties’ or fools’ plays which were very popular in France in the late 15th century. ‘The sotties developed from the celebrations of the societies joyeuses that sprang up in Paris and in many of the larger provincial towns, associations of citizens or wealthy farmers that would elect a prince of fools to preside over them while members would dress up as fools either for carnivalesque processions or dramatic performances.’ (Otto p212-3)

A Festival of Fools

The Tarot Fool emerges in his particular form from this widespread and ancient cult of folly. The first known Tarot cards date from the mid 15th century. He is also related to the modern Joker in the playing card pack, and akin to the Court Jester and perhaps to the wandering players known of an earlier period, known as Jongleurs.

One of the earliest Tarot images of the Fool, from the richly-illustrated Italian mid-15th c. Visconti-Sforza sets of cards, looks a little more like a wild man, but is still identifiable as the more common Fool image in later popular packs, as seen below in the French Marseille Tarot.

The history of the Fool follows a complex trail, branching out in many directions and countries, but still recognisably with this core of ‘wise folly’. The Fool could get away with almost anything; he was respected by the mighty, and was not bound by normal laws. (Below: late medieval carvings of jesters or fools from Beverley Minster, Yorkshire © Cherry Gilchrist)

This is an excerpt of medieval music as was played and sung for ‘La Fete de l’Ane’, the the French equivalent of the Feast of Fools. You can read about the music and the feast here.

I invite you now to read the section on the Fool from my book Tarot Triumphs:

THE FOOL
In the Tarot image, the Fool is both jester, and beggar. His cap and bells are those of the court fool, but his ragged breeches, travelling staff and tiny bundle of worldly goods are more in keeping with those of a hand-to-mouth wanderer. The little dog is probably his companion, although some Tarot interpreters see it as a dog chasing him out of the neighbourhood that he passes through on his rambles. But they are more likely to be a pair; the Fool and his dog are often found together in medieval pictures. Historically, the Fool or jester was a very important character. His job was to deflate pomposity, to speak the truth when no one else dared, and lighten up tension with cheeky humour. At the time of the earliest known Tarot cards, in 15th century Italy, the employment of a Fool or jester was at its peak of popularity, so this image would have been well-known to early users of the Tarot.

From the French ‘Convers’ Tarot pack

The Fool has always remained without a number in the Marseilles Tarot pack, as far as I am aware, and has only been shown as zero in modern versions of Tarot such as the Waite pack. He therefore stands outside the 21 numbered cards, and can be seen both as beginning and end of the pack, or even as standing at the centre while the others process around him in a circle. In a way, the Fool is the key to the whole Tarot pack, and can butt in anywhere he pleases. He represents the human quest, and the eternal optimism of the seeker. He can be foolish but, like a child, he offers a fresh view of the truth, undermining that which is false. The Fool is the blind spot of our nature -we can see ahead, and behind, but can never quite make out where we are. He is the ‘human error’ factor that is never entirely ruled out, despite best efforts with technology. In relation to the other twenty-one cards, he is not one of them, but contains their potentialities within him.

The Fool is always travelling. He can be perfectly innocent, or perfectly ignorant, depending upon how you look at him, but he is there within all of us. As a ‘wild card’ he is best placed to represent the significator in a reading, and if he turns up in this position, it’s a sign that the querent is genuinely open to hearing what the Tarot has to say.

And of course, the Fool is allied to ‘The Fool’s Mirror’ in the context of this school of Tarot. Who is more innocent than the Fool, in holding up a mirror to the universe? But also, who is more ready to laugh with innocent merriment at the follies that appear there.

Preparing for Twelfth Night

So, are you ready for some folly on Twelfth Night? Play a game, a charade, hide a bean or a lucky charm in what you eat (be careful about people’s teeth!) so that someone can become Lord or Lady of Misrule for the evening. I do plan to make the Twelfth Night ‘King’s Bread’, for which I gave the recipe in my earlier blog on the Twelve Days of Christmas. I’ve even got the candied fruits in ready for it. Who knows how it will turn out? That, though, is the essence of the Feast of Fools!

Sources on the history of the Fool, Twelfth Night, and the Festival of Fools:
Fools are Everywhere: The Court Jester around the World, Beatrice K. Otto, (University of Chicago Press, 2001)
The English Year, Steve Roud, Penguin 2006

You may also be interested in:

The Twelve Days of Christmas

May Day in Padstow

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Now winter nights enlarge 
 The number of their hours; 
 And clouds their storms discharge 
 Upon the airy towers. 
 Let now the chimneys blaze 
 And cups o’erflow with wine, 
 Let well-turned words amaze 
 With harmony divine. 
 Now yellow waxen lights 
 Shall wait on honey love 
 While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights 
 Sleep’s leaden spells remove. 
 
This time doth well dispense 
 With lovers’ long discourse; 
 Much speech hath some defense, 
 Though beauty no remorse. 
 All do not all things well; 
 Some measures comely tread, 
 Some knotted riddles tell, 
 Some poems smoothly read. 
 The summer hath his joys, 
 And winter his delights; 
 Though love and all his pleasures are but toys, 
 They shorten tedious nights.
An excellent version of this song, performed by Passamezzo

This lovely poem by Thomas Campion, which I’ve frequently sung to the lute with my friend Steve Graham, paints a richly-coloured picture of how people, perhaps in a large household or stately home in the early seventeenth century, would occupy themselves during the dark hours at the turn of the year. And although the celebrations indicated here might be a little more elaborate than in the average household, merry-making, playing games, acting and drinking wine were an honoured part of the general Twelve Days tradition. We’re about to enter these days, which are generally said to start on Christmas Day itself, and perhaps we might extend our own revels right the way through to Twelfth Night itself. More of that later!

A Twelfth Night Cake

One key element of these Twelve Days, is that even though they start after the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year, the mornings will continue to get darker until about January 6th. So the finish of the Twelve Days heralds a general return of the light at both ends of the day, rather than just in the evenings which follow the Solstice. This seems to be a little-known fact in today’s society, when our habits are governed by artificial lighting. You can find a readable astronomical explanation of this here.

In many traditional cultures, these twelve days have been considered as time set apart, because of this phenomenon. The ancient gods of the Indian Rigveda were said to rest for twelve days, and the Romans placed the days outside the calendar itself. In Germany, all spinning was prohibited at that time, so as not to offend Frau Perchta, the winter goddess. And in England, as in various other European countries, social order was overturned with the reign of the Lord of Misrule, and games where finding a bean or a silver sixpence in your slice of pudding could elevate you to being King or Queen for a day. It was a time of mystery too; the Irish said that ‘on the twelve days of Christmas the gates of heaven are open.’ But they also added an ominous twist: On Twelfth Night, ‘the souls of the dead are thicker than the sand on the sea shore.’

Fortune-telling during the Twelve Days – Indeed, the Twelve Days are a magical time, when the veil between our world and the invisible realm of spirits is said to be very thin. The season has many associated traditions of fortune-telling, mostly to do with predicting events or even the weather for the year ahead. Farming communities were, not unnaturally, obsessed with trying to forecast weather in the days before modern meteorology. Weather lore and keen observation obviously counted for much, but by magical means, they hoped to glimpse further ahead. One divination practice assigns the weather on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas to a corresponding month of the year, so rain on Day One stands for a wet January, frost on Day Two for an icy February, and so on. I dare say you would have to make some adjustments though: if it snowed on Day Seven (July), for instance …

Fortune-telling with candles floating in a bowl, Russian-style

For personal fortune-telling, divination rituals could be performed using whatever you had to hand in the home and for the celebrations: candles, nuts and even the family Bible, could help to determine what will happen in the year ahead. If the flame guttered, or the nut cracked on the fire, for instance, this might have a particular meaning and could be interpreted as signs of things to come. One popular custom was to open the family Bible, blindfold, then place your finger seemingly at random on a verse; this is said to give you relevant guidance for the next twelve months More macabre practices involved predicting who would die in the year to come, perhaps by sitting in the churchyard at midnight to see the spirits of the not-yet-dead appear there. Even if we have forgotten most of these Christmas rituals today, trysts with fortune such as pulling crackers and playing board games are still echoes of these customs.

