Sweet Chance: Spring on Minchinhampton Common

Sweet Chance, that led my steps abroad, 
Beyond the town, where wild flowers grow -- 
A rainbow and a cuckoo, Lord, 
How rich and great the times are now! 
Know, all ye sheep 
And cows, that keep 
On staring that I stand so long 
In grass that's wet from heavy rain -- 
A rainbow and a cuckoo's song 
May never come together again; 
May never come 
This side the tomb.

'A Great Time' by W. H. Davies (1871-1940)

I recently re-visited Amberley and Nailsworth, the area in Gloucestershire where we lived not too long ago. We were there for seven years, in fact, and it’s seven years now since we moved. Although it’s not too far from our present home in Topsham, Devon, I’ve only once before made the 100 mile journey back there in the intervening period. This time, in glorious May, I rejoiced in the profusion of the local flowers of the woods, upland commons and meadows: starry wild garlic, ethereal cowslips, buttercups, bluebells and hawthorn blossom.


I’m forever interested in our experiences of ‘place’, and how they lodge in our memory as touchstones of emotional succour – or sometimes as the opposite, as places of doom or of energy drainage, best avoided in the future. For myself, this refers mostly to places where I’ve lived, and which have time to seep into the soul. That’s around twelve different places, plus one in Russia and one holiday home in Turkey. It’s a somewhat indefinite number as on more than one occasion I’ve lived in the same area but in different houses. Anyway, without getting too involved in intricate analysis here, I’m going to call it the round figure of twelve.


On Minchinhampton Common, it was – and still is, writing this a few days later – a time when the long grass is studded with flowers in the days before the cows are let loose to tear at the new fodder. Commoners have rights to graze stock – our house deeds there allowed us to graze ‘two beasts’! So in mid-May, farmers with similar rights drive their cattle lorries up there, and unload them. We witnessed it once, and laughed at the clumsy exhilaration of the cows as they kicked up their heels, snorted, then set off at what passes for a bovine gallop, stampeding and wheeling in circles, like something from a Western. Most had probably been confined to their stalls over winter, and their joy was a pleasure to behold. It wouldn’t take long before buttercups and cowslips were munched and you’d need to go to the margins of the common to find orchids, Solomon’s seal and other wild flowers not yet discovered by the herds.

Below: Cowslip, Early Purple Orchid, and the much rarer Bee Orchid, all of which I photographed on Minchinhampton Common


The cows themselves were mainly a motley crew of mixed brown, white, black and even a curiously sort of striped one, who we nicknamed Tiger. The National Trust kept a herd of belted Galloways, black and white like striped humbugs, and an elite herd of a few little Highland cows, with woolly coats and long horns, kept their own company away from the madding crowd. All the cows roamed as far as they could until stopped by cattle grids, and it was a frequent sight to see one leaning over our back wall, wondering what she might be able to reach in our vegetable patch with her rasping tongue. Or strolling through the village past our front gate, snatching at grass from the so-called village green.

‘Tiger’, and fellow cows munching their way along our lane and the village green


And on my visit this time round, it happened to be the day of the annual ‘Cow Hunt’. No, not taking pot shots at innocent animals, but a kind of Cow Scarecrow event, with named cows dressed up and dotted around the village, such as Emma Radu Cow Moo or the like.

One of the many imaginative cows (or bulls) making up the Cow Hunt trail in Amberley (Stroud News & Journal)

Hordes of families spread out through the village and over the common, parents diligently ticking off discovered cows on their lists, while excited children scampered ahead, trying to spot them in fences, gardens and the wilder spots. After which, it’s tea and cake for all on the aforementioned village green.

On the lower slopes of Minchinhampton Common, looking towards Burleigh

I began this piece with the poem by W. H. Davies, which wonderfully evokes the kind of ecstasy of a moment when impressions flood our consciousness – sights, scents and sounds arising simultaneously from the natural world around us – in his case, a rainbow and a cuckoo’s song. In my case, the sweetness of spring flowers, the silvery stone of the villages I know and love – Amberley, Box, Minchinhampton, and the leafy ancient woodland, all brought joy. For me, too, the open common and its free-ranging beasts has always carried a resonance of an older, freer way of life in the English countryside, which has now largely gone from our land.

A beautiful rendering of ‘Sweet Chance’ set as a song by composer Michael Head


But – and here’s the thing! – it’s also ‘sweet chance’ that W. H. Davies himself lived in this very area, and was a native of Nailsworth in his later years. He was a self-styled ‘super tramp’: born in Wales, he roamed far and wide across the world, living as a hobo. He travelled round Canada and America, trying unsuccessfully to make his fortune in the gold rush, and losing his leg in a freight train accident. But being something of a genius too, his writings took the more bohemian elements of literary London by storm, and he became an established poet, as well as publishing his autobiography. Notable figures such as the Sitwells, George Bernard Shaw, and the poet Edward Thomas became his friends. It was not a simple outcome, as you might imagine, given that a rough life and the sometimes genteel expectations of his behaviour did not always sit well with his upper class admirers. But his status as a ‘super tramp’ helped to kick start a kind of vogue for ‘tramping’ so that even much later, in the 1950s, writer Colin Wilson and his circle took to sleeping out in the rough – though in Wilson’s case, just as far as Hampstead Heath! And a well-known Soho character, ‘Ironfoot Jack’, wrote an entertaining memoir about his time on the road, and as a showman. Tramping became almost respectable.


In later years, W. H. Davies settled in a little cottage called Glendower, in a hamlet called Watledge, I used to walk past it often, if I was taking the scenic downhill route into Nailsworth, and admire its picturesque look. This was his last home, after he and his wife had inhabited several other houses in the area. His wife was much younger than him, and a former prostitute, but it was apparently a happy, settled union. His novel ‘Young Emma’ shows his sympathy for young women who got into trouble on account of their poverty and innocence. It was a close-to-life account of his wife’s beginnings, and not published until after his death.

W. H. Davies’s cottage, ‘Glendower’, in the hamlet of Watledge just outside Nailsworth

There is much more that could be said about W.H. Davies, Nailsworth, our time in Amberley, free-ranging cows and common land, but I’ll just let this short tribute stand as a kind of marker of those special moments which can come when we revisit old haunts. A rush of memories can fuse with current impressions – for me here, ‘sweet chance’ was the scent of wild garlic, the delight of meeting with old friends, the sight of the steep valleys and tender green of the woods in May. I may experience this alchemical elixir, as indeed all of us may, but perhaps only a poet or writer of genius such as W.H.Davies can express it

Poet and tramp, W. H. Davies

The next post will stay with a literary theme, exploring the connections between William Blake and the Moravian Church. Are Blake’s visions, poems, and even his views on love, shaped by this unusual Christian church with its emphasis on visualisations, the feminine spirit, and delight in music? Join me in a different setting, but with another wild, independent genius!

The Bazaars of the Silk Road

Ladies of Tashkent with their produce

Prelude

During the 1990s and early 2000s, I made a number of trips to the Silk Road, travelling both along the ancient trade routes and to individual countries such as Syria, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkey. I felt instinctively that this period offered a golden opportunity to visit Central Asian and Silk Road countries, while borders were largely open, and political upheaval was minimal. I also had the time to do this, and travel was relatively inexpensive, so I decided to seize the chance while I could. And so it proved – sadly because of radicalism, civil war and political upheavals it would be very hard to do all of the same trips today.

However, it has ever been thus on the Silk Road. Only during the reign of Tamerlane (Timur) in the late 14th century was it possible to travel through his vast empire without impediment from beginning to end – and that was because he was a tyrant who imposed complete control on the routes! So I relished my journeys along at least part of the Silk Road, and studied its history and culture further to fill in the background. The talks and lectures I was able then to give were popular; everyone, it seems, wants to be an armchair Silk Road traveller, if they can’t get there in person! And who doesn’t love the colourful pictures of its remote mountains and lively markets?

In today’s post, I’m exploring the magic of Silk Road bazaars, and in a couple of months’ time I’ll publish a post on Travellers and Traders along the Silk Road. And more may follow – so watch this space!

Selling skeins of silk in the bazaar at Damascus, Syria

Times of Change

There have certainly been changes in the last fifteen years, since I visited the Silk Road and its countries, like the Chinese policy of aggression in the Uighur province, which has affected the historic town of Kashgar, with its enormous Sunday market and charming houses with painted balconies. I am not sure that I could bear to go back there now – I’d rather remember it as it was. But nevertheless, most of what I write and the pictures I show still tell a tale of Silk Road countries in general, even if some specific locations have altered.

