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!)

Lockdown Topsham

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

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

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

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

A frieze of geese, in the nature reserve

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Suddenly, it was wisteria time!


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

You may also be interested in:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham Part One

Hidden Topsham Part Two

Hidden Topsham Part Three

Hidden Topsham Part Four

Topsham Celebrates

The Ancestors of Easter Island


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mother at the centre of the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sensing the energy of the stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may also be interested in:

Following the Female Line

Sin, Seduction and Sidmouth

The Abduction of Mary Max

The Company of Nine

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

The Nine Ladies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nine Priestesses of Sena

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


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

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

Nine Stones in the Landscape

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

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

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


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

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

Ancient Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

The Fool and his Feast

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

Laughing Jester: unknown early Dutch artist, circa 1500

The Fool and the Twelve Days of Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Ship of Fools’ by Sebastian Brant

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

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

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

A Festival of Fools

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the French ‘Convers’ Tarot pack

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

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

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

Preparing for Twelfth Night

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

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

You may also be interested in:

The Twelve Days of Christmas

May Day in Padstow

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

The Twelve Days of Christmas

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

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

A Twelfth Night Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Calendar Change

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

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

A Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

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

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

And which date is which?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cake!

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

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

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

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

How to Make It

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

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

You may also be interested in:

Summer is a-Coming Today! May Day in Padstow

The Red Corner and the Symbolism of the Russian Home

Topsham Celebrates