If you are eager to get into the mood of the Twelve Days early, then you can join in with a pre-emptive Russian custom. That’s if you are still an unmarried girl:
Dec 13th – The Day of St Andrew the First-Called. Although it was still a long way till Christmas, girls were already trying to read their fortunes. Some knew how to foretell it from tracks in the snow. To do this, they had to get up early in the morning and look for the tracks leading from their porch. Who was it that left them, a man or a bird?…They should not be in any hurry, otherwise they might remove the tracks of someone they were eagerly waiting for. A Russian Folk Calendar – Polina Rozhnova

The Calendar Change

I’ve mentioned that the commonest way to count the Twelve Days of Christmas is to start on Christmas Day itself as number one. But other variations are possible. We have a complex history when it comes to counting dates. In 1752, British folk calendar customs were thrown into disarray for years to come, when the calendar was changed. Those who went to sleep on Wed 2nd September 1752 were forced to accept the next morning that they had progressed overnight to Thurs 14th September. There was an uproar – and it’s said that mobs stormed the streets, shouting, ‘Give us back our eleven days!’ No one is quite sure if this is true, but the general public did not take the loss quietly.

The calendar had finally been changed because it had become significantly out of alignment with the astronomical calendar. Christmas had drifted from its original position, closely following the winter solstice, to a date which is now the equivalent of January 6th. The reason for this is that a year, (a complete orbit of the earth around the sun) is not exactly 365 days long. It is in fact 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds. So the calendar needed re-setting, and a new method had to be implemented for interspersing extra days, which we now know as the leap year system.

A Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

However, even after the calendar was changed, some people clung on to their habit of celebrating Christmas on what is now January 6th. In fact, those especially keen on merry-making could celebrate right through from new-style Christmas Eve on December 25th, to Old Twelfth Night on January 17th – 18th. This is not unknown in Russia today, where the Orthodox Church uses the old calendar, and secular society the modern one. There are reputed to be some seriously partying Russians who begin merry-making on December 24th and only let up around Jan 18th.

Masquerading is part of the fun as Russians celebrate the New Year season in the village of Kohlui. This picture was taken on my visit there, and the one below shows a camp fire we enjoyed with local friends, also as part of their midwinter tradition. (I’m the one on the left.)

And which date is which?

There is still scope for confusion, though. A calendar sounds a nice simple affair, designed to make life easier for all of us. But scrape the surface, and you will find a chasm of uncertainty beneath. Is today’s Twelfth Night the evening before January 6th, i.e. the night of Jan 5th, or is it on Jan 6th itself? A calendar expert speaks: ‘In earlier times, ‘Twelfth Night’ meant 5 January, i.e. the Eve of the Twelfth Day, in the same way as Christmas Eve precedes Christmas Day. But nowadays most people regard ‘Twelfth Night’ as meaning the evening of Twelfth Day (6 January).’ (The English Year – Steve Roud).

A goose was once the most popular bird to eat over the Christmas period; here’s my husband’s offering from a few years ago

Then you seemingly have the complication of New Year, interrupting the Twelve Days, and declaring a new beginning before we’ve even finished celebrating these twelve. In previous centuries, New Year’s Eve and Jan 1st weren’t given such prominence, but included in the general range of customs and festivities celebrated over the Twelve Days. New Year on January 1st was a bureaucratic Roman invention, and wasn’t considered very important until Queen Victoria’s reign. In my view, that’s where things have gone wrong! I prefer the natural progression of the twelve days and the return of the light to mark out the time, rather than an artificially chosen date for a forced celebration. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I don’t like staying up late? Perhaps, too, in an industrial world more pressure is now applied to get back to work after January 1st; in rural societies, this was a rare opportunity for people to celebrate and rest for twelve days because they couldn’t usefully work on the land at that time.

The Marshfield Mummers, aka ‘The Old Time Paper Boys’ usually perform every Boxing Day in the village of Marshfield just north of Bath. Sadly, it’s cancelled for 2021 because of the coronavirus – ‘for the first time since 1944’. I enjoyed this performance some years back, and these are some of the photos I took at the time.

Themes of killing and rebirth are often woven comically into Mumming plays

‘A partridge in a pear tree’
A post about the Twelve Days wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the famous song, with unusual gifts given on each successive day. Just as a reminder, the standard version (there are indeed variants) goes:
A partridge in a pear tree – Two turtle doves – Three French hens – Four calling birds – Five gold rings – Six geese a-laying – Seven swans a-swimming – Eight ladies milking – Nine ladies dancing – Ten lords a-leaping – Eleven pipers piping – Twelve drummers drumming.

Much effort has been made to delve into the symbolic meanings of these gifts. There are pagan versions, Christian versions, conspiracy theory versions, folkloric versions – you may take your pick. I have my own take on the ‘nine ladies dancing’, as I’ve written a whole book about the significance of ‘nine ladies’, as emblems and archetypes of women’s lives. And the concept of ‘the company of nine women’ goes back to prehistoric times. (The Circle of Nine). Take a look at this blog on January 17th, when I’m devoting a whole post to this theme!

Others have turned the words of the song into comedy, as did John Julius Norwich. The correspondence between a young lady and her over-zealous lover, who delivers these gifts, may not be so amusing once you’ve heard it performed at several Christmas concerts in a row! However, I’ve warmed to this unusual version from Ireland, although is there an element of cross-dressing here too?

If it’s novelty you’re after with the Twelve Days song, you can also find Covid versions, a Boris Johnson version and other subversive attempts to spice up an old favourite. (I’ll let you discover those yourselves on YouTube).

Twelfth Night, marking the final day, used to be a major celebration in the British Isles with parties and games. The Twelfth Night cake was the centrepiece of the occasion. This was baked with little charms or tokens in it, such as a bean, a clove or a coin, for guests to discover in their slices. As mentioned earlier, sometimes they were required to act out the role their charm signified for the rest of the evening, according to a pre-determined list ranked from Knave to King and Queen. It was finale to Christmas of merry-making, which included pageants and plays for those in the higher ranks of society. Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’ is thought to have been written for that purpose, and it contains the kind of uproarious comedy, topsy-turvy accidents of chance, and switches of identity which were in keeping with Twelfth Night games. There’s an excellent account of the Tudor Christmas, which put all the emphasis on those twelve days, and their associated customs, saints’ days, and food offerings, recorded by Lucy Worsley for the BBC. In the UK, you can catch it on iplayer for a couple of weeks longer, or find it on You Tube. (NB The link I put up when this post was launched has now been removed from You Tube, but perhaps it will be posted again.)

An illustration by Robert Seymour of a Twelfth Night house party, in centuries gone by

The Cake!

I’d like to spread the net wider than just the UK, so let’s have a look at a Spanish custom of making a special Twelfth Night ‘King’ bread. Within the complexities of the Twelve Days is, of course, the Christian Epiphany on Jan 6th, celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts at the stable where Jesus was born.

This description comes from The Spruce Eats . I discovered that the recipe given on this website is almost identical to the one in my book Bread: A complete guide by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter, which I’ve had as a staple cookery book for years. I’ve streamlined the two versions here, which luckily agree almost entirely on quantities and method. However – COOK’S ALERT WARNING! – I haven’t actually made this recipe yet. I hope to do so this year, but please join me in the experiment, rather than take it as Cherry’s-Cache-tested. BUT – now I have made it! Please see ‘Checking in for the New Year’, posted on Jan 10th. I’m adding a few tips below, in italics.

Twelfth Night Bread, from The Spruce Eats
Roscon de Reyes is a traditional dessert, served the night before or the morning of Reyes or Epiphany on Jan. 6. Dia de Reyes or simply Reyes is the day when children in Spain receive gifts from the Reyes Magos–Wise Men or Magi—the three kings who brought baby Jesus gifts. Instead of gifts from Santa Claus, the children receive them from the Reyes Magos.
It is traditional to put several surprises inside the roscon. A porcelain figure of a baby wrapped in foil and a dry bean are hidden in the dough. Whoever finds the baby will have good luck and be the king of the party, but if you find the bean, you pay for the cake. In the last half of the 20th century, filling the roscon with whipped cream or a thick custard became popular. Today about a third of the roscones sold in Spain are filled. If you want to fill yours, use a bread knife to slice the bread in half horizontally and carefully remove the top. Next, squeeze in the whipped cream or filling you’ve chosen and carefully replace the top. Keep refrigerated until serving if filled with cream or custard.