The painted houses of Kashgar

The Life of the Silk Road

The enchantment of the bazaar

Bazaars cast their magical spell over me, every time. In Silk Road countries, I have shopped in bazaars in Istanbul, Damascus, Kashgar, Samarkand, Tashkent, Marrakesh, Fez, Cairo, and Rawalpindi, to name but some of that I have visited. They are more than markets, glorying in flamboyant display, and creating a sense of opulence. Even humble sacks of spices are arranged in a palette of pleasing colours, metal teapots are set in towers to create a dazzling array of silver, and piles of slippers with striped silk and pompoms suggest the floors of a Sultan’s palace. I love nearly all markets but the Silk Road bazaars with their exuberant offerings, turning all their goods into exotic treasures, are irresistible.

Turkish slippers for dainty feet piled up in the bazaar

The Story of the Silk Road

The Silk Road flourished between the 1st century AD, and the 15th century, after which time better trade routes and shipping routes opened up between East and West. However, despite its romantic sound, the term ‘Silk Road’ itself was only coined in the 19th century. The Silk Road was also not just one road, but a network of branching routes connecting countries from China and India in the Far East through Central Asia and into the Middle East, with final routes into Italy, Greece, and even Britain. Silk itself had been discovered in China by at least as early as 3,600BC – the legend has it that a Chinese Empress accidentally dropped a silkworm cocoon into her cup of tea, and as it unravelled in the hot liquid, she teased out the thread and was struck by its possibilities! Sericulture, the making of silk, became de rigeur for all Chinese ladies in the centuries that followed, and much time and effort was lavished on their silk road ‘houses’ to rear the worms which spin those cocoons. Soft, strong, lightweight silk became a precious commodity, its secret guarded for centuries by the Chinese until it was spotted by the Romans and export finally began. (One bargaining chip was that the Chinese were especially eager to acquire decent horses such as bred by their neighbours over the border in what is now the Kirghystan area.) But the trade routes were used for many, many other goods sent from East to West, and West to East, including ceramics, rhubarb, gunpowder and paper.

The Eastern end of the Silk Road, which extends into the Middle East and even into Europe

The old trade routes of Silk Road with their caravans of camels, yaks and horses still persisted to some extent in terms of travel, right though into the early 20th century. In their final years these were documented by a duo of Christian missionaries, Cable and French, who described them in their atmospheric book, The Gobi Desert (details below). But even today, the legacy of Silk Road bazaars is still thriving, as celebrated here.

A traditional seller of sherbert drinks in the bazaar in Damascus

The language barrier

‘I’m talking about camels -CAMELS!’
Many nationalities of travellers and merchants have travelled up and down the Silk Road for at least two thousand years. How did they manage to communicate with each other, given that they spoke dozens of different languages? They developed a simple, but cunning way of getting round this. For much of the Silk Road, either Chinese or Turkic languages were the main ones spoken, and these all have some similarities even though they are significantly different from each other. Only very rarely did traders travel from end to end of the Silk Road, so the chances were that the other travellers and traders that they were meeting came from just a few countries away. Thus to exchange information, the merchants would first of all state what the subject of the conversation was going to be: ‘My words are going to be about woven silk – camels – porcelain bowls – bandits up ahead…’ or whatever the vital topic was. You can imagine that this might have been protracted on occasion – ‘C-A-M-ELS – got it??’ and perhaps with some pantomime or gestures: ‘BANDITS – I’m dead!’ (enacting stabbing chest with knife) That way, each could pick up enough to give a sense of the potential deal or danger, and further conversation could now be exchanged within the framework of the subject.

In the huge Sunday market at Kashgar, once in the kingdom of Kashgaria and now in Western China, Uighur traders bargain fiercely over their donkeys and other livestock. I captured these images in the mid-1990s; sadly the Uighur culture is now being repressed, along with the beards and traditional forms of dress.

Exotic Goods

Goods came from far away lands, so buyers at Silk Road bazaars could expect to see some items that were new and strange to them. Even today, some exotic-looking items in a bazaar can be mystifying – the pictures above are actually of sugar, as sold in the bazaar at Samarkand! And I’ve noticed that in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, it seems that every time a new exotic design comes onto the market, it’s presented in dazzling displays, alerting buyers to something new and glamorous. One year, for instance, it was coloured glass lanterns, and the year before that, embroidered wall hangings. You can see examples of these below.

Hats, Caps and Headgear

Another way to do a quick check on the home country or region of another merchant or dealer was – and still is to an extent – by checking their headgear. Even today, in Uzbekistan and in Kashgar market, a whole variety of caps and hats are on offer. (You can see some of them in the photo above of the men arguing over their donkeys.) Pointed felt caps for the Kirghiz can easily be distinguished, for instance, from the round flat hats for the Uzbeks.

A Kirghiz felt hat, which I brought home from my travels

Another frequent sight in the bazar is the Kirghiz, wearing a pointed cap of bright chintz bordered with lambskin, and a heavy fur coat even when the day is hot. His boots have high heels…he sometimes carries a hooded falcon on his wrist…’ (The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable and Francesca French, a fascinating account of life in Central Asia by missionaries who saw the last days of the old Silk Road trading routes in the early 20th century.) Indeed, I did manage to buy some Kirghiz riding boots of black leather. I showed them to a shoe mender back in the UK – he marvelled at them, as no nails at all were used, only tiny wooden pegs, in a style that he hadn’t seen since boots made before WWII.

Selling Uzbeki caps in Samarkand

Immersion in the life of the bazaar

My first experience of bazaars was as a student of 20 years old, when I elected to spend the summer vacation in Istanbul. I enrolled in a scheme to match up British students with Turkish families, a homestay in return for helping them to speak English. The journey was epic – 3 days packed into a hot train with a group of fellow students, no bunks, working toilets or refreshments. We ground to a halt somewhere in a barren plain in Yugoslavia. (This was not the Orient Express, but the unglamorous version via Munich and northern Greece.) The train arrived 24 hours late, and I was met by my Turkish family, waving frantically to me from the platform, having recognised me from the photo I’d sent. I hadn’t received the one they’d sent me, so was wondering who the ‘housewife’ was that I had been asked to tutor. It turned out that the agency had got it wrong, and fixed me up with a 33 year old bachelor who fancied marrying an English girl! I was too shy to admit to the mix-up, but luckily he lived with his aged mother and father, and spent most days working in the family pharmacy with his father. So by day I was free to roam the city streets, crossing over on the ferry to Old Istanbul and its fabulous bazaar. As a long-haired, mini-skirted wearing student, I was lucky not to get into trouble! In the bazaar, I learnt how to bargain, and was entranced by the huge building, with its arches and painted ceilings, and labyrinthine layout. I’ve been back many times since; the spell was cast in those early years, and has never been broken.

The Bazaar of Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is known as Kapali Carsi, and is probably the most famous bazaar in the world. It’s also often regarded as the most perfectly constructed and best organised one too. Like other major bazaars, it began as a complex of strong rooms where valuables could be stored and protected, offered as a commercial service, and shut up tightly at night. This turned into the first Bedesten, or covered market, in Constantinople, created around 1461 during the Ottoman period. Its jewellery section today still remains at the centre, a traditional placing in the best-protected area of the bazaar. (Though today more modern, securely-guarded gold jewellery stores can be found at the perimeter of the bazaar.) Like other bazaars built from late medieval period onwards, it was given a domed roof, in this case with fifteen large and eight small domes. Over the course of time, it expanded; the Sandal Bedesten was built around the first Bedestan, and other side streets grew up too, ringed round with 30 caravanserais, as lodging houses for merchants. Today’s bazaar still covers 100 acres, with some 18 gates and 4000 shops. It was badly damaged in an earthquake of 1894, and by the1950s was in serious decay and decline . It was a close call as to whether it would survive, but now it is restored, and buzzing with life once again.

Gorgeous lamps create an air of oriental splendour in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

Not all bazaars are as grand or splendid, of course. Sometimes a small town bazaar might offer, say, predominantly water melons, hunting knives and bread for sale, depending on their local specialities. And not all are picturesque. Visiting Morocco in the 1970s, I shrank from scenes of horror in the butchers’ quarter, where stalls were hung with blood-dripping meat, darkly encrusted with flies. I also spied fascinating but sinister ‘witchcraft’ stalls selling ingredients for potions and magical spells, who knows whether to cure or curse. But I remember too the enchantment of arriving by bus at a little Moroccan town one evening, and stepping out straight into a street market lit by lanterns in the dusk – no electricity in those parts. An enticing scent of grilling kebabs floated on the air, stallholders called their wares, citizens bustled about, looking for the final purchases of the day. I felt I had entered a magic realm.

On the question of security for traders, I was reminded of the effect of Timur/Tamerlane on the safety of goods and travllers when I visited Damascus in the early 2000s. Bashar al-Assad was already President, some would say dictator, with a tight control over the city. In the bazaar, I bought a gold chain from an Armenian jeweller. He told us that he had no fear of anyone robbing his shop; he could even leave it unlocked and walk away, and nothing would disappear. This is one of the ironical effects of a tyrannical regime.

Ceramics traditions and servicing

Below: Ceramics have been part of Silk Road trading for about a thousand years, with Chinese porcelain a valuable commodity sent with great care to the West. Something of that tradition is carried on today with the exuberant pattternings of Turkish ceramics, proudly displayed for visitors and locals. I have lost several impulse purchases in breakages over the years – they don’t travel well in luggage! In Silk Road days, the porcelain could be mended at Tashkent en route if it had got damaged in transit.

Bargaining

Bargaining and bazaars go together. And there’s a fascinating range of customs relating to bargaining across different Silk Road countries. In the Yemen, they have a practice of using hand gestures under a cloth held over the hands of buyer and seller, so that no one else can see the deal that is being done. Fingers symbolise numbers, and ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses are signalled with the eyes. Perhaps this too relates to the need to overcome language barriers, the old challenge of the Silk Road. In the Levant, it’s common for the stallholder to state too high a price, then walk off in disgust when the buyer refuses. His son then magically appears, takes over the process and offers the customer a special discount to make up for the disappointment – the seller re-appears and berates his son for being too soft, and so the performance goes on. Somewhere along the line, a bargain may be struck.

If you enter a bazaar, be prepared to bargain. It’s expected of you. Aim at a price of about half what is initially stated, though I often feel in fact that about two thirds is fair. Bargaining is part of the game, and merchants have practised it over hundreds of years. The pantomime of expressing shock at the seller’s opening price, the gambit of walking away when an agreement seems out of reach, are all part of the ritual of the bazaar. (‘Come back, lady! Ok, for you special price…) I’ll just add a quick rider that of course there are variations, when bargaining hard is not the right etiquette, for instance for food, or in countries which may have their own accepted limits of discount (generally about 10-20% reduction in countries of the former Soviet Union).

Above: Superb wooden boxes, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and made by craftsmen in Damascus. At the time when I bought a few, the prices were absurdly reasonable. I wonder what has happened to the makers and the trade now? The civil war erupted just a couple of years after my visit.

Tips for the bazaar

Learn the basic numbers in the language of the country. I only have a little Dutch and much less Turkish, but by learning numbers to understand prices and make offers, I was able to bargain in the flea markets of Holland and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
Be polite and friendly. It goes a long way.
Don’t feel pressured into buying something if you’re offered a glass of tea or piece of Turkish delight. It’s part of the ritual, and the seller knows full well that not every interaction leads to a sale.

Be ready to walk away if you can’t strike an appropriate deal. If there’s more room for negotiation, the seller will call you back.
Only start the bargaining process if you really do intend to buy something (at the right price). It’s offensive to make a game out of it.
Beware of self-appointed ‘guides’, especially those who offer to take you to their uncle’s/cousin’s/brother’s shop…But you probably know that already!

All the contemporary photos of Silk Road scenes are copyright Cherry Gilchrist

Sources

My own book Stories from the Silk Road is a re-telling of traditional stories from the Silk Road area for children. Most of these stories were gleaned while I was on my travels, either by hearing them or finding them in books with local collections of stories. They are narrated here by the Spirit of the Silk Road, who also describes the its wonders as we travel down it. It is illustrated with stunning pictures by Nilesh Mistry, who carefully studied photos and historical pictures that I assembled for him, to ensure authenticity. (You’ll find different editions of this book, some with another cover; it is currently out of print, but copies are usually available on Amazon.)

There are plenty of books about the history of the Silk Road, but those most relevant to this particular post are:

The Gobi Desert – Cable, Mildred & French, Francesca, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1942) – Recording at first-hand the last traces of the ancient ways of travelling and trading on the central stretches of the Silk Road, as experienced in the first half of the 20th century. You can read about the authors’ extraordinary lives here, women who eventually received the Livingstone Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

The BazaarMarkets and Merchants of the Islamic World – Weiss & Westermann (Thames & Hudson, reprinted 2000)

Below: Old markets in Samarkand, where the magnificent buildings have since been restored.

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Suzanni from the Silk Road

Tigerlily down Brick Lane

Tigerlily at the Posh End

Following the Trails of the City

As winter moves towards spring, I am tramping the streets of Exeter and taking a break from writing

Becoming a City Guide

I am training to become one of the City of Exeter Redcoat Guides, a six month long course which qualifies us to lead a variety of historic tours around the town. We tramp around the streets with our trainers – I call them ‘handlers’, as we can be a bit of a handful! – working on the different routes and the stories embedded there. All this is transforming my view of the city, as I learn to see it in its Roman incarnation, as a medieval centre of wool trade, a gracious place for 18th century gentry, a smoking ruin in the Blitz, and a trail blazer in pedestrian shopping precincts (yes, really! With a view of the Cathedral, the architect specified.) The detail of all this is enough to take your breath away, but of course we must keep our breath so we can spill it out to our future interested visitors. Exeter has minted coins, hidden the mother of King Harold, killed people with cholera, and hosted the oldest civic Guildhall in the country – the office of Mayor dates back to the early 13th century.

The ceremony of the Lammas Glove, opening the season of the summer fair as it once was. You can see the Civic treasures – the ‘Cap of Maintenance’ and the sword given by King Henry VII. The garlanded glove is born aloft on the carriage behind.

And I go on my own exploration tours of the city. I learned long ago that if you approach the place you live in, or near, with a specific desire to seek out its hidden treasures, you begin to see with fresh eyes and perhaps make discoveries in a serendipitous way. While living in Cambridge in the 70s, for instance, I went out on a walk one morning with this intent, and to my surprise stumbled across an archaeological dig. I’d had no idea that this was taking place; it was now empty of archaeologists, but I just happened to arrive when one of them was making her final site visit. She was able to tell me that this was an exciting new discovery of a Roman Mithraic Temple. It transformed my sense of the townscape and its ancient origins.

The medieval bridge over the River Exe, now in a kind of traffic island

In Exeter recently, Robert and I went out on a cold, murky Sunday morning so that I could visit the remains of the medieval Exe Bridge, now lying beneath a modern concrete interchange of roads and new bridges. (For my presentation topic in the Red Coats training, I’ve chosen ‘Bridges over the Exe’.) I knew that it can be a dodgy area for drug dealers and the like, but we had it all to ourselves. It looked pristine, and the recent rains even gave a glimpse of what it must have looked like when water once flowed under it. We looked at the remains of St Edmund’s Chapel, patron saint of bridges, and I mused over the story of a 12th century female anchorite, who walled herself up on the bridge and refused to move to let travellers pass!

Walking along the bridge, with the remains of St Edmund’s Chapel

Just as we left the bridge and walked towards the nugget of medieval Exeter still preserved around Stepcote Hill, the door to St Mary Steps church opened. A congregation of two elderly ladies climbed gingerly down the steps (hence the name!) and an array of priests and servers invited us in warmly to view the church, which is normally closed. We drank in the ancient atmosphere, enhanced by recent liberal doses of incense. Another stroke of luck!


I have in mind to write a post later on about ‘Pilgrimage of Place’ – of how visiting or re-visiting a town or a landscape can be a heightened experience, often, as mentioned, with happy coincidences along the way. My survey of family historians, when I was writing ‘Growing Your Family Tree’, also showed that others had shared this experience, treading ancestral trails. When I return from my break, I hope to share this with you. If any of you would like to write to me with your own experiences, I’ll be glad to read them and perhaps share them in the post. You can reach me via the Contact form on this website or on my author’s website at www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk.

Medieval Stepcote Hill, once the main route into Exeter from the river and through the West Gate

A Winter-into-Spring Break

I am now going to take a break for a couple of months, as I do every now and then. This gives me a chance to replenish my writing energy and fish up a few more ideas from the deep.
Thank you for coming with me thus far!

The alchemist fishes for coral, in the warm Sicilian sea. I shall make do with the Devon sea and rivers to inspire me. (Epigram 32: ‘Atlanta Fugiens’ by Michael Maier, 1617)

The Spirit of the Home: Renewal at New Year

Prelude

This time of the year is one of transition, but moving so slowly that it can feel as though we are caught in a spell of darkness – both in the sense of a ‘phase’ and of ‘magic spell’. Is this really the turning point of the year? It seems as if we are suspended, despite the thrust of New Year celebrations. As I’ve written previously, older cultures honoured this ‘time out’, the Twelve Days of Christmas, when work should cease, the gods themselves take a rest and the veil between the worlds is thin. In the old Irish tradition, ‘the gates of heaven are open.’


But the standstill of the year at mid-winter also poses practical issues. Our three new young chickens are enduring what are basically 15 hour nights, from the time they instinctively return to their perches at dusk soon after 4pm, to the first lightening of the sky and cry of the gulls from the river at about 7.15 – exactly the time that I’m writing this! So I’ll break off to go and open up, and make sure they have plenty of feed to peck at to restore their strength.