Ingredients
450gm/1lb/4 cups unbleached flour
½ teaspoon salt
25gm/ 1 oz active dry yeast I don’t think this is correct – 25gm would be for fresh yeast. The proportion of fresh to dried is 3:1, so I used 8 gm granular yeast, which rose perfectly well, but probably a 7gm packet of instant yeast would be fine
140 ml/ scant 2/3 cup mixed lukewarm milk & water
75gm/3oz/ 6 tbsp butter
75gm/3oz/ 6 tbsp caster sugar
Finely grated rind of 1 lemon (alternative quantity 2tsp)
Finely grated rind of 1 orange (alternative quantity 2tsp)
2 large eggs
1 tbsp brandy
1 tbsp water (orange water also recommended – or I used 1tbsp fresh orange juice)
1 egg white (lightly beaten) for glazing
2 cups candied and glace fruit (eg assorted figs, oranges, lemons, mangos or cherries, chopped or left in large pieces. You’ll need the soft sugared kind as in glace cherries or mixed candied peel) As it bakes on the outside of the loaf, choose the softest kind. It might also be possible to mix in some chopped candied peel into the dough, the kind sold for cake-making.
Flaked almonds for sprinkling on top

How to Make It

  1. Sift flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Make a hole in the centre of the flour.
  2. In a small mixing bowl, stir and dissolve the dry yeast in the lukewarm milk mixed with the lukewarm water. NB if using instant packet yeast, you won’t need to do this
  3. Once dissolved, pour the dissolved yeast into the centre of the flour. Stir in just enough flour from around the sides of the bowl to make a thick batter.
  4. With your hand, grab about a teaspoon of the flour from the side of the bowl and sprinkle it over the top of the batter.
  5. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave in a warm place, away from any draft. Allow batter to turn spongy, about 15 minutes.
  6. In a medium-size mixing bowl, beat together the butter and sugar. The mixture should be smooth and creamy. Set aside.
  7. Add grated orange and lemon rinds, eggs, brandy and water to the flour mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon to make a sticky dough.
  8. Beat or hand mix the flour mixture until it is elastic and smooth. Gradually beat in the reserved butter-sugar mixture and mix until the dough is smooth. Form the dough into a ball, then cover the bowl oiled cling-film or damp tea towel.
  9. Leave in a warm place and allow to rise until doubled in size. This will take approximately 1 1/2 hours.
  10. While you are waiting for the dough to rise, grease a large baking sheet and set aside.
  11. Once the dough has doubled, remove the plastic wrap and knock down the dough. Lightly flour a clean counter or cutting board and place dough on it.
  12. Knead for 2 to 3 minutes. You can incorporate any Twelfth Night charms, figures, beans etc at this point. (Consider the impact on people’s teeth, though!)
  13. Using a rolling pin, roll dough into a long rectangle, about 66cm/ 26” long and 26 cm/5”wide.
  14. Roll up the dough from the long side, as if making a Swiss roll, into a long sausage shape.
  15. Carefully place the dough seam down onto the prepared baking sheet and connect the ends together, forming a ring. (You can also hide a bean or a small foil-wrapped, ceramic figurine at this stage, too). Cover again. Leave in a warm place until doublde in size. This will take about 1 to 1 ½ hours
  16. Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 F/ 180 C. Brush the top of the dough ring with lightly beaten egg white, and Decorate the ring with the candied fruit pieces. Push them into the dough slightly so that they do not fall off. Sprinkle with almond flakes.
  17. Place in oven and bake for about 30 -35 minutes or until golden. Allow to cool on a rack before serving.
The same recipe in my own cookery book. The photo gives a better idea of how luxurious the candied fruit might look, and also adds flaked almonds

Midwinter Darkness
And so to close this account, I’ll just slip in a reminder that my current series of posts are about different forms of celebrating the time of year, not just with dazzling lights and feasts, but also about relishing the darkness of the days and the long nights. These allow us to rest, to ponder, to warm ourselves with memories. Put another log on the fire, dim the lights, and sink into the dark womb of the year!

You may also be interested in:

Summer is a-Coming Today! May Day in Padstow

The Red Corner and the Symbolism of the Russian Home

Topsham Celebrates

Topsham Celebrates

Topsham knows how to celebrate! Even though our feasts and festivals couldn’t be the same this year, due to the pandemic, the customs of dressing up the town and dressing up ourselves are firmly embedded in the calendar. We’ll do it again next year, if we can.

This post is based on the Topsham celebrations that I’ve witnessed over the last few years, with a few historical occasions thrown in for good measure. It’s not a comprehensive Topsham Calendar, and it will be more picture-dense and text-light than usual. But I’m including a link to a full account of the illicit Tar Barrel rolling event!

Let’s enjoy some celebrations here virtually, and despite all the restrictions, I’m sure that we’ll still have a festive spirit and display in the town. As I write this, in early November, the town is making itself ready for Christmas as cheerfully as possible. And as I come to make the final tweaks on December 5th, everything is up and twinkling! More photos further on.

Getting the street lights up, and a test switch-on
From a previous Christmas in Topsham

Charter Day
Since 2016, Topsham Charter Day has been held each August, to celebrate the day when King Edward I granted the charter which turned Topsham into a town, back in 1300. (Woe betide anyone who dares refer to it now as ‘a village’!)

On the first of our modern Charter Day celebrations, Charles Courtenay, the current Earl of Devon, arrived by boat from Powderham Castle to receive the charter from ‘the King’. According to the schedule for the festivities:

1.45pm: The king and his entourage and townsfolk will process along Fore Street, lined with “medieval” market stalls, to St Margaret’s Church green. Here, he will present a replica town charter to the present Earl of Devon, Charles Courtenay.

In case of any confusion, the Earl was real, while the king was ably acted by one of our townspeople. You can read the complete order of ceremony here:

The Earl of Devon waiting to receive the charter from ‘the King’, accompanied by junior knights and pirates who sailed with him from Powderham Castle
Jousting in the churchyard
Mustn’t be late for the Charter handover!

The Town Criers’ competition has staunchly remained a popular feature of Charter Day. They arrive from all over the country, to process down the main street in splendid array, then make a speech from the balcony at the Globe Inn, in the old coaching yard. It’s the speech that decides who will be crowned the best Crier in the land.

Charter Day Procession, with the Town Criers marching too

Christmas
Well, Christmas in Topsham wouldn’t be the same without the Carols at the Bridge Inn, which always takes place just before lunchtime on Christmas Day, to the rousing accompaniment of our local celebrated folk group Show of Hands. I hope we can still manage it in some form in 2020.

Carols at the Bridge, the oldest public house in Topsham – squeeze room only! Steve Knightley, Phil Beer, Miranda Sykes and Chris Hoban are regular stars of the band.
Here’s Show of Hands performing inside at the Bridge Inn, as part of their ‘Tour of Topsham’ in 2011

Topsham shop windows are beautifully decorated, house doors likewise.

This was my personal favourite in Topsham, though alas the accountancy firm has left the premises, and it’s now just a fond memory. Skaters that skated, carousel horses that went up and down….
Buying some Christmas cheer on a bicycle made for two

Nello’s Longest Table
Once every two years, in June or July, over two thousand people gather for lunch together in Topsham. The line of tables stretches down Fore St, winds around to the Quayside, then snakes back again alongside the river to Ferry Road. Over 350 tables are laid out, so that families, friends and visitors can feast together, and create one ‘Longest Table’.

This lunch was set up in memory of Nello Ghezzo, a local restaurateur who dreamed of a feast which the whole town could take part in. Nello died in 1999 and in 2008 the first such meal took place, named in his honour. The event is also a fabulous fundraiser. In 2018 the organisers posted on Facebook: We are absolutely delighted to hand over the proceeds from this year’s Nello’s Longest Table and Topsham Food Festival: £2500 to Force Cancer Charity, £2500 to the Brain Tumour Charity (in memory of Geoff), and £1500 to Estuary League of Friends for the new and fabulous Nancy Potter House. We furthermore were able to fund the new Love Topsham web site as well as give a donation to Love Topsham for admin for new Topsham traders initiatives.

Louis Ravenscroft, the former Town Crier, announcing the start of Nello’s Longest Table, 2016

There’s always a rush to secure tables in favourite spots when the booking opens, and the food is generally more banquet than picnic, with delicious creations and exotic specialities.

A pavlova for our family table, produced by my daughter Jess

Dressing up may be either to a theme or on the whim of the individual groups. The second Longest Table in 2010 reported: Tables were decorated beautifully with colourful cloths, china, table decorations, flowers and even chandeliers. Others had based themselves on a theme – there was a Mexican table complete with sombreros and giant moustaches, a Sicilian men (and women) in black table, a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, a gardening table, walkers’ table, and more.