Our chickens – Delilah, Pepper and CInnamon – keen for a morning drink

Just before I go, I’ll post a link below to a traditional song which has a bittersweet quality, and captures the mood of longing, wistfulness and hope which I feel is the essence of this time:

For the night is long
And the day is grey
The old year is fading
The new comes our way.

We know by the moon
That we are not too soon
And we know by the sky
That we are not too high
We know by the stars
That we are not too far
And we know by the ground
That we are within sound
.

The blog that I’ve prepared below talks about another kind of New Year renewal, one that occurred for me around twenty years ago, but which has stayed with me as an occasion to cherish.

Renewal at New Year

It was the eve of the Millennium. Everyone else was celebrating, but I was languishing at home, ignoring the festivities as best I could. My city exploded with fireworks, fizz and general rejoicing, while I huddled deep inside my spacious house. My husband and I had recently split up and my two grown-up children now had their own lives. I felt very alone –  I usually had two Maine Coon cats for company, but tonight they hid themselves in the deepest part of the basement, terrified by the noise. While the rest of the world was celebrating, I switched off my phone, detached myself from the world, and retreated to a very solitary place in my soul. Although harrowing, I realised too that it was a turning point, and from here on I needed to find a way to live positively in my home.

The house would be mine for another two years, until it had to be sold. I had agreed to this, so that we could divide up the assets, so for this period I needed it to be more than an empty shell. Right now, it felt like a place of pain and loss, but our family had spent thirteen happy years there. It had been full of friends, too, and a sanctuary for kindred spirits, with whom we’d talked on deep matters way into the night. And it was my creative hub – I’d written some of my best books there. But now, after our break-up, I felt that the atmosphere was tainted. Could I recover the joy and richness that this home had given us? Enough, at least, to begin my new life in the shell of the old?

A few days later, once the frenzy of the Millennium had died down, I came up with a plan. I knew both from my work with women’s groups and from my training in ritual, that it’s possible to make significant changes in the atmosphere of a space or a building. You can clear the space of recent clouds or conflicts. And with conscious input, you can make a sad place sing, or turn a decaying mood into a beam of hope. The home wouldn’t be again as it was – I had to accept that – but although we can’t ever turn the clock back, we can make it tick cheerfully again.

My network of women friends has always been hugely important to me, and I wanted to engage them in this task. Together, I believed we could dispel any lingering traces of unpleasantness and fill the house with laughter again. This was to be a celebration, an evocation, and a renewal. I invited about a dozen women to spend the evening with me, and indeed the whole night too if they wished. The purpose was serious, but hey, we were going to have fun too!

Women have their own way of using their collective bond to lift spirits and achieve a positive effect. As I’ve written about archetype of the Lady of Light, in my book The Circle of Nine:

Just being with other women and doing practical, even friv­olous, things can be enormously helpful. …Going round the stores, trying on clothes and rummaging through cosmetics in some ways recalls the “gatherer” women in tribal societies. These innocent and apparently light-hearted activities can be of genuine help in releasing a woman from her struggles with individual problems, and bringing renewal through the light that her sisters generate.

For the first part of the evening, we chatted, laughed, ate, and drank sparkling wine. Not everyone was well acquainted, but I’d chosen women who all shared a devotion to something more profound, and who could honour the spiritual in our lives. When I felt the energy was sufficiently high, and the mood was warm, I asked if the group would purify and bless the house for me. They knew my situation, and were willing to help. I asked them to organise it for me; it was very important that I should step back and relinquish control, in order to truly benefit from the occasion. They must bring light and energy into the house in their own way.

The main purpose, I explained, was to re-awaken all the happiness and good which had been in this home. This in itself would probably be enough to disperse any clouds of negativity. (If the house had had a very unhappy or troubled past, it might have needed a different and deeper kind of ritual. But it had been a happy home for us, and indeed for the family who was there when we bought it.)  I would give thanks for this, and then, with the spirit of the house hopefully free and cleansed, I could dwell there with relative peace of mind. After the sale, I could step forward freely into a new life, and whoever lived there next could enjoy a friendly atmosphere.  

It was a large house, on several floors, and I suggested that they go through the house however they pleased, as long as they visited each part of it, including the cellars and the attic! Candles and incense were available, bells and bowls, or whatever they wanted, could be used. I reminded them of the useful technique, of striking two stones against each other so as to banish any lingering shadows. They set off like a gaggle of giggling pilgrims. I could have trailed in their wake, but it was a huge relief to leave the process to them.

They rose to the challenge wonderfully. I never discovered every detail, but my abiding memory is of a group of women carrying candles emerging from an upstairs room in a glorious wave of light, laughter, and love. Though they laughed, they were solemn; though they were not formal they brought words of meaning, and true compassion into the house.

I mark that evening as the turnaround point. It was the time when I began to love my home again without being so attached to it, and to feel that I might in due course step away from it without regret. Perhaps this was the night when I learned the immense significance of female friendship.

Postscript

That was just over twenty years ago, and life has indeed moved on. I sold the Bristol house, moved to Bath, met my second husband Robert on a cruise and started a new life together. Since then, we’ve lived in Gloucestershire and now reside near Exeter in Devon. The family has re-configured, and I now have two lovely granddaughters and an amicable relationship with my ex. Sometimes when you can’t see beyond the clouds of the present moment, it’s worth just entrusting yourself to a future which you can’t envisage, but will come in its own way and in its own time. I regard those seven years which I subsequently spent living alone as very useful, and a good foundation for beginning again in a new partnership.

With two small granddaughters in our favourite tree, taken about 2012

Haunted Dartmoor

The strange shapes of some of the granite tors on Dartmoor lend themselves to ghostly legends – we’ll meet this petrified hunter later on

It’s still the Spooky Month, so I’ll continue on this theme by braving the spirits of Dartmoor. In Topsham, our local town, ghosts seem few and select. On Dartmoor, however, you can encounter one at practically every bend in the road or on each granite tor. In fact there are many, many different types of ghosts on Dartmoor, from black dogs to ghostly hunters, from hairy hands to phantom monks and invisible drivers (who run you over). So I will just pick out a few stories to share with you here.

Kitty Jay

I became intrigued by Kitty Jay years ago, when I heard her story on a TV feature about Dartmoor. Kitty, we were told, was a young girl who died tragically after being crossed in love. The grave where her unquiet spirit hovers lies beyond parish boundaries, but it is always tended by unknown hands. Offerings of fresh flowers, and sometimes food or trinkets are placed there regularly. Could this really be so?

Then, when we moved to this area, I finally managed to visit Kitty Jay’s Grave, and to check out the story for myself.

The grave of Kitty Jay, near Houndtor on Dartmoor

Kitty Jay, according to the tale, was a farm girl of humble origins who fell in love with a young man of higher class. He professed to love her in return, seduced her, and then abandoned her. Kitty committed suicide in despair. And because she took her own life- it was considered both a crime and a sin – she could not be interred in a churchyard, and so was buried here, at an old crossroads near Hound Tor.

For thousands of years, crossroads have been considered magical, liminal places, associated with restless spirits. In Greek times they were ruled by the god Hermes, who, as one of the old texts says: ‘I Hermes stand here at the crossroads by the wind beaten orchard, near the hoary grey coast; and I keep a resting place for weary men.’ But as time went on, crossroads seemed to lose the sense of sanctuary and their protective deity, and became places for the outcasts of society, including those who would not find rest after death. In medieval and later times, gallows were often erected at crossroads, considered suitable places for the wicked and the ungodly to end their lives. Here they would be bereft of protection from gods or men, with the four winds blowing over them, condemned to lie forever between this world and the next. Hence crossroads are not only considered to be haunted, but they are also places where spirits can be conjured up.

The grave lies at an old crossroads – the road which runs from left to right (just out of shot) is now metalled, but this one coming up through the woods is still an old bridle path or green lane

However, in all versions of the story, our Kitty was a good and gentle girl, wronged by the cruelty of a man and the harsh code of society. And she continues to be commemorated thus. The strange thing about Jay’s Grave (as it is labelled on the map) is that it is truly almost always covered with offerings. Passing it many times now, I can vouch for the fact that it is nearly always adorned with flowers, trinkets, coins and the like. Some people say these are brought each night by the pixies, but that if you stay up in the dark to see them at work, you will be terrorised by a huge hooded figure, who rises up to drive you away.

Whatever the truth about a sad farm girl who was abandoned by her lover – there seems to be good evidence that a skeleton was indeed found here – it is still a kind of mysterious shrine, as the offerings show. The story still touches our hearts. It also touched that of the writer John Galsworthy, who wrote a novel called The Apple Tree based on the tale of Kitty Jay. Galsworthy loved Dartmoor, and spent much time in the area. More of that later…

And likewise, local bard Seth Lakeman has written a song about her:

Poor Kitty Jay
Such a beauty cast away
This silent prayer
It should paint some peace
On her grave
Something broke her sleep
Poor Kitty Jay
Such a beauty thrown away
So young and fair
Now she's turned to dust
And clay
Terror broke her sleep
Never guessed unto her cold end
Called the Devil her only friend
Never guessed it with his bare hands
Called the Devil the mark of man

You can listen to it here, as recorded in the magical setting of the outdoor Minack Theatre in Cornwall.

Could there be a link between the popularity of this song and the increase in daily offerings? No, surely not – it is the pixies are competing to show their concern, of course!

Offerings placed by unknown hands on Kitty Jay’s grave when I first visited

The Curious Custom of ‘Singing the Body’, and the tradition of The Old Lych Way

Meldon Pool is a flooded limestone quarry on Dartmoor near Okehampton. Here a tragic death occurred in 1936, when someone fell into its murky waters and drowned. (Swimming is prohibited here today.) But when his body could not be found, the mourners became desperate to recover their loved one and give him a Christian burial. Tim Sandles, of Legendary Dartmoor, tells us that the eerie custom of ‘singing the body’ was therefore employed:
This was where prayers and hymns were sung at the edge of any water where a body had gone missing. The old custom of singing the dead involved assembling at the place of a drowning, and singing hymns and psalms near the water in the hope that the body would emerge for burial.’ Thus, it was hoped that ‘the sacred words would be attracted by the lost soul who was thus released from limbo. ‘Accordingly, a choir from nearby Okehampton assembled at the pool and duly chanted hymns and offered prayers. Although there was no immediate result, within the week the body was found floating in the pool. This occasion is the last officially recorded instance of this tradition on Dartmoor.’

Another old custom associated with death on Dartmoor was the carrying of the coffin many miles along ‘the old Lych Way’ to Lydford in order to comply with parish regulations.Those who had died in remote parts of Dartmoor had There is a sinister pathway that winds its sombre way across the northern wastes of Dartmoor, it is known as the ‘Way of the Dead’, the ‘Corpse Way‘, or the Lych Way. Its roots are firmly set deep in the days when every person on the moor was expected to attend their church for services and burials. That may not seem any different to the rest of the country in medieval times, except for some of them it involved a trudge of about 12 miles and in bad weather this would increase to roughly 17 miles. Legendary Dartmoor has the full explanation.

This song about The Old Lych Way, performed by our local folk heroes ‘Show of Hands’, was written by our talented Topsham neighbour Chris Hoban.

The Restless Ghost of Manaton

And now to a more personal account. I was asked by an old friend, who does not wish to be identified, whether I could find out anything about Wingstone Manor Farm in Manaton on Dartmoor, to discover if it might be haunted? She had lived there as a child, and was regularly spooked by a shadow of a man which would pass through her bedroom at night.

The attractive village of Manaton, on the eastern side of Dartmoor

I searched what records I could find, chiefly from the newspapers of the day, and accounts of Dartmoor legends. And I found this one:


FATAL ACCIDENT TO A MANATON FARMER.

On Wednesday evening, fatal accident, the details of which have yet to explained, occurred to Mr Endacott, of Wingstone Farm, Manaton. It appears that on Wednesday he drove into Newton Market as usual, and late in the afternoon started to return home… A short distance out of Newton on the Bovey Road, Mr Endacott by some means collided with a trap driven by Miss Kerslake, of Teigngrace. Both were thrown out, though, apparently, without being injured. After some delay Miss Kerslake re-started, little the worse for the adventure. The shafts of his trap having snapped off, Mr Endacott borrowed a saddle and bridle, and started to ride home, leaving his trap in a field adjoining the scene of the accident. On reaching Bovey he made a short stay at one of the hotels. When he left Bovey it was dark, and not long after he was discovered lying in the road between Bovey and Manaton, having either been thrown or fallen off his horse. He was conveyed home at once. Medical was called in, but he died from his injuries early on Thursday. PC. Ashby took Mr Endacott’s name and address after the accident, with the intention of summoning him for furious riding …An inquest will held. (East & South Devon Advertiser – 5th December 1896)

A path leading into Manaton, of the kind which Farmer Endacott would have ridden.

So could the troubling shadow be that of Farmer Endacott, never quite able to leave his former home after coming to an abrupt and inebriated end? But then, on delving a little further, I wondered about another former and more famous occupant of the farmhouse…

Above – Galsworthy and his favoured retreat of Wingstone Manor

From the Western Morning News, 25th October 1929, when as it seems, the Endacott family itself was still in residence:
As Devonians are well aware, Mr. John Galsworthy lived at Manaton, on the edge of Dartmoor, for a considerable number of years, occupying two rooms in a pleasant farmhouse, and playing cricket in his hours of leisure with the village team. Last Saturday, when a small party of us visited Wingstone Farm, his landlady, Mrs. Endacott, very proudly showed us his sitting-room, pointing out with particular reverence his favourite chair which he always sat when writing. “That’s the one on the left of the fireside,” she almost whispered, indicating a roomy, black basket work armchair with a low seat, high back, and plentiful cushions. Seventeen years he lived here, and still comes back for visits. He used to say that he liked the view.”

Perhaps Mr Galsworthy continued his visits, even after his death in 1933?

The Witches and the Hunter – the story of Bowerman’s Nose

Anyone who visits the strange granite outcrop known as Bowerman’s Nose cannot fail to be impressed by the huge ‘head’ which seems to loom up above the hillside. (That’s the one at the top of this blog.) Locals know that this is Bowerman the Hunter, who was turned into stone along with his pack of dogs – the loose stones around him – when he tried to defy a local pack of witches. The story goes that there were many witches on Dartmoor, and that covens were rife. Bowerman chose to defy their power, but in the end, one witch was able to turn herself into a hare to lure him to his doom. Bowerman hunted the hare until it ran straight into the assembled coven, a trap set by the witches to ensnare him and put him under their spell forever. You can read full and imaginative versions of the tale at Legendary Dartmoor. and Dartmoor – Learning.

Here I am, demonstrating the size of the mighty Bowerman and his Nose

But I wonder about this story? Who is really the villain, who the victim? Whose side are you actually on? That of Bowerman a mighty man of power and status, hunting the defenceless hare, or the witches who may have been local ‘wise women’ and healers? Women’s secret gatherings were often feared for no good reason, and their knowledge of natural magic reviled. Of course, the witches could have been malevolent hags, ready to curse and enslave, and Bowerman could be a brave protector of the people. Well, it’s only a story….Maybe the ambivalence is part of the fascination of old legends, told in different ways at different times. I’ll leave you to choose!

The Fearsome Pig and the Phantom Piglets

This fearsome phantom pig is from Swedish folklore, but legends of spirit pigs are found widely across Northern Europe, harking to the times when wild boars roamed the landscape, as indeed they did on Dartmoor. The boar was a creature of awe and worship, and sometimes associated with the gods of the land

To finish, I return to the story of the Phantom Piglets, who I first wrote about in ‘Us Wants to go to Widecombe Fair’. This is truly a Dartmoor special. Here’s the tale again:

From Merripit Hill, near Warren House Inn, a phantom sow may sometimes be seen setting out with her littler of hungry little phantom piglets on a journey to Cator Gate near Widecombe. Here, it is rumoured, there lies a succulent dead horse. The procession trots over the mist-enshrouded moor – the little pigs squeak ‘Starvin’, starvin’, starvin’.’ To which the old sow grunts encouragingly: ‘Dead ‘oss, Cator Gate; dead ‘oss, Cator Gate.’ They arrive too late – there’s nothing left. Sadly, they trek homewards, the piglets wailing disconsolately: ‘Skin and bones, skin and bones.’ to which their mother philosophically replies, ‘Let ‘un lie, let ‘un lie.’ By this time they have become so thin after their long trek that they dissolve into mist-wraiths, never getting back to their home ground. Nevertheless, there they all are, ready to set out again from Merripit Hill on the next occasion.’
(as told to Ruth E. St Leger-Gordon by Miss Theo Brown)

My husband and I shall soon be spending an autumnal weekend on Dartmoor in this area, and I will of course be out searching the hills and horizon for any signs of the Ghostly Pigs. The wild and lonely countryside around the places mentioned lends itself to legends of frightful fiends, so who knows what other spectral beasts I might encounter? Don’t forget the Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sherlock Holmes, based on real stories of a giant phantom hound – and of course there is the Old Grey Mare herself, who we also met in the Widecombe Fair blog.

The lonley landscape near Vitifor and the Warren House on Dartmoor

Further Reading

Read more about women’s magic and legendary archetypes in my study of feminine mythology

Discover the intricacies of Dartmoor at ‘Dartmoor 365’, a walker’s guide to each of the 365+ square miles in the Dartmoor National Park

For a taste of nature spirits, demons and wise witches and wizards from another culture, try my book ‘Russian Magic’, based on years of visiting rural Russia and learning its customs.