An American themed year, which also featured some fierce looking American Indians

As the day goes on, groups mingle, children play games (racing each other around the churchyard is a favourite) and wine flows freely. We missed it happening this year, in 2020! Here’s hoping we can go ahead in 2021.

And what celebrations happened in days of old? The Museum archives tell a tale or two.

VE Day party, Topsham 1945
Coronation street party, Monmouth Avenue 1953
Topsham traders dress Victorian in 1984, occasion unknown – unless you can tell us?

(With thanks to Catriona Batty and the Topsham Museum for supplying these images.)

Other festivals pop up throughout the summer, like various Music Festivals, Beer and Bacon, ‘Secret Gardens’ (which I’ve written about here…). Plus ‘Jazz in the Garden’, a Dog Show, and a Flower and Produce Competition. I’m sure I’ve missed some out! Ah, yes, the Food Festival at the Quayside, which produced an excellent talk on salmon fishing from Ed Williams-Hawkes, and a demonstration of making the acclaimed ‘Smokie’ dish which used to be the top favourite at the Globe Inn. Here’s how a member of the Hodges family who ran the Globe explains it:

The Topsham Smokie
Basically it’s smoked haddock poached in milk with bay leaves. Make some lovely white sauce – you can put some cheese in there & use some of the milk that has poached the fish. Mix up the fish, white sauce and stir in some mashed potato. Put in a pot, top with tasty grated cheddar cheese and bake xxx simples !!!

From Liz Hodges of Route Two Bikes – formerly landlady of the Globe

Demonstrated by a chef from the Globe Inn, who hasn’t forgotten how to make this scrumptious dish.

Guy Fawkes Night
But what about November 5th? There may be a mega-display at the Rugby Club most years, but individual fireworks are a matter of past glory, according to long-term resident Roy Wheeler. Recording his memories back in 1988, he remembered how, decades earlier, the local lads would pitch a firework battle on Chapel Platt, just outside the Methodist Church.

One thing I remember vividly was fifth of November, firework time. A chap used to keep what is Meg’s Restaurant now was a man called Gilders – we used to call Putty Gilders – and he used to sell everything. And we used to buy our fireworks there and then it was a case of ‘Top Town’ versus ‘Bottom of the Town’. The bottom of the town boys used to come up to there and we used to come down to this side and we used to throw fireworks at each other. It was a battle-royal. That was always something to look forward to! Ha ha ha ha! But yes, this was always a very busy spot and it wasn’t so long ago that the City Council in their wisdom, or otherwise, planted a tree there. Thought it would enhance the beauty but it didn’t last very long. The Topsham people weren’t going to have that. They weren’t going to have their Platt desecrated. Hee hee! So, the tree was knocked over. (Account supplied by Topsham Museum)

Still earlier, in the 19th century, there was a rip-roaring tradition of celebrating Bonfire Night in Topsham and Exeter, with processions, battles and exotic guys. This account reveals that a recreation of the Armada provided plenty of entertainment for Topsham folk:

Western Times – Saturday 08 November 1890
Had the weather been favourable no doubt the carnival held on Thursday by Young Topsham” would have surpassed any previous attempt. But unfortunately rain fell heavily and a strong wind blew continually during the night. The procession did not start until close upon eight o’clock. The order was follows:—The local band, banner, Topsham guys, Young Exeter, the local fire brigade, Captain on horse, back, Committee, Topsham Cyclist Guys, tar barrel brigade, and a representation of the Armada fleet, under the command of Ally Sloper.” The latter was the most striking feature of the carnival. After the procession had broken up, the two model ships, representing the British and Spanish fleets, were formed for action the ” battlefield” in Fore-street, and after a warm encounter the Spanish vessel was ” bombarded “by Roman candles. A large number of excellent rockets were let off, and the celebration, which was witnessed by a large number of persons, including many from Exeter, continued up to a late hour.

Bonfire nights were an excuse for lynching unpopular members of society in earlier centuries in Exeter, as described in this article , and as Todd Gray also records in his book ‘Not One of Us

Indeed, it wasn’t all fun and happy outcomes:

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Saturday 13 November 1847
Accidents. —Since Friday last, upwards of 27 individuals, who have received serious injury from accidents, have been taken into the Devon and Exeter Hospital. Of these accidents 18 or 19 were occasioned by the unexpected explosion of rockets and other fireworks in the hands, or near the persons, of the sufferers; one of whom, a lad, was brought from Topsham, so injured the lower part of his person, that life is despaired of. Another young person had his skull fractured by a kick, or a blow from a bludgeon, as he was engaged with others in the fun of rolling tar-barrel.”

All photos of Ottery Tar Barrels here are supplied by kind permission of folkorist Doc Rowe, who has attended the occasion and numerous other folk customs for many years

Did someone say Tar Barrel?
What’s that about? – surely the only Tar Barrel Rolling round here is in Ottery St Mary? But no – Topsham used to have its own tradition of Tar Barrels, until it was made illegal in the town, probably in the early 19th century. As a sport it can be thrilling, but the dangers are obvious, and especially so in narrow streets with old timber-framed cottages.

And in 1847, the Rev. Frederick Isop Cocke,, assistant curate of Topsham, was convicted of Unlawfully Rolling a Tar Barrel. The Rev. Cocke appealed – he had only been doing his duty, he said, and trying to keep the barrel away from the crowd. In January 1848 he was acquitted. ‘Decision of the Bench was received with loud cheering outside the court.’ Western Times – Saturday 08 January 1848 – you can read the whole story here:

But be warned, if you decide to persue this account, that the ‘he said’, ‘she said’, ‘No I didn’t’, ‘Yes you did,’ runs to over 3000 words . Nevertheless, it’s a mine of information about local people and the streets of Topsham at the time. The story proved immensely popular around the country, and appeared in briefer versions in various provincial newspapers. After all, a parson with a flaming tar barrel, who ends up in court, makes a good story!

Finally, I’ll end with a custom which has only recently been introduced, but which is based on a very old tradition which certainly took place in the area, if not in the town itself. This is the now annual Wassail. Wassails are usually held in January, an old farming custom intended to drive evil spirits out of the orchards and produce a healthy crop of apples. (Very important in cider making districts!)

Topsham’s Wassail is now going strong, with songs especially written by Adrian Wynn, and a merry band of folk club followers, children and townspeople. We gather at Matthews Hall, serenade the apple tree there……, then move onto Victoria Road and a noble old apple tree in a garden there, thought to be a survivor of a former cider orchard. Further stops occur at other venerable apple trees, including the Old Vicarage, and the procession eventually celebrates the final tree at the Allotments . To make the magic work, a robin must be placed in the branches, and a piece of bread dipped in cider then stuck in the tree itself. Possibly a few cups of cider and slices of apple cake may also be consumed en route. And perhaps I should mention that we’re usually accompanied by a farmer with his shotgun; traditional Wassails aren’t complete without a loud blasts fired through the branches, to send the devils packing! You can see him lurking with gun at the ready in the picture on the right.

Topsham Wassail
In the orchard dark we muster,
North wind whistles through the North wood Tree;
Prosper Greasy, Soldier prosper,
In our orchard and soils of old,
Gather Topsham, sing and rattle,
We’ll bring cider back to thee!
Gather round and old Tom Putt
Will flow and fill our wassail bowl.

Adrian Wynn

Hanging the robin in the tree and placing some bread soaked in cider in the branches is of course essential for a proper Wassail. Children are usually keen to help.

Christmas 2020 – So here we are, in the run-up to Christmas, with shop windows beautifully decorated, lights twinkling and everything as normal and cheerful as it can be in this extraordinary and difficult year. As a small town with a busy High Street (actually called Fore Street!) it has a particular sense of community and the feeling that everyone is doing their best to create the spirit of Christmas here. I’m thankful to be living in Topsham!

You may also be interested in:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham Part One

Hidden Topsham Part Two

Hidden Topsham Part Three

Hidden Topsham Part Four

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Doc Rowe, for his stunning photographs of the Ottery Tar Barrels

Catriona Batty and the Topsham Museum, for photos of historic Topsham celebrations and the memories of Roy Wheeler

All other photographs by Cherry Gilchrist, with thanks to Love Topsham for help both in the town with masterminding various projects, such as the Christmas lights and other festivities, and for supporting this blog.