Topsham at Halloween

A haunted bookshop, a headless guard, and a ‘house that dreams’

As the nights draw in, our most ancient pub, The Bridge, begins to look a little witchy, but there’s always comfort to be found in browsing a bookshop – even if it is haunted!

Topsham isn’t one of the most spooky places in Devon, but nevertheless, we can hold our own at Halloween, with a select array of ghostly visitations and ghastly happenings.

The Ghosts in the Bookshop

The Topsham Bookshop is a paradise for book browsers and a much-loved landmark in the town. As the website describes it: ‘The Topsham Bookshop is housed on three floors of a beautiful 17th century building in Topsham, an ancient port on the River Exe. Lily Neal, the owner and manager, aims to provide a special atmosphere in which book lovers with varied interests will feel at home.’

But is there more to this ‘special atmosphere’ than meets the eye? As a very ancient building, it would be surprising if it didn’t have some ‘history’. A while ago, as I was having my hair trimmed in a local salon, my hairdresser began to describe how she’d lived for a while in the flat above the bookshop, and had experienced strange goings on. She was convinced that it was haunted. I didn’t investigate any further, though, until I received an email out of the blue from a Mrs Margaret Green. Back in 1968, when she and her husband were first married, they too had lived in this flat. The shop was at the time known as ‘Homecraft’, selling homeware, and run by a Mrs Price. Here’s what Margaret told me:

This flat was haunted. We had been there a couple of weeks, and went to bed one evening, only to be woken with a sounds of chains being dragged across the floor. My husband got out of bed and went up into the attic, but there was nothing there. Another evening, we got home from work, and Mrs Price was just locking the shop up to go home. We locked our front door, made our evening meal, and then sat down to watch the TV. We went to bed as usual, but in the morning when we got up to go to work, we found that Mrs price’s shop was all unlocked, her cellar was open, and our front door was open. We had to shut the doors to the shop, lock our front door, and go to Mrs Price to let her know what had happened. She started to laugh and said, “Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you – it’s only our ghosts!’ We never ever saw him or them, but we certainly knew that he or them were around, Such happy days living there.’

Stairs down to the cellar, where some customers fear to tread

So I’ve now asked Lily, the present day bookseller, what she knows about such goings on. She tells me that several of her customers have reported feeling a presence, or having a strong sense that the building is haunted. A few refuse to walk down into the cellar area, as the feeling is too strong for their liking. One is convinced that someone died down there. But perhaps Margaret’s Green’s ‘happy ghosts’ are the more prevalent? When I asked her for permission to use this story, she answered:
‘I am so pleased to hear that your hairdresser had told you a story about feeling something strange. I would be pleased for you to use our memories of what we experienced whilst living in the flat. It was such a homely little flat, and we very much enjoyed living there.’

Here’s a Halloween invitation: Visit Lily’s bookshop, browse, buy a tome or two, and see what you can feel in these surroundings. And you can always write and let me know! Maybe there will be more to say about the Topsham Bookshop Ghosts.

Well, there are a few scary moments in the bookshop!

The Headless Train Guard

And now for a ghastly event in Topsham – it may send shivers down your spine. You have been warned.


Have you ever encountered a headless train guard? Have you ever seen blood trickling down your carriage window when travelling on our delightful local train service to Exmouth? No? Well, that might just happen, if the spirit released by a dreadful accident in 1875 still rises to haunt us on the track. And if so, then please ask him to tell you the true story of his demise. Because there’s a mystery hanging over it….


A ‘Fatal Accident on The Exmouth Line’

On a summer’s evening in June 1875, a railway worker called George Richards boarded the last train of the day from Exeter to Exmouth. He was designated as a ‘spare guard’ for the trip, and shared the guard’s carriage with another guard and two porters, all presumably finishing their shifts and in a good humour to be going home. We may also infer, although any influence of alcohol was always denied, that they were a touch merry as a consequence. Then George suddenly left the carriage, saying he’d be back in a few minutes.


Now, it seems there were no corridors in the train, so that ‘leaving the carriage’ meant climbing onto the roof and crawling along to the carriage he intended to enter. But his escapade did not go well. ‘On arriving at Topsham, the attention of one of the porters was called by a first-class passenger, in a compartment some two or three carriages removed from the guard’s van, to the fact that blood was running down the side of the carriage in which he was seated,’ reported the Exeter Flying Post ghoulishly on Wednesday 16 June 1875. ‘A search was made for the cause, and on the top of the carriage the unfortunate guard was found. quite dead, with the back of his head smashed in and his neck broken.’ He had been crushed when the train passed under a railway bridge.’


But what on earth was the guard doing on top of the carriages in the first place? What had his intentions been? The Coroner’s Court was held in the Lord Nelson pub in Topsham, and newspaper reporters flocked to hear the story in all its gory detail.
What state was the guard in? asked the coroner. ‘The deceased appeared very jolly and talkative,’ said porter Thomas May, but hastened to affirm that he was sober. But then May dropped a bombshell: ‘He said he was going to see a young female.
The Coroner was incensed. He assumed that May’s witness testimony was invalid, and lashed into him. The reporter eagerly jotted it down word for word:
Now, look here man, you have taken an oath, and that is a very serious matter. Beware speaking what is not the truth, and you seem to be giving your evidence as if this were not a very serious matter. This man has come to his death by some means, and I should wish you to be a little more cautious in the way which you give your testimony. He must have told you what he was out of the van to do.
Witness—He said he was going out to see a female.
The Coroner—Are those the words he used? He must have given you some reason for his going out beyond what you say?
Witness said the deceased’s last words were that he was going out of the carriage for immoral purpose (statement which caused a sensation among the jury).


Western Times – Wed 16th June 1875

I have no suitable historic pictures to illustrate this story, but my two Russian Baba Yaga witches are having a good cackle over it

Why was the Coroner so quick to try and refute the evidence? Perhaps because the London and South-Western Railway Company who brought about the enquiry, would have been very concerned to learn that their employees were having ‘immoral’ assignations with passengers? And all the more so when ‘the unfortunate man leaves a young widow and a child about six months old.’ Maybe their reputation was on the line. (pun intended!)


But May would not be swayed from his testimony, though other witnesses were not so bold, and mumbled about Richards saying he was ‘just going out for a minute or two’. All agreed, however, that he was crawling along the carriage roof and met his end at Apple Lane Bridge.


The Coroner, in summing up, said the jury had heard how the melancholy affair had happened. It was quite evident that deceased had met with his death by his head coming in contact with the bridge, and the verdict could be no other than accidental death. The jury, after a few minutes’ consultation, returned a unanimous verdict of Accidental Death.’


Searching for the exact location of Apple Lane Bridge, I found that it was apparently near the current Digby and Sowton station, just before Topsham. So when your train next stops there, remember poor George Richards, and speculate about just what he might have been planning to do, in a carriage further along the train. Perhaps don’t even travel on the last train, in the dark, if you are in a sensitive frame of mind…

A Ghost in Paradise?

And let’s end with my impressions – happy ones! – from living in our very own old house in Topsham. ‘Great Paradise Cottage’ was once the central section of a medieval hall house of some stature. We’ve only found rather vague pointers to its origin from local hearsay – ‘a place where the Bishop used to stay’ is one, and ‘previously a medieval grange for corn storage’ is another. Plus, from an archaeologist friend comes a clue that the name ‘Paradise’ is often associated with gardens on old monastic land, so it could have once been owned by an abbey. The fireplace is made of Beer Stone, and is one of only two houses in Topsham known to have Beer Stone in its construction. This honey-coloured, soft stone comes from the caves at Beer, near Sidmouth, which have been quarried since Roman times, and were used in the construction of Exeter Cathedral. Perhaps our slab ‘fell off the back of an ox cart’ when being transported to Exeter? At any rate, the fireplace is late 15th century and the house itself is be older still. In the 17th century, a grand oak staircase was added, along with ceilings and upper floors. However, because of the rather heartless 18th century division of the house into three vertical slices by builder Richard Cridland, some of the Beer Stone was shaved away to accommodate a tiny front door for our central section.


After we had renovated the house and moved in, in 2016, I recorded my impressions of the ancient layers of memory in the house. These were perhaps not so much hauntings, as presences stirring.


Sep 10 2016
This old house tells me its stories at night. In the deep wastes of sleep, where dreams float filmy, like colour washing through the amber waters, I am told what it remembers. Cargo unloading – ships, rough or dilapidated. Some inchoate feeling of – perhaps – a deal in dispute – a ship not arrived. It’s all rough and ready, plainer and simpler that we might portray it today. It’s the feel that tells me – yes, this is in the fabric of memory here.


Dec 22nd 2016
Last night both Robert and I seemed to hear or see things. I woke up in the first part of the night and wondered what Robert was doing out of bed. He appeared to be moving to and fro across the window, as if he was arranging the curtains or something. He seemed to have on a kind of dappled or patterned robe, kind of dressing gown. I asked him what he was doing, and he answered that he wasn’t out of bed – he was in fact lying next to me. Then twice later on in the night, he asked me, ‘What did you say?’ I told him that I hadn’t said anything…My experience felt puzzling but benign. Can it be that we have some kind of ghosts or hauntings here? I’m intrigued by the prospect!


Dec 2017 – How the house loves bunches of holly in jugs! This feels right.

Christmas greenery to deck the medieval Beer stone fireplace at Great Paradise Cottage

And yes, we’ve filled the house with greenery at Christmases ever since. It seems to come alive, and rejoice when we do this.


So the Topsham spirits I’ve heard about and perhaps encountered seem to be benign ones. Why be alarmed if they are gently living their own lives among us?

Below: Looking forward to Christmas at Great Paradise Cottage

A Struan Loaf and a Dragon for Michaelmas

Michaelmas Daisies – a common garden favourite, associated with St Michael’s Day on Sep 29th

We’re coming up to the Feast of Michaelmas, on Sep 29th. And as I have a couple of stories about St Michael to impart, I’m posting a week ahead of my usual schedule, in time for his feast day.

Note: Part Two of my Christening Mugs Stories will now appear on October 10th

Stained glass window at St Michael’s Church, Brent Tor, Dartmoor

St Michael is one of the four archangels honoured by the Christian church, and in Western spirituality in general. These are Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel. But in early medieval times, and especially in Byzantine culture, Michael was singled out as the head archangel, the one who rides through heaven commanding the armies of God. (Angelogy is complex and many-layered, and I shall just stay with the simple version here!) . Perhaps this command of the heavenly forces is why churches dedicated to St Michael, or St Michael and All Angels, are nearly always built on high ground.

St Michael’s Brent Tor (above) – most definitely built on high ground, as is the famous St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall (below)

Michael is also famous as a dragon-slayer, which has relevance to the first of my stories. However, the dragon itself is also an ambiguous creature – a symbol of danger and destruction, but also of passion, energy, treasure and transformation. I recommend keeping an open mind about the dragon – but it’s also wise to keep an eye on the dragon too!

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven” (Rev. 12:7).

The Red dragon of Alchemy – symbolising transformation through fire

The Dragon Churches of Old Radnorshire

Last week, a friend and I went to the Welsh Borders, on the trail of five churches dedicated to St Michael. These particular churches, out of the many in the area named for Michael have a very special function. They keep guard over the very last dragon of Wales: ‘There is a local legend that lies asleep deep in Radnor forest and that long ago the people of this area built four [other sources say five] churches in a circle around the forest. These were dedicated to St Michael, the conqueror of the dragon, to make sure he does not escape. Many believe that if any of these churches is destroyed the dragon will awaken and ravage the countryside once more.’

Overtly, Michael’s job is to protect the population from the rampages of the dragon. But perhaps helps to preserve that last wild spirit of Wales? Some say that these five churches – at Cascob, Cyfnllis, Nant Melan, Discoed and Rhydithon- can be joined up on the map as a pentagram, which is a magical seal of protection.

The Welsh Dragon, as found on the national flag of Wales

We visited two of these churches at Cascob (seen above) and Cyfnllis. Like the others in the circle, they have very ancient yews in their churchyards and are built on or near prehistoric mounds. Cascobis still very remote, both peaceful and magical in its atmosphere. And of Cyfnllyis, (below) where the church stands next to the abandoned site of a medieval castle and vill age, author Donald Gregory calls it ‘delectable’ and says: ‘both a historical site of uncommon importance and also an area of outstanding natural charm.’

Does the dragon still live in Radnor Forest? My companion on this journey, Rod Thorn, said that he plans to return and find out! Perhaps I will stay behind, hugging a yew tree and calling on St Michael for protection!

And I think that the archangel and the dragon are a pair, perhaps combining the conflicting passions and aspirations of human existence. In alchemy, you must separate body and soul – a battle ensues, and they are then reunited in a new and wonderful form.

Struan Bread

And for celebrating harvest time and the Feast of St Michael on Sep 29th, what better than to bake Struan bread? This is a bread traditionally made in the Western Isles of Scotland, combining different types of harvest grains. The loaf was usually made by the eldest daughter of the household, then carried into the church at Michaelmas to be blessed. It was then laid there to honour relatives and friends who are no longer with us. As Struan recipes are generous enough for three loaves, I expect a couple were kept at home to enjoy there!

The recipe below is one that I first found on the ‘Fresh Loaf’ website , and have adapted it. I’ve since discovered more both about its origins and its revival by Brother Juniper, a lay monk and star baker from California. He’s commemorated in the Brother Juniper Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor by Peter Reinhart, who himself travelled to Scotland in search of more information about the Struan tradition. By then, it had become a folk memory only, but he found an old Gaelic blessing for the Struan, translated by the notable scholar Alexander Carmichael. I’ll quote a few verses from it here:

Each meal beneath my roof [meal = ground grain etc]
They will all be mixed together,
In the name of God the Son,
Who gave them growth.

Milk, and eggs, and butter,
The good produce of our own flock,
There shall be no dearth in our land,
Nor in our dwelling.

In the name of Michael of my love,
Who bequeathed to us the power,
With the blessing of the Lamb,
And of his mother.

Reinhart says:
Struan is not merely bread – it is bread that represents the essence of bread, which is one of the great analogies of life itself. In our everyday consumption of bread we tend to forget or lose sight of the reality of what bread is. So a bread ritual…dedicated to the archangel of the harvest whose name means “like unto God”, is a way to tune into this deeper reality….Struan, because of its direct descent from a traditional ritualistic practice, still retains a trace of sacramental efficacy.’

Certainly, I’ve made it previously and have got my granddaughters to join in. I may even be just in time to do that this year too!

A previous batch of my Struan loavesand below, yes I did make it in time! Here’s those I made yesterday, on Sep 28th. Happy Michaelmas!

The Recipe

Struan bread is a mix of harvest grains and flours. Now since both this recipe and the one given by Brother Juniper (which differ slightly from each other)use polenta, ie cornmeal, I doubt that this was what exactly what they used in the Outer Hebrides! It’s not a product of such northern climes. But it was always meant to be made with whtaver harvest produce was gathered in, and varied recipes go with the spirit of the dough, even if we gather most of our ingredients from the shop shelves these days!

I’ve also added metric measurements to the original American cup measurements, which tend to confuse us over here in Britain! And bear in mind that it’s one of those recipes where you need to check it out as you go along, and see whether you need more flour or less water. So hold back on the water, add it a little at a time until you get the right consistency. I currently use a Kitchen Aid to do the kneading, as my wrists aren’t strong, but kneading by hand would indeed be more mindful. If you do use a machine, check early on in the process that it’s mixed properly as there are a lot of different ingredients to blend.

THE LOAF

Makes 1 large loaf – double the quantity for 2, which means you’ll have one to freeze. Worthwhile, as it takes effort to assemble all the ingredients and time to prepare the dough.
SOAKER
3 tablespoons polenta 30-40gm
3 tablespoons rolled oats 25 gm
2 tablespoons wheat bran 10gm
1/4 cup water 60ml

DOUGH
3 cups unbleached bread flour 380-400gm
(You can substitute up to 25% wholemeal if you wish)
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1.5 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon instant yeast
3 tablespoons cooked brown rice 50gm
(Short grain is good but long grain is fine)
1.5 tablespoons honey
Half a cup buttermilk (130 ml, or use a little more and reduce water)
3/4 cup water 170ml – Add carefully; you probably won’t need it all

TOPPING
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
(If you don’t have poppy seeds, use another seed like sunflower)
Mix together the ingredients for the soaker. Cover and allow to soak for at least half an hour or as long as overnight.

METHOD
In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients, then stir in wet ingredients and soaker. Add more flour or water until the dough can be formed into a ball that is neither too dry nor too loose in texture. Try to keep it so that you can still handle the dough, even if it is a little sticky. Knead the ball of dough for 10 to 12 minutes, (8-10 in a food processor with dough mixer) then return it to the bowl. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and allow the dough to ferment until doubled in size, approximately 60 minutes.

Remove the dough from the bowl, knock it down briefly to take out the air, and put it into a greased bread pan. Sprinkle a little water on top, followed by a dusting of poppy seeds.

Cover the dough in the pan loosely again and allow the loaves to rise until doubled in size again, approximately 40-60 minutes.

Bake these loaves at 180 degrees (356 F) for about 40-45 minutes. (I used a fan oven; you might need to use 190 in a non-fan one.) It will achieve a high bake colour so don’t be tempted to take it out too early. Test in the usual way, by tapping the bottom of the loaf when you think it’s ready to see if it sounds hollow. Reinhart gives a useful suggestion for his recipe, which is that if the top of the loaf is dark but it’s not sounding hollow, take it out of the tin and bake it a little while longer, bearing in mind that it’s likely to finish cooking very quickly this way.