The Abduction of Mary Max

A runaway bride at the age of 13

Gaile House, co. Tipperary today, where Mary Max was born

I first posted a version of this story on my author’s blog at in Dec 2019. Various other Phillips descendants got in touch as a result, so I’m delighted to have expanded the current family network! In autumn 2019, my husband and I had planned to visit Gaile House (the first time for me), staying in the house where Mary Max was born, and visiting the graveyard nearby where she is buried. We would have been joined too by one of my ‘new’ cousins who I’ve discovered through sharing her story. Sadly, the owners of Gaile House cancelled our booking due to a bereavement in their own family, so we’ve had to postpone our trip. At present, in late 2020, it’s impossible to say when we may be able to travel to Ireland again, but I hope that 2021 will bring better opportunities to use my new Irish passport, and that I can see for myself both where Mary Max lived, and where my own grandfather was born. My father who was a regular visitor there during his life, while his elderly cousin was still in residence, always had a dream of buying back Gaile and living there in his retirement, but as is so often the case, life got in the way. It was sold, and is now beautifully renovated and operating as a working stud and horse training centre, so it has certainly come into good hands.

Note to other Phillips descendants: if you are connected to this line, and would like to be put in touch with others researching the Phillips family, please contact me either via this website or my author’s site at http://www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk. (use the Contact Form)

Mary Max

This is the story of my 4 x Irish great grandmother, Mary Max, who was abducted and forced into marriage in1777, at the age of thirteen. She lived in the Max family home at Gaile House, County Tipperary, and was an heiress to a £40,000 estate, which was worth over £6,000,000 in today’s terms. Her father and brothers had all died in quick succession, so in 1777, as a young teenager, Mary was set to inherit the family fortune when she turned eighteen. Her only close relative was her mother and guardian, Joan Max.

At the time, abduction was rife in the heartlands of Ireland, and Mary was a tempting candidate. Bride-snatching had become almost acceptable as a way of securing a bride, and although it was a capital offence, the risk of conviction was low. The target was usually a girl who the prospective bridegroom thought would better his position, preferably with money or property, and of good social standing. He would then gather a band of supporters, often including friends and family members, and they would plot to seize her by force. Plans were audacious, with ambushes and even armed hold-ups. One episode on record involved locking the priest and the congregation in church while the raiding party singled out their chosen target from the worshippers!

Mary Max was abducted by Samuel Phillips of Kilkenny in August 1777. He was her first cousin-once-removed, who lived about forty miles away in the Phillips home of Foyle. The Phillips family had arrived in Ireland before 1600, possibly as Welsh immigrants, and as merchants they then rose through the ranks to produce a couple of Mayors of Kilkenny, marrying into moneyed or landed families such as the Despards along the way.

By the 18th century, the family had some land and money of their own, but not enough to satisfy them, it seems. And so a secret plan was made to grab the family fortune of the Maxes, their kinsmen, to add to their own. A raiding party was put together: Samuel Phillip, groom was then 21, and his supporters included his father Richard Phillips, who was a Magistrate and Justice of the Peace, his sister Frances, and, surprisingly, Dennis Meagher who was Mary’s uncle on her mother’s side.

Mary was snatched late one evening, as she was returning home from a ball. Samuel’s sister acted as the decoy, pretending to offer Mary a safe lift in her carriage back to her mother’s home. Instead, the coach sped away to Waterford, where the conspirators and prospective bridegroom were waiting. It sounds the stuff of a period drama movie, and it certainly caught the public attention at the time. Reports spread through the press like wildfire as the story unfolded.

The lands of Gaile, at the time when the estate still had hundreds of acres

One newspaper gossip column reported:

Letter from Dublin, dated Sept. 20: As I make no doubt but you will be curious to know in what manner Miss Max was carried off, I have collected such particulars as I could, and have sent them for your entertainment. Miss Max was at a ball, at which also was Mr. Philips, with whom she danced the evening. —The husband intended by her guardian was also one of the company; after the ball, Mr. Phillips’s sister walked with Miss Max towards the carriages, and prevailed her to accept of the use of theirs to set her down. All things having been previously concerted, Miss Max stepped into the post-chaise, and was drove directly to Waterford, where Philips, the young Lady, and assistants, embarked, and arrived safely in England, from whence they crossed over to France. Miss Max not being missed for above two hours, full time was given for eluding a search, which was afterwards made to no purpose. She is first cousin to her adventurous lover.

The current driveway to Gaile House, through what look like very old trees from the days of its estate

Newspapers around Britain went crazy for the story, and this particular ‘letter’ was republished in local papers from Kent to Newcastle.

From Waterford, the ‘wedding party’ went by boat to Wales, and then by road to Scotland. (All land transport was, of course, by horse and carriage in this era). A hue and cry was raised, and a magistrate’s militia was sent off in hot pursuit. At this point, the Phillips family’s first aim was to get Mary married off to Samuel, before the pursuers could intervene. Many such forced marriages were conducted in all sorts of shady ways, with little regard for the legitimacy of the priest. In Edinburgh, as we’re told by subsequent legal documents, Samuel procured a so-called clergyman, ‘a man of very indifferent character’. (In later years, he came to regret not finding a priest with better credentials, but only because he was worried that it might otherwise undermine his claim on Mary’s fortune!)

Mr and Mrs Phillips then hastened to travel south with their ‘wedding party’. But by then, there was a price on their heads: Mary’s mother offered a handsome reward for Mary’s safe return, and a bounty price to anyone who could hand over Samuel Phillips or his father to the law. Knowing little of the geography, Samuel’s troupe made a strenuous journey by side roads down to Brighton, at the time a small fishing village known as Brighthelmstone. En route, they stopped at Kingston, and asked if the sea was nearby! When they finally made it to Brighton, they then set sail for France. All but one of the party – Mary’s uncle- escaped across the Channel. He however was arrested and clapped in jail in Dublin. It was a close-run thing: according to one newspaper report the abduction party was chased right to the edge of the water.

Before the packet in which they sailed was lost out of sight, two of Sir John Fielding’s men arrived at Brighthelmstone, in pursuit of them, and offered any of the fishermen a large reward, that would give chase to the packet, and prevail on the Captain to steer back; but not one of them would attempt it.
(Hampshire Chronicle, 15 Sep 1777)

Print of Brighthelmstone in 1785, around the same time that Mary and Samuel sailed from here to France

It was reported that they made a successful landing at Dieppe and then headed for Paris. It was time to draw breath, perhaps. Within the space of a month, a thirteen-year-old girl had gone from living quietly with her widowed mother in rural Ireland, to being forcibly married to a cousin, and chased across four countries. But even in France they were not entirely out of reach of British law. As the Freeman’s Journal reported on Sep 25th 1777: ‘Application has been made by the English Ambassador at Paris to have the Phillipses who ran away with Miss Max delivered up if they could be found in the French dominions, and liberty given to have them transmitted to this kingdom to be tried for the felony.’

But before the law could finally catch up with them, Mary’s mother Joan made them an offer. She was desperate to get her daughter back, having lost her husband and both sons in quick succession. According to later legal reports, they stayed in Paris for some time, until the new year of 1778, when Samuel finally decided to bring his ‘bride’ home. On Dec 31st, 1777, Joan Max had formally withdrawn her offer of rewards for capturing the kidnappers. She withdrew her threat of prosecution too, and allowed Samuel to bring his under-age bride back to Gaile House, the Max family home.

Gaile House in 1913, which became the home of the Phillips family after Samuel married heiress Mary Max in 1777

Samuel Phillips now became head of the household in a dwelling that was most definitely superior to his father’s home at Foyle, Kilkenny, and he lost no time in using Mary’s money to make it even grander. He still however had to stand trial at Kilkenny Assizes for a hanging offence of abducting a minor, but as Joan Max refused to offer any evidence, he walked free. Though Samuel didn’t win hands down. Mary’s money and property was put in trust for her heirs, so he never had complete control of it. He did however secure Gaile house, which then became the Phillips’ family home for over 150 years after this. My grandfather, Richard Phillips, was born there, before emigrating to England, where my father was born. (Thanks to having an Irish-born grandparent, though, I have recently been able to obtain Irish citizenship and an Irish passport!)

The photos below, from my father’s colleciton, show the glory days of Gaile in the late 19th and early twentieth century – the hunt meeting, garden parties and bicycle races!

The hunt meeting at Gaile, 1885
Tea parties and what looks like a ‘doubles’ bicycle race on the lawn
Pets were popular, as we can see from this long lost Pet Cemetery in the grounds of the house.

Samuel Phillips and Mary Max, now Phillips, had three children: Richard, Joanna and Frances. (Richard and Samuel were names which were chosen in almost every Phillips generation). Then Mary died, aged only 26. Who knows what a toll the early marriage and childbirth had taken from her? She had her first child, Richard, when she was only sixteen years old.

The graveyard with view towards Gaile House, taken by my cousin Rebecca Ditchburn. Photo below from my late cousin Robin Phillips, who also appears in the photo below on his ancestor-hunting journey in 2004, before the house was restored

But despite family papers and newspaper reports, we still don’t have the whole story. Was it a forced abduction, that ripped a young girl away from her mother, her only protector, and laid claim to Mary’s fortune? Or could it be that Mary and Samuel were indeed in love? Or, again, perhaps she was a headstrong young teenager with a thirst for an exciting adventure. The idea of running away might have seemed very romantic. They were not strangers; the families lived only forty miles apart and already knew each other well. At that period in history, thirteen was considered nearly ripe for marriage. But even for those times, she was still very young: although most Irish abductees were under the age of 21, very few indeed were as young as that. And it seems that Sam and Mary started sexual activity straightaway. One newspaper reports: ‘It appeared that when they left Ireland they sailed for and landed in Wales, that they crossed all England and made the best of their route to Scotland, where it is supposed young Phillips and Miss Max were married, as it also appeared they slept together at Kingston, and at Brighthelmstone.

As her direct descendant, I’d like to think that Mary and Samuel married for love. Or at least, that there was some romance, or sense of adventure on her side. Perhaps she was a catch in more ways than one – a couple of newspapers described Mary as ‘exceedingly beautiful’, though we have no surviving pictures of her to check this. One gossip column of the day suggested that the couple already had an ‘understanding’ and that when Mary’s relatives began to arrange a marriage for her to ‘a young Gentleman of a distinguished Family in Dublin’, Mary and Sam decided to secure their own marriage first. Nevertheless, would a thirteen-year old girl really understand what was in store for her?

More Phillips descendants visiting Gaile House, before it was renovated. Family lore has it that the Phillipses are tall and lean, that they love horses and are very untidy! My father always said that this fitted me very well.

My father was a keen genealogist, and he uncovered this story and pieced it together. I’ve added to it with the advantage of excellent internet tools now, and a rich trove of old newspaper reports available for searching online. And thus a tantalising, dramatic, but still mysterious story has unfolded, to which we will probably never have all the answers. One question is why Mary’s mother Joan dropped the prosecution, and accepted that her young daughter’s marriage? For that, there is a historical answer: studies from the period reveal that a girl was often regarded as ‘damaged goods’ once she had even been alone with a young man, let alone travelled abroad with him, and that she would henceforth be rejected as marriage material. Once a daughter had been abducted and married off, it was a fait accompli, and parents usually decided that a forced marriage was better than no marriage. And later reports do indicate that Mary and Sam did settle together quite happily, for the thirteen year period of their marriage.

Below are three of my direct-line grandfathers, all named Richard Phillips, and all of Gaile House.

The family lore which was passed down through the generations, doesn’t seem to include a strong sense of outrage or pity for Mary. My father, Ormonde Phillips, often talked to his ‘kinsman’ Jack Max, who still held some of the Max family papers about the legal side of the abduction, and he didn’t glean any indication from Jack that it was a blot on the family landscape. This isn’t conclusive, but does at least give a window of hope that Mary was not completely devastated by the event. The Max family, rather than the Phillipses, would surely be the ones to hold onto a grievance.

This Facebook video is a delightful sequence of a Connemara pony being put through its paces at Gaile today, which is now an equestrian centre for training and supplying sportshorses.

I’d like to honour my 4 x great grandmother by telling her story, and keeping its memory alive. Researching it has led me into a fascinating area of history, when the law in central Ireland was largely disregarded, and old clan ways still prevailed. I cannot help be somewhat uncomfortable, however, about the way my Phillips ancestors acquired their ‘forever’ home of Gaile House, Tipperary. Eventually, there was no one in the family suitable to take it on any more, and so it was sold. But from falling nearly derelict, it’s now under new ownership, and beautifully restored as an equestrian centre. The wheel of Fortune turns again.

Gaile House today

To the memories of Mary Max 17763-1789 and Samuel Phillips 1756-1816. I wish you could see how the family has grown today, and how splendid Gaile House looks once again!

Related Reading

The Pursuit of the Heiress: Aristocratic Marriage in Ireland 1740-1840 – A. P. W. Malcomson (Ulster Historical Foundation, 2006)

Forcibly without Her Consent: Abductions in Ireland, 1700-1850 – Thomas P. Power (Universe, no date). My father contributed his Mary Max research to this book, which also contains a very good Bibliography

You may also be interested in other family history posts on Cherry’s Cache:

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

A Tale of Two Samplers

Relevant books by Cherry Gilchrist

The Soho Coffee Bar

Over the last few years, I’ve been looking into the history of the Soho coffee bar – a fascinating phenomenon in its own right. This post is adapted from one that I’ve written for Soho Tree, and here I’ve combined stories from two circles of people who frequented Soho at that time – the aspiring musicians, including the renowned folk singer Peggy Seeger, who I interviewed earlier this year, and the ‘seekers’ who became members of a Cabbala group, studying the mystical Tree of Life.

Soho in the Fifties
While most of Britain struggled through the dreary post-war years in the 1950s, Soho was a fermenting cauldron, a pageant of unusual characters, exotic food stores and exciting new art and music.

The fifties were a time of austerity, of punitive conventions, of a grey uniformity….Soho was the only area in London where the rules didn’t apply,’ (George Melly, critic and musician).

The cafes of the 1950s helped to define Soho itself. Tucked into the very heart of London, Soho had already been a melting pot of nationalities and cultures for a hundred years or more. But the arrival of the espresso bars there in the 1950s opened up a whole new phase of possibilities for meeting up, making music, and finding soulmates and allies.

Coffee itself had been in Soho for a long time – this company began in 1887 – but it was the Gaggia coffee machines, as above, which revolutionised how it was served up.

In keeping with various other Soho memoirs, I’m stretching the geographical boundaries a little. The café habitués of the time didn’t draw a hard line where Soho officially ended: people spilled across the Strand towards Charing Cross and up towards Covent Garden market when staking out their favourite haunts.

Music and Cabbala
Folksinger Peggy Seeger recalls fondly: ‘It was my playground. You could meet people there, get to know them in the street.’ In the 1950s, Peggy was a young woman who had recently arrived from America, a member of a prominent musical family – her brother was Pete Seeger – and was now in both a relationship and a performing duo with the Scottish folk singer Ewan McColl.

Peggy Seeger and Ewan McColl, a song-writing and performing duo who were key figures in the British folk song revival, in the ’50s and ’60s

Peggy’s route through Soho took her mainly into the music clubs of the day, and the coffee bars which offered music. The Cabbala group, on the other hand, met primarily in cafes where you could focus on long discussions, while spinning out a cup of coffee. Although several members of this group were themselves musicians, and there was plenty of overlap between the two circles, you needed a somewhat quieter environment to tackle ‘the big questions’ of life. These were informal gatherings, the gateway to more intense, private group meetings for those who were interested in taking it further.

The 2 I’s was so-called because its original owners were brothers Freddy & Sammy Irani. Its tiny, 18″ stage was used by enthusiastic bands, and plenty of soon-to-be-famous musicians played there, including Cliff Richard and Joe Brown.

The Coffee revolution
Coffee was a prime mover in the Soho scene. Its influence began in the early ‘50s, when an Italian dentist came to the UK to sell revolutionary Gaggia coffee machines:

The coffee bar and espresso culture of the fifties…began in Soho, partly because of the large Italian community, and partly because Gaggia had their first British premises in Dean Street. Achille Gaggia invented the espresso machine…in Milan in 1946. Pino Riservato, an Italian dental technician, set up Riservato and Partners to import the machines to England, and in 1953 got Gina Lollobrigida to open the Moka Bar at 29 Frith Street, England’s first coffee bar, to show off his wares….’

Mr Gaggia’s shining machines transformed many traditional ‘caffs’ and Italian ‘greasy spoons’, which cut the grease and stodge from their menus and acquired a set of toughened glass cups and saucers (which not only looked modern, but also made sure that drinks soon got cold, discouraging those who wanted to linger all night over a single cup).