These slices won’t last long! Delicious with butter and honey. And below is our own modest harvest, with sunflowers filling a Devon harvest cider jug made by Harry Juinper of Bideford

You may also be interested in:

Alchemy and Cooking

Baba Yaga and the Borderlands

Golden Quinces

Us Wants to Go to Widecombe Fair!

With Phantom Pigs, Fire from Heaven, Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all

For such a picturesque little village, nestled quietly in the heart of Dartmoor, Widecombe-in-the-Moor is surprisingly full of drama. Natural disasters (or possibly the wrath of God), and supernatural hauntings add an extra frisson to the cream teas consumed by visitors and the annual fair enjoyed by many.

This is one of my occasional Dartmoor posts. I am not a Dartmoor expert, like photographer Chris Chapman and Tim Sandles of Legendary Dartmoor, but I hope to offer you something lively, original and based on my own experience of visiting the magical moor. My first post on Dartmoor Ponies has drawn readers in, and I hope future ones will do likewise. For today, we are in the area around that very famous village – you’ve probably sung about it, even if you haven’t visited it – none other than Widecombe-in-the-Moor.

The village sign, celebrating the famous song about Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and All

Widecombe Fair

To start with the fair – how I am longing for it to return, after the pandemic! Alas, that will not be until 2022. It’s held in mid-September, and is a glorious occasion with Hill Pony competitions, sheep shows, local crafts, folk bands and all kinds of delightful entertainment. Including, of course, Uncle Tom Cobleigh – the most famous ghost of Widecombe!


I expect many of you know the song about Widecombe Fair. Tom Pearce was rash enough to lend his grey mare to a group of merrymakers, heading for Widecombe Fair. Famously, they are Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all –the whole lot jumped up on the grey mare and rode her to the fair. And they didn’t return with her on Friday soon or Saturday noon, as promised. So Tom Pearce rode up a hill and (rather surprisingly) spied his mare ‘making her will’ along with the all of the reckless riders. No one, man or horse, returned alive. But they live on to this day, ‘when the wind whistles cold on the moor of the night’, and ‘Tom Pearce’s old mare doth appear ghastly white’. She comes with ‘rattling bones’ and the ‘skirling groans’ of Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

The ‘Old Grey Mare’ as depicted by Pamela Colman Smith, whose story, art and Tarot cards are the subject of my next blog

But I am pleased to report that this isn’t quite the end of the story, as Tom Cobleigh, his mates and the mare now appear again every year at the fair! We saw them with our very own eyes when we visited a couple of years ago.

Who was Tom Cobleigh? Keen local folklorists are on the case, and recent research shows that he may indeed have been a local character. At the village of Spreyton, some eighteen miles away just north of Dartmoor, there is indeed a grave to Tom Cobley, d. 1844. Those in the know say this is not the true Tom Cobleigh, but a nephew of the original Tom Cobleigh, who died in 1794 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Could this be a clue to his identity, buried with little trace, after his disgraceful doings? Well, maybe. But there again, it turns out that ‘old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all’ was a popular saying meaning ‘along with everyone else’. Which came first, the man or the saying?

Wooden model of the merry-makers and the grey mare, usually kept in the church but sometimes proudly trundled out to put on display at public events

I will leave you to form your own opinion, but at any rate, it’s a great delight to see him and the mare enjoying a comeback at the Fair.

You can see in this photo how easily the mist comes down to shroud the surrounding hills, despite a bright day down below. Take this knowledge with you into the next story, that of the Phantom Piglets.

For an authentic and rumbustious rendering of the song ‘Widecombe Fair recorded at Widecombe Fair itself, try this one by well-known local musicians and storytellers Bill Murray & Jim Causeley. You’ll need to forgive some of the audience being out of tune. But the spirit is there!


And for a hilarious competition of Terrier Racing at the Fair (‘Hold your dug, Mother!) look no further than this video.

The Phantom Piglets

Ghostly pigs are surely unusual, but Dartmoor rarely disappoints; it offers a brooding tale of these and once again, the focus is on the Widecombe area. Here’s the tale as I first read it in one of my books on Dartmoor folklore:


From Merripit Hill, near Warren House Inn, a phantom sow may sometimes be seen setting out with her littler of hungry little phantom piglets on a journey to Cator Gate near Widecombe. Here, it is rumoured, there lies a succulent dead horse. The procession trots over the mist-enshrouded moor – the little pigs squeak ‘Starvin’, starvin’, starvin’.’ To which the old sow grunts encouragingly: ‘Dead ‘oss, Cator Gate; dead ‘oss, Cator Gate.’ They arrive too late – there’s nothing left. Sadly they trek homewards, the piglets wailing disconsolately: ‘Skin and bones, skin and bones.’ to which their mother philosophically replies, ‘Let ‘un lie, let ‘un lie.’ By this time they have become so thin after their long trek that they dissolve into mist-wraiths, never getting back to their home ground. Nevertheless, there they all are, ready to set out again from Merripit Hill on the next occasion.’

(As told to Ruth E. St Leger-Gordon by Miss Theo Brown. I apologise for not quoting the author of the book, as I’m still searching my books to find where I copied it from!)

A longer version of this can be found on ‘Legendary Dartmoor’ .

This is truly spooky, and I can imagine looking up to the high moors and Tors from Widecombe, and seeing little whisps of mist curl around the hill tops. Are the piglets coming again? Are they starving? Will they, perhaps, see us as a tasty meal? Ferocious piglets may be lesser known among the terrors of Dartmoor than the Hound of the Baskervilles, but perhaps they are more deadly.

The wilder reaches of Cator Rocks . Is that a dinosaur’s head I see poking out to the left?
A more peaceful Widecombe scene with free-ranging Dartmoor ponies grazing around the village sign. I was delighted to come across this sight on one of our visits to the village.
The church of St Pancras, Widecombe, where we are heading next

The Lightning Strike

And then we have the curious case of the church tower struck by lightning. This inscription is painted across four boards in Widecombe Church, recording a catastrophe from 1638, when lightning struck the church tower. It happened on a Sunday afternoon, when people were singing in the church; the strike split open the tower, showered the congregation with debris, and burnt some worshippers alive, while leaving others completely untouched. This, as you might imagine, became a focus for villagers to ponder upon the mysteries of God’s judgement and, indeed, his mercy. The account itself dates from 1786, and was made by the churchwardens Peter and Sylvester Mann, who created a kind of epic poem out of the event. Here are two of the panels and I’ll quote some extracts below.

In sixteen hundred thirty eight, October twenty first,
On the Lord’s day at afternoon, when people were addrest;
To their devotion in this church while singing here they were,
A Psalm distrusting nothing of the danger then so near;
A crack of lightning suddenly, with thunder hail and fire.
Fell on the church and tower here, and ran into the choir;
A sulferous smell came with it, and the tower strangely rent,
The stones abroad into the air, with violence were sent…

One man was struck dead, two wounded so they died few hours after -
No father could think on his son, or mother mind her daughter
One man was scorcht so that he lived but fourteen days and died
Whose clothes were very little burnt, but many were beside.
Were wounded, scorched and stupefied in that so strange a storm…

One man had money in his purse, which melted was in part,
A key likewise which hung thereto, and yet the purse no hurt…
One man there was sat on the bier, which stood fast by the wall,
The bier was torn with stones that fell, he had no harm at all…
Among the rest a little child which scarce knew good from ill,
Was seen to walk amongst the church, and yet preserved still:

The wit of man could not cast down so much from off the steeple,
Upon the church’s roof, and not destroy much of the people;
But he who rules both air and fire, and other forces all,
Hath us preserved bless be his name, in that most dreadful fall…
Remember who hath you preserved, ascribe unto his glory:
The preservation of your lives, who might have lost your breath,
When others did if mercy had not stept twixt you and death.

An old ‘longhouse’ in Widecombe-in-the-Moor. The combination of granite and thatch on many old Dartmoor buildings makes them look as though they have grown out of the earth.
And the window looks like a little eye peering at you from under the eyebrow of the thatch!

Below is the well-loved Rugglestone Inn, on the outskirts of the village, where I am sure many a tall Widecombe tale has been recounted over a pint or three.

Acknowledgements

All photos are copyright Cherry Gilchrist except Cator Rocks from Dartefacts, the ‘Commons’ picture of the village name sign, and historic artwork by Pamela Colman Smith (see forthcoming post The Pixie of Bude: Pamela Colman Smith, Tarot Artist).

You may also be interested in other Devon posts:

Dartmoor Ponies

To Brixham for a Sailor’s Cap

Sin, Seduction and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

The Tidal Town of Topsham

And more posts about Topsham can be found by consulting Cherry’s Cache: A Guide to the First Year or simply searching for ‘Topsham’.

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!)