(Up West: Voices from the Streets of Post-War London, Pip Granger)

This was probably the first taste of decent real coffee that anyone had enjoyed in the UK

Life in the Soho coffee bars – the first shot is ‘real’, the one below staged for the film ‘Beat Girl’. But in one sense, everyone visitng the cafes was ‘on stage’.

The Soho Crowd
For many, entering the Soho scene was primarily a chance to break free of stuffy rules and live on the wild side. Some had run away from home to be there, or it was their first taste of freedom after National Service, or an escape from a tedious job in a dull post-war town. It offered both the opportunity to seek out those who shared your interests, and also the chance to mix more widely with a fascinating variety of people, of all artistic, philosophical and sexual persuasions.

Soho was a wonderful mix of artists, writers, sculptors, many of whom had studios nearby,’ Peggy told me. ‘It was also sleazy – the prostitutes would stand in doorways, the phone booths were full of cards, which were often rather ‘poetic’ in their descriptions of what they offered. I would often go in and take the cards down!’ (Peggy was, and still is, a passionate feminist.)

Even when you had found your crowd, or your tribe, there was scope for making new friendships through a common interest in music; live rock and roll, skiffle, folk and blues were a key feature of many Soho coffee bars. Often a performing space was kept free for this, even though a band might have to squeeze in tightly!

How the film ‘Beat Girl’ portrayed the Soho cafe of the era

The Coffee Bar Scene
To set the scene for the Soho coffee bars, here is an extract from an internet memoir by ‘Goosey Anne’, (real name unknown):

I was living and working in London in the early 1950s and most of my leisure time was spent in the newly-opened coffee houses in and around Soho. These were the haunt of the bohemians – artists, writers, resting actors, musicians and characters closely followed by students, nurses and people like me who had a good day job but enjoyed their company in the evenings. It was a mainly harmless pursuit – we would meet at one given coffee bar and during the course of the evening make our way onto a couple of others. The new Gaggia coffee machines were installed in most of the places – huge, glistening chrome affairs that hissed steam into the air to mingle with the cigarette smoke, for nearly everyone smoked and the atmosphere was pretty fetid. Coffee cost 9d (old pence) and usually we would all make one cup each last all evening.

We would sit and talk and talk and talk – putting the world to rights. No drugs ever came my way and indeed had that happened I would have refused. I only knew two of the circle who took drugs – we actually felt sorry for them. Most evenings someone would bring a guitar along and another person bongo drums and a sing-song of mainly Folk Songs would begin. One particular coffee bar – The Gyre & Gimble had a resident guitarist – Dorian – who would play softly in the background and compose witty ditties about the customers which he would almost speak in his educated drawl as he played. In one place – Bunjies – one of our group composed a song which went something like this:

Sitting in Bunjies my heart began to throb – for one cappuccino would set me back a bob. And for a sandwich I’d have to sell my soul – for six weeks I’ve saved up to buy a sausage-roll‘.

The owner didn`t like that tune much and would threaten to throw us out. But it was mainly Folk Music with the odd Rugby song thrown in if the University students were about.’

It didn’t take long before the espresso bar began to find a place in popular culture

Why Coffee Bars?
One of the great advantages which coffee bars had over pubs – apart from serving good coffee!  – is that they could stay open later, as they weren’t subject to licensing laws. And anyone could go into a café, whereas there was a minimum age of 18 for drinking in pubs, and women often felt intimidated going into male-dominated pubs at the time. It also chimed in with the birth of the teenager, the time when this age group began to have opinions, fashions and music of its own. ‘The colourful informality of trattorias and the all-important coffee bars made Soho the Mecca of the newly discovered teenager.’ (Pip Granger)

The ‘50s coffee bars were not just a teenage haunt, however – members of the Cabbala Group were mostly in their mid to late twenties, for instance – and they appealed to a very wide cross-section of clientele, from shoppers and beatniks, to office workers and film crew.  Cinematographer Walter Lassally, for instance, whose story you can read here, found his way into this circle because he had to be in Soho on film business – most of the film companies had offices there.


No doubt the vices of Soho were feared by parents of teenage children, and by those who never dared to set foot in such a disreputable area. But, as Goosey-Anne says, drugs were not often on the agenda, and those who preferred strong drink chose the pubs instead. In fact, according to the film ‘Beat Girl’, the message among the teens themselves was that ‘drinking is for squares!’ (Beat Girl starred Adam Faith, the soon-to-be pop star, and its cinematographer was Walter Lassally.) The clip below features the theme tune by John Barry and shows the opening sequence, with a very young Oliver Reed jiving in a plaid shirt.

Nothing was really policed in Soho though – it wasn’t at all dangerous. And the prostitutes were cheerful – I had a lot of respect for them,’ Peggy told me. Keith Barnes, a ‘Group’ member, recollects that two of the ‘ladies of the streets’ once bought him a meal when he had no money to eat.

Despite the lurid posters, ‘Beat Girl’ is a rather charming film about the young cafe-goers of the day and mild encounters with strippers and gangsters.

Opening a Coffee Bar
Property was cheap to rent in Soho in the post-war period, so opening a coffee bar was a great little start-up business. In 1956, the humorous magazine Punch declared: ‘We have reached the stage where virtually the entire population of these islands goes in hourly danger of opening a coffee-bar.

Tony Hancock, one of Britain’s best-loved comedians, took this further. In one of his sketches, he and his mate cast around for a scheme which will make them a bit of money:

Hancocks Halfhour – The Espresso Bar (1956)
Tony: ‘When actors are not working, where do they hang around?…We are going to provide them with such a place! We are going to open an Espresso Coffee Bar!

Mate: ‘Oh no! We’re not the type

Tony: ‘No, but we can soon remedy that. Buy a couple of duffle coats, a pair of corduroys, rope sandals, grow our hair long – we’ll be a sensation!

Mate: ‘You don’t only get the layabouts in, you know. You get the youngsters, and the intellectual bohemians.

Tony: ‘Intellectual bohemians – I’ve watched ‘em. They’re all broke. They don’t buy anything.

Mate: ‘No, but the people who come in to look at them do!

So the coffee bar crowd not only drew the beatniks and the intellectuals, but also generated its own kind of tourist trade. Hancock goes on to envisage how the Guards officers would bring their debutante girlfriends to gawp and giggle, on a racy night out on the town!

Choosing the Image
Creating the right image for your coffee bar was of prime importance. A funky name went down well – perhaps something Italian or Spanish like Il Toro, or arty like The Picasso, or musical like Freight Train, or melodramatic like Heaven and Hell. (All these were successful Soho cafes.) Décor was important, but could be done cheaply. Popular finishes were murals (plenty of young hopeful artists to paint them for next to nothing), brick-patterned wallpaper– or just the real thing, bare bricks. Bamboo furniture and plastic tables were inexpensive, and imaginative recycled lighting helped to create atmosphere. Some cafes went further. As one blog comment put it: ‘At Le Macabre you could have your coffee on a coffin in a cobweb festooned house of horrors, wearing sunglasses at night whilst having earnest discussions about the difference between Jean Paul Sartre and Dizzy Gillespie.

Affirming your identity
Choosing your coffee bars went along with choosing your circle and affirming your identity. Keith Barnes, a core member of the early Cabbala Group, recalled that there were different circles in Soho. He was, as he put it, at the bottom in the beat circle, wearing his duffle coat and a sweater, and sporting a dirty beard. The musicians, he said, were a rung higher up the ladder as they were paid for what they did.

The Musicians of Soho
Keith himself played in the musicians’ cafes, and a number of his friends in the Cabbala Group did likewise – group leader Alan Bain busked with his piano accordion, and another group member called Fritz Felstone was in demand for his banjo playing, for instance. Because Soho overlapped with the theatres and cinemas of the Leicester Square area, there were plenty of queues outside these for the musicians to serenade. And the Musician’s Union had its offices nearby, where jobbing musicians could pick up work, perhaps in nightclubs or for session recordings. Soho was the nucleus of the music industry at the time, giving birth to British skiffle and rock and roll, and so it’s perhaps no coincidence that one of the prime musicians’ cafes was called the Nucleus, generally known as ‘the Nuke’. ‘The 2 Gs’, in John Adam Street was another, and a favourite of the Group. Its full name was the Gyre and Gimble, but according to Keith, ‘only the tourists called it that’.

Goosey Anne recounts: ‘Of course this music played in the coffee houses was the beginning of the Skiffle and later Rock `n Roll era which I just missed. Apparently Tommy Steele used to come into the Gyre & Gimble and play his guitar rather tunelessly and people would ask him to stop!

She is not the only one to refer to Tommy Steele’s first and rather awful efforts – one account witnesses somebody hitting Tommy to try and shut him up. But, like Tommy Steele (born Thomas Hicks – recently knighted as Sir Thomas Hicks!) a number of other musicians began their rise to fame from these early sessions in the clubs and cafes of the Soho area – Seeger and McColl, Diz Disley, Red Sullivan and Wiz Jones, for instance, along with members of the future Incredible String Band. A couple of years ago, when Rod Thorn (my co-author of Soho Tree) and I visited the Mexican basement café which once housed the 2 Gs, the waiter we encountered was astonished to learn that it had once been a famous café, where Tommy Steele had played!

Peggy Seeger’s musical relationship with Soho evolved too, and in the 1960s she and Ewan were principle members of The Ballad and Blues Club, near Soho Square. No doubt today’s Health and Safety would have clamped down: ‘It was an absolute fire trap,’ she told me. ‘The room was on the third floor with stairs so narrow that they had to have ‘going up’ times and ‘going down’ times. It was like climbing to the top of Notre Dame! And the room was only very small, and always crowded. The stage was next to the one tiny toilet.

Peggy Seeger, still performing today with a fresh array of new songs

The name you were known by
Nicknames were de rigeur, especially for musicians. Keith Barnes was known primarily as ‘Peanuts’, and Fritz was really called Brian. Alan Bain’s brother, Bob Bain, adds: ‘I recall Mum (desiring to speak with her “Bohemian” son) taking me to where he might be found which was probably Gyre and Gimble but when asking for Alan Bain there was seemingly a look of ‘Who?” followed by “Oh, you mean Max!“’

Did this habit have its roots in the jazz culture? A Wikipedia article takes it very seriously: ‘Nicknames are common among jazz musicians…Some of the most notable nicknames and stage names are listed here.’ There follows a list of well over one hundred names, including 16 musicians who chose to call themselves ‘Red’.

Jiving in Soho Square

Group Cafes
The gatherings of the Cabbala Group took place chiefly near Charing Cross, in the ‘2 Gs’ (Gyre and Gimble) in John Adam Street, the Cross, and the Florence in nearby Villiers St, with Lyons Corner House on the Strand playing a part too. It was possible to eat cheaply in some of them as well – getting a filling bowl of stew or pasta was essential. Few members were earning much, if anything. As member Lionel Bowen writes: ‘I spent a lot of time in the ‘Gyre and Gimble’ coffee house on John Adam Street close to Trafalgar Square. We drank espresso, played bad guitar and sang (poorly) folk songs. The elder members of the Group hung out there, I think, on the lookout for likely recruits.

A couple of members even lived on the premises – although rents were cheap at the time, it wasn’t always easy finding affordable accommodation, so keeping body and soul together took ingenuity. Group leader Alan Bain, who sold books, and member Norman Martin, a jeweller, rented an ‘office’ upstairs in the same building as the 2 Gs. However, they also used to sleep there; by day, the bedding was rolled away to hide the evidence of their overnight stays. But, Norman said, the landlord eventually twigged what was going on, and threw them out!

The building which once housed the Gyre & Gimble coffee bar,and the current restaurant in the basement space it occupied.

Micks All-Nighter
Another popular café was ‘Micks’ on Fleet Street. Although this wasn’t so much of a meeting place for the group, it was a welcome resource for all-night cheap eats, and was often frequented by Keith Barnes and Glyn Davies, another of the group’s leaders, after they’d put in long hours on menial jobs, such as washing up in hotels, in order to pay the rent. They weren’t the only ones earning a pound or two where they could. ‘You would often see quite famous musicians bombing along there in Ford vans driving at 70mph delivering newspapers – they took on these jobs because they couldn’t earn enough from their music.’

A former police officer, interviewed for ‘Spitalfields Life’, remembers it well from slightly later, in 1972:
Micks Cafe in Fleet St never had an apostrophe on the sign or acute accent on the ‘e.’ It was a cramped greasy spoon that opened twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. During the night and early morning it served print-workers, drunks returning from the West End and the occasional vagrant. Generally, we police did not use it. We might have been unwelcome because we would have stood out like a sore thumb. But I did observation in there in plain clothes sometimes. Micks Cafe was a place where virtually anything could be sourced, especially at night when nowhere else was open.’

Recollections of the café also pop up in Fleet Street memoirs:
Working through the night was thirsty work and John recalled how the ink-stained printers would rub shoulders with the ‘toffs’ on their way back from London nightlife, in a “Mick’s Café”, as part of the Fleet Street tradition.

Perhaps one of the few grainy images left of Mick’s Snack Bar, but most likely from a slightly later period. It looks as though an apostrophe has slipped in, in the meantime.

And for messenger boys, a special task awaited them at Micks: ‘First job at 8.00am was to go to Westminster Press and collect the day’s national papers, these were then checked for previous day’s publications, then came the most important job of the day, this was taking a large silver teapot down to Micks Cafe in Fleet Street and getting it filled with tea and also ordering toast for the Darkroom and Bench staff.A Day In The Life Of A Fleet Street Photo Press Agency -1960’s

Micks, though not strictly speaking part of the Soho scene, had the same mix of working people, musicians, eccentrics and high society. It also has a very special claim to fame as the all-night café featured in ‘The Streets of London’, by Ralph McTell. (This YouTube version has a fine set of photos and street scenes accompanying the song.)

The Mix
Other circles with esoteric interests met in the Soho coffee bars. As well as the Cabbala group I’ve come across mentions of a Mithraic order, Druids, and magical groups, and there was also a widespread interest in astrology. ‘Sun sign’ newspaper columns had appeared since the 1930s, and people were keen to know more about their horoscopes. Ernest Page, a homeless, eccentric and very accomplished astrologer, was usually to be found somewhere in Soho, where he read horoscopes for a modest sum, as well as generously instructing those who wanted to learn the art of astrology for themselves. He is recalled by various other Soho seekers of the era, as in this discussion forum:

I well remember Ernest, the elderly astrologer (well, I was early 20s) giving me a reading for the price of a coffee or two!

The astrologer was named Ernie Page an ex postman. Long grey hair, hunched shoulders and carrying a small suitcase with his astrology charts. He used to prefer Sam Widges’ Coffee bar to the 2Gs. He often kept company with a ladyboy prostitute called Angel.

Angel is featured in Pip Granger’s book Up West, as a transexual who braved the general intolerance of the times: ‘We were easygoing. We were an odd society of people, and when you say we were bohemians, in a way we were, and we were very broad-minded, so…Angel came down to my coffee bar a lot.’ (Interview with Soho dweller ‘Gary’.)

In the photo below, extracted from a short video on Soho Coffee Bars, Ernest discusses astrology with other key Cabbala group teachers Glyn Davies and Tony Potter. Their colleague Alan Bain acknowledges what an excellent teacher he was.

Ernest Page, centre, with Tony Potter on his left and Glyn Davies on his right. You can see the whole 8 mn film below, and the scene with the French cafe, Ironfoot Jack and then the astrologers is at around 5.10

By the mid-1960s, the Soho café culture was waning. I was keen to visit it as a teenager, however, on the rare occasions I was allowed to stay in London for a few days, as somehow its reputation had trickled through to Birmingham where I was at school. I remember seeking out ‘Les Cousins’, a famous café and music club. I was a keen folk singer and had brought my guitar, and sang a few songs to a very small cluster of people. Indeed, I wondered where the action was – but was quite glad there wasn’t more of an audience, as I forgot the words to one of my songs!

Soho in the 50s is a world I relish reading and hearing about – perhaps because it was the party that I just missed.

Early days, aged about 16 with guitar

References
The London Coffee Bar of the 1950s – Teenage occupation of an amateur space?, Dr Matthew Partington, (conference paper 2009, available to read or download on line)
Soho in the Fifties – Daniel Farson (Michael Joseph, 1987)
Up West: Voices from the Streets of Post-War London– Pip Granger (Corgi, 2009)
The Surrender of Silence – The Memoirs of Ironfoot Jack, ed. Colin Stanley (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)
A complete and remastered version of ‘Beat Girl‘ (starring Adam Faith, filmed by Walter Lassally) can be found on Prime Video